The Immortal Daniel Webster
Legend says if you go to his grave and call his name, you’ll hear his voice boom, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” and you must answer, “The Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible,” or he’s likely to rear right out of the ground.*
* Paraphrased from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét
“I still live” — those were the last words spoken by the great orator, Daniel Webster. And so it is. He does still live.
Unlike many notable figures of the past, he remains present in the ether of the places where his life played out — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Congress.
In those places, beginning two centuries ago, he forged a reputation that went well beyond his skill as a speaker. For decades, from the early 1800s to the eve of the Civil War, he was a giant who strode the national stage as a consummate lawyer, statesman and diplomat. More than that, as they put it in Webster’s day, he was the “Guardian of the Nation, Defender of the Constitution and Preserver of the Union.”
His was the generation that followed that of the founding fathers and their creation of the United States, free and full of possibility. Webster, with his strong views on national unity, would help shape the country as it moved out of its infancy.
It was an unsettled time with democratic ideals becoming dominant, increasing migration from farms to the cities, rapid economic expansion, growing sectional differences between an industrializing North and an agricultural South that depended on slavery, and a religious revival that would help spawn the abolitionist movement. There was also a burgeoning belief in manifest destiny, a God-given right to extend the country’s dominion across the continent.
With his prodigious oratory Webster gave voice to the age, cannily capturing the undercurrents of the changing times, and, with his florid words, able to soothe the anxiety that such change can bring.
It’s said that crowds swooned as he spoke; some were reduced to tears.
“I was never so excited by public speaking before in my life,” George Ticknor, one of the country’s preeminent scholars, wrote to a friend after hearing Webster speak: “Three or four times, I thought my temples would burst with the rush of blood. … When I came out, I was almost afraid to come near him. It seemed to me as if he was like the mount that might not be touched and that burned with fire. I was beside myself, and am so still.”
Webster’s spellbinding effect was no doubt heightened by the timbre of his voice, described by one writer as “like an African lion.” His appearance was just as dramatic — a massive head framed by dark, shaggy hair, eyes described as “black as death” and “like glowing coals,” with a gaze that resembled “a thunderstorm in July, sudden, portentous.”
Nineteenth-century journalist Oliver Dyer summed it up this way: “The head, the face, the whole presence of Webster, was kingly, majestic, godlike.”
God-like. It is a description that stuck. As he was raised to the level of myth, Webster became known as “God-like Daniel.”
But, later in his life, another name for Webster began to surface: “Black Dan.” It’s a nickname he picked up in childhood because of his dark countenance, but now it had a different connotation — Webster’s dark side.
It increasingly became a topic of conversation in the corridors of power that Webster walked in Washington, DC, and among his constituencies in New England and beyond. Like many who soar to heroic heights, Webster had fundamental flaws that were revealed as time went on, resulting in tales about the saintly Webster that schoolchildren don’t hear. As biographer Irving H. Bartlett said, “A saint Webster certainly was not.”
Webster’s journey began on what was then the frontier in New Hampshire, in a two-room log cabin in the town of Salisbury, now called Franklin. He was born in 1782, the second youngest of 10 children of Ebenezer and Abigail Webster, who were among the town’s earliest settlers.
For Ebenezer, who had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, George Washington was a hero, as he would become for son Daniel. In the Webster household, one writer says, “Love of country was instilled into the children with their daily food.”
Their life on the farm fit the well-worn term “hardscrabble,” with the family just eking out a living. Like the other children, Webster was put to work, though he apparently thought himself ill-suited for it.
“I was put to mowing,” he once wrote, “and made bad work of it. My scythe was sometimes in the ground, and sometimes over the top of all the grass. I complained to my father that the scythe was not hung right. Various attempts were made to hang it better, but with no success. My father told me, at length, that I must hang it to suit myself, whereupon I hung it upon a tree and said, “There, that’s just right.” Father laughed, and told me to let it hang there. My brother Joe used to say, that my father sent me to college in order to make me equal to the rest of the children!”
