Posted: May 24, 2013
On July 4, 1828, 90-year-old Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first spadeful of earth in the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. "I consider this among the most important acts of my life," he told the crowd, "second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if even it be second to that." To Daniel Webster, then a mostly unknown, middle-aged senator from Massachusetts, both acts were part of one grand, continuous revolution. "[We] proceed with a sort of geometric velocity," Webster wrote in 1832, "accomplishing for human intelligence and human freedom more than had been done in fives or tens of centuries preceding." Webster's life would come to stand for the proposition that if Americans honored their principles, they were destined to a prosperity and greatness that would stun the world—but that honoring those principles would take a full complement of civic and moral virtues.
Demi-God or Devil
The America into which Webster was born, in 1782, was a third-world country. When New Hampshire first sent him to the House of Representatives, the nation's per capita gross domestic product was still roughly that of Ecuador's in 2002. His parents had known the terrors of midnight Indian raids, gray wolves, and digging for potatoes with frozen fingers. In 1832 a New England doctor could still complain that four out of five patients did not bathe from one year to the next. Not that doctors had much to boast of. As Webster lay dying in 1852, the diagnosis, by one of Boston's leading physicians, was that the statesman had a "mortal disease in some one of the great organs of the abdomen, but that, after the most careful examination, he could not tell in which of them it was, with any considerable degree of confidence." His prescription included leeches and diets of gruel and brandy.
Daniel's devoted yeoman father, Ebenezer, mortgaged his farm to send his son, at age 15, to Dartmouth College, but Daniel wasn't a devoted scholar—like most minds of the first order, he read by inclination, which ran to poetry and history. Yet a prodigious intellect was evident; there is a story that he once startled an instructor by memorizing 700 lines of Virgil in one evening. He turned to the law, but a "‘student at law' I certainly was not," Webster wrote, "unless ‘Alan Ramsay's poems' and ‘Female Quixotism' will pass for law books." Trials in those days—some before judges commissioned by George II—were a form of popular entertainment. Farmers rattled in on carts to see the learned brawlers. Webster's early technique was described by a court crier in 1807:
When Mr. Webster began to speak, his voice was low, his head was sunk upon his breast, his eyes were fixed upon the floor, and he moved his feet incessantly, backward and forward, as if trying to secure a firmer position. His voice soon increased in power and volume, till it filled the whole house. His attitude became erect, his eye dilated, and his whole countenance was radiant with emotion. The attention of all present was at once arrested.
It worked. Webster was drawn from smaller New Hampshire cities, finally, to Boston. He went on to handle an extraordinary 1,700 cases: wills, murder prosecutions, debt suits, maritime disputes, and the rest.
If ours is the era of the teleprompter (which historian Barbara Tuchman said "allows an inadequate, minor individual to appear to be a statesman"), Webster's was the golden age of self-composed oratory. Citizens gobbled up extended orations at rallies, dinners, conventions, funerals, barbeques, and parades. Preeminent were the giants who strode the floor of the U.S. Senate: the sparkling, cavalier Henry Clay of Kentucky; the intense, logical John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; the blustery Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, whose voice shook windows. But none mesmerized like Webster. "To have heard the noble effort [Webster] made...marked an epoch in the lives of those present," wrote Josiah Quincy, Jr., later Boston's mayor, who saw Webster defend a judge against impeachment in 1821. "It gave me my first idea of the electric force that might be wielded by a master of human speech." Webster's serious efforts typically ran to two-and-a-half hours, sometimes as long as four. "I was never so excited by public speaking before in my life," wrote educator George Ticknor, after hearing one speech. "Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood.... When I came out I was almost afraid to come near to him."
If you encountered Webster at night in some solitary place, wrote the New York Mirror, you wouldn't know whether he was "a demi-god or a devil." His hair was raven black and his skin so swarthy that in college he was once mistaken for an Indian. Thomas Carlyle, at a breakfast with Webster in London, was struck by his companion's "tanned complexion; the amorphous crag-like face; the dull black eyes under their precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown; the mastiff mouth, accurately closed." "There was a grandeur in his form," Carlyle continued, "altogether beyond those of any human being I ever saw." Webster's costume for important occasions was a black long-tailed coat with gold buttons, and a buff-colored vest; he "moved through the streets of Washington and Boston," said biographer Irving Bartlett, "like a revolutionary frigate under full sail." His eyes, large and sunken, were objects of particular fascination. A minister recalled being halted in an attempt to deliver a sermon when Webster, in the front pew, set "such great, staring black eyes upon me that I was frightened out of my wits." Many said his eyes had a sleepy look, until roused—when they "kindled."
Webster's argument to the Supreme Court in the famed Dartmouth College case in 1818 established the 36-year-old's reputation as a constitutional lawyer. The case involved the attempt by New Hampshire's legislature to convert the private college into a public university under its control. Justice Joseph Story observed of Webster's four-hour exhibition, "[w]hen Mr. Webster ceased to speak, it was some minutes before anyone seemed inclined to break the silence."
It was religious inspiration and his holy text was the Constitution; his god, George Washington. Ebenezer Webster, a captain during the Revolution, had personally guarded the general's tent after Benedict Arnold's betrayal. "Captain Webster," Washington supposedly said, "I believe I can trust you." Nothing made Ebenezer's son prouder. He was a child when Alexander Hamilton arranged America's finances, and later had Aaron Burr as a client. He spent five days at Monticello, marveling at 81-year-old Thomas Jefferson's "fixed hours for everything." Webster regularly called on John Adams when he passed through Quincy. He entered Congress under James Madison—the "wisest of our Presidents," after Washington—even though Webster's first official acts were denunciations of "Mr. Madison's War" against Great Britain. In his retirement, Madison—the last of the founders—wrote letters endorsing Webster's arguments in his 1830 debate with South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne over the question of whether a state could legitimately nullify a federal law. Webster's celebrated "Second Reply to Hayne" ended with the thunderous exclamation: "Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!" For Webster, America's promise could only be achieved if the country held to its founding principles. "The great trust now descends to new hands," he told the audience at the dedication of the Bunker Hill monument in 1825.
