The New Student's Reference Work/Webster, Daniel

Webster, Daniel. In January, 1830, an event of historical significance occurred in the United States senate. “Black Dan” Webster, senator from Massachusetts, delivered a speech that made him the Nestor of American orators in the golden age of American oratory. It was made in reply to a speech by Senator Hayne of South Carolina, who had declared that the Federal government was but a loose confederation of sovereign states and that the states could refuse to obey laws of Congress. Webster and President Jackson, who was at odds with his own party on this question, saw the dangers of this doctrine of nullification and joined hands across party lines in patriotic determination to stamp it out.


Webster rose to speak to packed galleries. In appearance he was grave and dignified, with the noblest head America has produced. He was smooth-shaven, heavy-featured, with swarthy skin, brilliant eyes and beetling brows. His rich voice had the range and melody of a chime of bells. The simplest man could follow his plain diction, while his logic and weight of argument delighted and convinced the most learned. He showed clearly that the doctrine of nullification could lead, logically, only to disruption and civil war. The speech was a defense of the Federal constitution and an appeal to national patriotism. It lifted the whole question of states' rights from the plane of a political theory to that of national ethics. One who heard it said: “That is the greatest oration since Demosthenes' On the Crown.”

The man who made it was born on Jan. 18, 1782, at Salisbury, N. H. How often, in reading the lives of great men, do we find them so frail in childhood that it was not thought probable they would live to maturity! Daniel was so delicate that he was the only member of a pioneer family who was exempt from hard labor. His mother, a woman of uncommon intellect and force, early discovered the boy's remarkable mental powers, taught him all she knew and insisted upon his entering the local academy. When he was 15 it was decided at a family conference, that he must go to college, no matter at what cost of toil and self-denial of the others. The sensitive boy burst into tears at this proof of devotion and confidence in his ability. In order to repay it, in part, when he graduated from Dartmouth College, he taught in an academy in order to send his brother, Ezekiel, to college. When admitted to the Boston bar in 1805, he located in the small town of Boscawen, N. H., in order to be near his father, who died a year later. Returning to Boston, he established a good practice, only to turn it over to his brother and to begin again in Portsmouth. American history records no finer example of family affection and loyalty than is furnished by the Websters. “Black Dan's” loyalty was wide as well as deep. In a Fourth of July oration, delivered at the age of 18, he made an impassioned appeal for love of country, in a time when the people as a whole had scarcely outgrown their strong sense of separate, colonial origins.

So shy as a child that he could not stand up in school to speak pieces, Webster won such a reputation for eloquence at the bar that, at the age of 30, he was a member of Congress for New Hampshire, remaining four years, retiring to return to the Boston bar. His income soon rose to $20,000, a great sum in those days, and his reputation became national with his winning of the famous Dartmouth College charter case. In 1816 the New Hampshire legislature changed the charter given by King George III in 1769. The trustees appealed to the United States supreme court, and Webster won the suit on the contention that a state is forbidden to alter contracts. The decision was of national importance, because it asserted the authority of the Federal government over the states, and was a blow at the theory of states' rights. As a criminal lawyer, Webster won celebrity in his defense of a man named Knapp, on the charge of murder. In his summing up of the defense occurs the famous passage on conscience that has been declaimed by three generations of school-boys. The strength of Webster's arguments always lay in their being based on fundamental moral principles, whether they were delivered before the bar or in public orations. In this early period he made a trio of historical orations — one in 1820 on the second centennial of the landing on Plymouth Rock, one on the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill monument and one on the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, that served still further to place himself and his broad patriotism before the American public. Such a man could not escape the duty of public service. In 1823 he was again in Congress, this time for Massachusetts. In 1828 he was chosen to represent Massachusetts in the senate, and there he remained until his death in 1852, except while serving as secretary of state under Harrison and Tyler.

On many political questions of the day Webster seemed to vacillate, but, in perspective, he is seen to have been consistent to one principle. A free-trader, he became a protectionist on the ground, that since protection had been established, it must be maintained or business built up under it would be demoralized. Although opposed to the extension of slavery, he joined Clay in securing the passage of the Missouri Compromise. On the other hand he supported Jackson in the Force Bill which authorized the president to use the army and navy to enforce federal laws in any resisting state. The truth is that he hated nullifier and abolitionist alike, and fought every measure and every opinion which tended to divide North and South. He was concerned only with preserving the Union. As early as the great speech of 1830 he predicted civil war as the inevitable result of these sectional interests, but he helped to delay the conflict until the federal government was strong enough to meet the shock. In the meantime he sowed seeds of national patriotism broadcast by his impassioned eloquence and unanswerable logic of history. His uncompromising attitude on this question probably lost him the presidency, for abolitionist sentiment was sweeping over the north resistlessly, and must soon have swept him from the public arena where he had, for a generation, been a colossal figure. He died on Oct. 24, 1852, while serving as secretary of state under President Fillmore. Consult Life by E. P. Whipple and Great Speeches by Henry Cabot Lodge.