Sizing up her young son, mother Abigail reportedly said that Webster would either amount to “something, or nothing.” But no doubt both she and Ebenezer saw their child’s fierce intelligence. Despite the cost, they sent him to the select Phillips Exeter Academy in 1796.
He lasted there for less than a year. Ironically, one of reasons he didn’t like it was that students were required to give speeches, called declamations, to their classmates. It seems Webster had stage fright. As he said, according to accounts, “I could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the school.”
Home again at 15 years old, he was tutored, mostly by Rev. Dr. Samuel Wood, a Dartmouth graduate. Webster’s intellectual force is said to have become apparent after Wood caught Webster sneaking into the woods to hunt and ordered him, as punishment, to memorize 100 lines of Virgil by the next morning. As Kenneth Shewmaker, Dartmouth professor of history emeritus, told Dartmouth News, “The next day, Webster repeated the lines without difficulty, then volunteered to recite another hundred.”
That same year, Webster entered Dartmouth. It was there that the outlines of the man he was to become began to form.
Though Webster felt “miserably prepared” for its rigorous education, he excelled, aided by his exceptional memory. “Many other students read more than I did and knew more than I did,” Webster said. “But so much as I read, I made my own.”
That ability to recall allowed him, he said, to speak “with great ease.” And, unlike his experience at Phillips Exeter, he thrived on the mandatory declamations, held in the chapel every Wednesday afternoon. By his junior year, at just 18, he was considered a premier orator.
It was in the summer of that year, 1800, that he was invited to address the people of Hanover to commemorate the Fourth of July. In the speech, he glorified George Washington, lauded the US Constitution, praised the Union, and remembered the veterans of the Revolutionary War.
“For us they fought! for us they bled! for us they conquered! Shall we, their descendants, now basely disgrace our lineage, and pusillanimously disclaim the legacy bequeathed to us? Shall we pronounce the sad valediction to freedom, and immolate liberty on the altars our fathers have raised to her? No! The response of a nation is, ‘No!’ Let it be registered in the archives of Heaven!”
Shewmaker says, “From my point of view, the key to the whole rest of his career — the budding beginning — is there in the oration at Hanover of July 4, 1800.”
Also foreshadowing what was ahead — an incident the next year at graduation. He was not asked, as he had expected, to be the speaker for the English Oratory, a coveted contribution by a graduating senior. He was offered what he considered second best; he turned it down.
The incident would mirror his long, unrequited quest for the nation’s presidency. He was offered second best, the position as vice president, twice, but he turned it down both times. Had he said yes either time, he would have become president.
With his diploma and Phi Beta Kappa key in hand, he moved back home and began to “read law,” as they did before the advent of law schools, to prepare for a career as a lawyer. He hung out his shingle in New Hampshire, first in Boscawen and then Portsmouth.
He quickly established himself as a capable attorney and prominent citizen, enough so that he was twice elected to represent New Hampshire in Congress as a Federalist. He took his seat the year after the beginning of the War of 1812, which Webster adamantly opposed. The year he was reelected, 1814, the British burned the White House and Capitol.
Though he was new to Congress, Webster confidently rose from the back bench and stepped into the midst of the turmoil to give his first speech on the floor of the House. “As he spoke,” according to a biography by Craig R. Smith, “Congressmen left their desks and sat in the dock so they could see his every gesture.” Smith adds that a fellow New Hampshire representative, William Plumer, said: “His manner is forcible and authoritative. Nothing is left at loose ends in his statements of fact or in his reasonings; and the hearer passes from one position to the another with the fullest conviction that the results must be correct.”
In the years ahead, that talent would earn him the position as one of three legendary legislators who dominated the nation’s politics for a half century. Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, each representing different regions, would become known as the “Great Triumvirate” and the “Immortal Trio.”
As his second term as a New Hampshire representative neared an end in 1816, Webster, now with a wife and family, decided to move from Portsmouth to Boston and concentrate on practicing law.
The move would ignite his career. The president of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Bill Dunlap, says, “We always rued the fact that, though Webster was a New Hampshire native, he really rose to prominence in Massachusetts. I think the pond of New Hampshire was too small for somebody of Webster’s abilities. Massachusetts is where the big issues were; it was a much larger stage to perform on. As much as I hate to admit it, it was a pivotal move for him. With his towering intellect and communication skills, you couldn’t hold him back.”
His rise in the legal world was rapid. He soon began to argue cases before the US Supreme Court. In fact, he would set a record for the number of cases argued before the court, more than 200, many of them setting legal precedents. One landmark case, for which Webster is perhaps best known, is Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, argued before Chief Justice John Marshall’s court in 1818.
The New Hampshire Legislature had converted Dartmouth, which was privately chartered by King George before the Revolution, into a state institution. The college’s trustees sued, saying it was unconstitutional.
To a packed courtroom, Webster made his case against the Legislature’s action by invoking the Constitutional protection of contracts. But he also invoked emotion. This is how his performance is reported in a contemporary letter:
“[Webster said] ‘Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak, it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land! It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!’
“Here the feelings which he had thus far succeeded in keeping down, broke forth. His lips quivered; his firm cheek trembled with emotion; his eyes were filled with tears; his voice choked; and he seemed struggling at the utmost, simply to gain that mastery over himself which might save him from an unmanly burst of feeling. I will not attempt to give the few broken words of tenderness in which he went on to speak of his attachment to the college. … Every one saw that it was wholly unpremeditated — a pressure on his heart which sought relief in words and tears.”
Webster won. Peter Carini, college archivist at Dartmouth, says the case is “often referred to as one of the most important Supreme Court rulings because it opened the way for the free enterprise system in the US by limiting the state’s ability to interfere with private charters.”
Two years later, Webster was back in Massachusetts, on Plymouth Rock, to deliver a speech on the 200th anniversary of the Plymouth landing; it is considered one of his best. In it, after the commemoration of the landing, he strongly denounced slavery.
“It is not fit that the land of the Pilgrims should bear the shame longer. I hear the sound of the hammer, I see the smoke of the furnace, where the manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those, who by stealth, and at midnight, labor in this work of hell, foul and dark, as may become the artificers of such instruments of misery and torture. Let that spot be purified, or let it cease to be of New England.”
As he finished the speech, he was mobbed by the enthralled crowd. John Adams said the speech would be “read for 500 years hence.” But no one, not even Webster, could have foreseen the real consequence of the speech. His strong stance against slavery would be used against him in the looming legislative battle that preceded the Civil War.
Webster returned to Congress in 1823, elected to the House as a representative from Massachusetts. After two terms, he was elected to the Senate. It was there, on the national stage, that his ambitions for the presidency began to grow.
His star turn came in January 1830. That’s when he replied to a speech by Sen. Robert Hayne of South Carolina. At the heart of the matter was a state’s right to nullify federal laws, an issue that would exacerbate regional differences and ultimately help to justify the South’s secession. Webster’s “Second Reply to Hayne” was a powerful plea to maintain the Union.
“When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States disservered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood!”
He argued it could not be “Liberty first and Union afterwards,” but “everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart — Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”
It was the kind of speech that could launch a politician into the country’s highest office. Indeed, a few years later, Webster would make the first of three bids, then as a Whig, for his party’s nomination for president. But all were unsuccessful.
In a tragic twist, worthy of Shakespeare, he could have been president if he had allowed himself to be second best. But, just as he did back in his Dartmouth days, he decided he could not be.
Twice he was offered the vice presidency — by both William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor — and twice he said no, declaring, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”
Harrison would die one month after he was inaugurated; Taylor died after 16 months. If Webster had been vice president either time, he would have become president. He had to settle for the position of Secretary of State, which he was under three presidents, Harrison, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore.
So why didn’t Webster win the White House? An item in the NH Historical Society’s Webster collection — a heavy watch made of pure gold — may be emblematic of one reason why. It seems influential Whigs felt he was too much in the grip of business interests, which gave Webster more than gold watches. Though such was not unheard of in his time, or ours, he appears to have gone a step beyond the usual by getting generous subsidies from backers, with one calling Webster “public property.” He also was, increasingly, being called “Black Dan.”
As biographer Irving H. Bartlett says, “Perhaps the highest paid lawyer in the country, he made a fortune of his own as a relatively young man and took at least another fortune in gifts from his constituents. How much he accumulated in other ways from his career in public service was a matter of dark speculation for more than twenty years.”
Despite all the money he received, he was often in debt — much of it due to land speculation — and borrowing from others. “Fewer American leaders have had a greater appetite for the good things of life,” writes Bartlett. “[Webster] bragged openly about his knowledge of good food and drink. Eventually, people said he drank too much, even in public — and sometimes they were right. They said he pursued women, a harder matter to judge, but there were thousands of intelligent Americans who never doubted it.”
“That’s another layer to his life,” says Bill Dunlap of the New Hampshire Historical Society. “We’ve had this one-sided portrait of this god-like figure, but he was less than perfect. You think of people like Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and other larger-than-life figures; these people had massive abilities, but they also had flaws.”
One of his flaws — what was once termed “reckless generosity” — had a positive aspect. There are several accounts of Webster giving slaves the money, though he could ill afford it, to buy their freedom.
But, despite his obvious concern for slaves and his abhorrence of the institution that he spoke so eloquently about in his Plymouth Landing address years before, his last major legislative act would, at least to his critics, belie all of that.
In 1850, North and South — and the expanding West — were becoming increasingly fractured over the slavery issue and the possibility of the South’s secession loomed. To fend that off, the Compromise of 1850 was introduced. A series of five bills, the compromise accommodates some of the interests of each party. Most importantly for the South, two territories, Utah and New Mexico, would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Act would be amended to require that slaves who escaped to free states be returned to their owners.
Webster supported the compromise. Though he was not well (“I am nearly broken down with labor and anxiety”) at age 68, he gave what became known as “The Seventh of March Speech” to argue for the compromise before a rapt Senate and a full gallery. It would prove to be his undoing.
“I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. … I speak today for the preservation of the Union: Hear me for my cause.”
In his 3 1/2-hour speech, short for Webster, he spoke of how maintaining the Union was paramount and urged abolitionists to be patient with social change, saying slavery had long existed and long been accepted. He excoriated them for wanting to impose their convictions on a culture not ready for them.
“They deal with morals as with mathematics; and they think what is right may be distinguished from what is wrong with the precision of an algebraic equation. … They are apt, too, to think that nothing is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromise and modifications to be made in consideration of difference of opinion or in deference to other men’s judgment. …They are impatient men; too impatient always to give heed to St. Paul, that we are not to ‘do evil that good may come’; too impatient to wait for the slow progress of moral causes in the improvement of mankind.”
Though he was applauded for his stance, mostly by Southerners, his speech is said to have “slammed into New England with the force of a hurricane.” The reaction by the abolitionists — especially to the amended Fugitive Slave Act — was fierce. John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the luminaries of the movement, said it was one of the saddest moments of his life and wrote a poem to mark it. In part, it reads: “So fallen! So lost! The light withdrawn/Which once he wore!” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Liberty! Liberty! Pho! Let Mr. Webster, for decency’s sake shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word ‘liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.” And Boston’s famous abolitionist minister Theodore Parker: “His downfall shook the continent. Truth fell prostrate in the streets.”
His political base in ruins, Webster resigned from the Senate that summer. Though he became Secretary of State for Millard Fillmore and made one last unsuccessful try for his party’s nomination for president, he became increasingly bitter, and ill, often retreating to his New Hampshire home.
On a spring day in 1852, Webster injured his head in a fall from his horse. In October, he died at his Massachusetts home of complications from the head injury and cirrhosis.
Webster’s friend, soon-to-be president Franklin Pierce, who was equally star-crossed and equally vexed by the compromise on slavery, said of Webster: “They say we are a small State. They say that our products are granite and ice. Be it so. Of one thing, however, New Hampshire can boast over her sister State — that she has given birth to the greatest man, far the greatest man, that was ever born on this continent, and I verily believe, on any continent.”
After his death, Webster’s faults were forgotten, as happens in history, and his heroic stature returned. And, though words like Pierce’s “verily” have disappeared from our lexicon, there is still, to this day, praise for Daniel Webster and honor for his critical contribution to the country. Among the honors, in 1957 he was recognized by the US Senate as one of its five greatest senators. And, though he never attained the country’s highest office, Webster has been featured on postage stamps 14 times, more than most presidents.
Amid the recent weeklong veneration of John McCain, renowned journalist Ron Brownstein said this on CNN: “Very few non-presidents have had the week of remembrance that John McCain has had. Probably the last example of someone who wasn’t a president who struck such a chord — you have to go back to Daniel Webster in the 19th century.”
If the statue of Daniel Webster that stands in front of the Statehouse, dedicated in 1886, inspires you to see more symbols of his importance to New Hampshire, go to the Statehouse Visitor Center and ask for the director Virginia Drew.
She can tell you about Webster’s portrait that’s prominently hung in the House beside four other luminaries: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce and John Hale. And, in the Senate chambers, there is a mural, now being restored, of Webster at age 9 reading a copy of the US Constitution. Drew says he had it memorized at that tender age.
There’s also a “Webster room” next to the House Speaker’s office that has portraits, sketches or other mementoes of Webster. It was set up by a former Speaker, Shawn Jasper, an admirer of Webster. If the room isn’t in use, Drew says it’s likely you could go in.
From the Statehouse, you can go to Webster’s birthplace in Franklin, a State Historic Site, where the restored two-room log cabin sits, furnished as it would have been in Webster’s childhood. About two miles away, on South Main Street, you can also see “The Elms,” another childhood home that Webster kept as a summer home until his death (not open to the public). It is designated as a National Historical Landmark.
Farther north, in Plymouth, is the Old Webster Courthouse, where Webster argued his first cases. The restored 1774 building, now home to the Plymouth Historical Society, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Portsmouth, one of the homes where he lived still stands at the northeast corner of Washington and Hancock Streets in Strawbery Banke. It was moved there in 1964 from its original site to save it from being razed. The home is not open to the public.
Both the New Hampshire Historical Society and the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth have extensive collections of the papers and artifacts of Webster that are available to the public. Next year at Dartmouth, January 2 through March 30, there will be a large exhibit of Webster items to mark the college’s 250th anniversary.
The Hallowed Desk
The Daniel Webster desk — a treasured artifact of Webster’s time in the US Senate — still sits on the floor of the Senate. Though Webster represented Massachusetts, it is now officially reserved for whoever is New Hampshire’s senior senator. Today, it’s occupied by Jeanne Shaheen.
She says, “It’s humbling to have the desk of someone with such a profound legacy. History is omnipresent in the Senate chamber, and the desk you’re assigned gives you a special connection to that history. Webster’s great speeches in defense of our union delivered many timeless truths that are just as relevant today as when they echoed through the old Senate chamber.”
After Webster left the Senate, two succeeding Massachusetts senators sat at his desk. In the years after that, it was assigned on a first-come, first-served basis to states other than Massachusetts: Maine, Michigan, Indiana, Connecticut and, once more, Massachusetts, when Henry Cabot Lodge served.
In the late 1930s, New Hampshire senator Styles Bridges got the desk. Then, when Bridges died, it was Norris Cotton, also of New Hampshire, who sat there. Before Cotton left the Senate in 1975, he authored a resolution that specified the desk would always stay in New Hampshire hands, with the senior senator as its occupant. Only two other desks, those once belonging to Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, are subject to such Senate resolutions.
All of those who have occupied the Webster desk have carved their last names into the bottom of the drawer. It’s said that Webster’s name may have been carved by someone else, as it seems to be in the same hand as the carvings in other desks of that time. The first woman to carve her name in the desk will be Sen. Shaheen.
“When I inherited the desk from Senator Gregg,” she says, “it was another reminder of the importance of the job and the weight of history on all of us who have the honor to serve our country in elected office. When I scan the names etched into the desk, I reflect on what our nation was going through at those times and what each name contributed. It’s a daily reminder that, despite harrowing crises, our democracy is durable and strong, and we can overcome any challenge.”