Let us apply ourselves to that which is presented to us, as our appropriate object. We can win no laurels in a war for independence. Earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all. Nor are there places for us by the side of Solon, and Alfred, and other founders of states. Our fathers have filled them. But there remains to us a great duty of defense and preservation.
This political faith was the secret resource in Daniel Webster's soul: he not only said these things; he felt them. This cause kept him working 12-hour days into his seventies. It fortified him to leave behind, for months at a time, his 1,400-acre working farm (he said his oxen were "better company" than senators) and his favorite pastime: fishing in New England streams with Shakespeare in his pocket. He continued to serve in office even though it forced him to forego immense lawyers' fees that he desperately needed to pay debts. Ambition surely was part of the story, but how to explain positions he took that he knew would injure his popularity?
Nothing damaged Webster's reputation more than his denunciation of abolitionism during the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which sought once more to alleviate sectional tensions over slavery. Webster believed that heading off war required that the North accept a strengthened fugitive-slave law; the South, in return, agreed to a free California, a tamed Texas, and a ban on the slave trade in D.C. Admirers saw a courageous act of union-mindedness. "I wish to speak today," Webster said, "not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American." But anti-slavery forces saw Judas Iscariot in a cravat. This apostasy, fumed Theodore Parker, the Transcendentalist minister, was a craven "bid for the Presidency." The mystery is that at the Whig Convention two years later Webster got not a single Southern ballot. Could the shrewd politician, after 40 years in politics, have miscalculated entirely?
Webster invariably called slavery a miserable "evil" but knew that an attempt by Congress to strike at slavery would "break up the Union just as surely as would an attempt to introduce slavery in Massachusetts." The Missouri Controversy of 1820 revealed that the Southern men of Webster's generation had quietly become much more committed to slavery than their parents. By 1840 cotton constituted 59% of U.S. exports; in South Carolina, half the population was a form of property. But Webster thought abolitionists hasty and fanatical. He never forgave them for their unscrupulous rumor-mongering against him (philandering being the main charge) and for the third-party candidate they ran in 1844 that cost Clay the White House to pro-slavery James K. Polk. And whom did that help?
Webster's generation of Whigs tried to save the Union through compromise; their heirs, the Republicans, accepted war when the compromises ran out. Yet many historians echo the hostilities of the New England abolitionists, even while acknowledging that had war broken out in 1850, instead of 1861, the South would probably have split off into a sort of proto-apartheid nation. Webster deserves better. His actions to avoid war helped ensure that when the fighting actually began, the North was more populous, more industrialized, and more zealous to extirpate slavery. Thirteen presidents held office during Webster's life; a President Webster would have been only the third who did not own slaves, after the Adamses. On a few occasions he purchased slaves their freedom. In his extensive writings one would be hard pressed to find a single word of racial prejudice.
Persuading the Audience
Robert Remini, whose Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (1997) is the standard modern biography, attributes Webster's repeated failure to get a presidential nomination to his overemphasis on Washingtonian loftiness, fatally out of place in the democracy-drunk Age of Jackson. Yet to friends Webster was a hilarious storyteller and a hearty drinker (later in life, too hearty). He was an affectionate father who treasured notes from his children, especially one that reported that his son Charley, two years old, went around telling everyone that "Pa's gone to Wa'n to make ‘peeches." Webster's friend Peter Harvey recalled that when Webster's first wife lay dying in a friend's home, she told him that she preferred the wood fire they had at home to the coal one in her room. Webster, he said, though still a guest, hired a mason to remove the coal grate and have a wood fire built.
Aristotle's chief rule of rhetoric is that a speaker must match the mode of persuasion to the audience addressed. In this Webster rarely failed. To a large crowd, he was soaring; to courts, logical; to juries, righteous; to Congress, driving. At times his prose can read like a parody of grandiose Augustan poetry (soldiers "chilled by the northern blast, their marches traced in blood") or simply be overlong. But the prose of the early 19th century was overwrought and ornamental; Webster, by contrast, took pains to develop a style that was taut, forceful, dignified, and precise. He studied Cicero, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Isaac Watts, Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, and the Bible. His other teachers were jurors, who taught him that you lose if you dazzle but do not persuade. Webster saw early that victory came to those who spoke, as he put it, in a "plain conversational way." His secretary Charles Lanman said that Webster delivered "ponderous blows, leisurely inflicted." He thought in paragraphs, not sentences, which is why so few Websterian lines are ripe for quotation. But it is truly American music: flags flutter, waves crash on free shores, the machinery of wealth whirs. Webster mastered a calm, majestic control of tone, so internalized that even letters to confidants are free of grudge and heat. "I war with principles, not with men," he told his son Fletcher.
"Twentieth-century historians have shaken their heads over Webster's inflated nineteenth-century reputation, and well they might," writes Daniel Walker Howe, the dean of Whig Party historians. That Webster was right on most of the controversies of his day—the national bank, a foreign policy that condemns tyranny abroad, the sin of Indian removal—seems to count for less than his inability to maneuver his way to legislative victory like the whiskey-and-poker Senator Clay, or the fact that his loyalists clustered around Boston and New York City. Webster himself sensed that his legacy would rest on his literary productions. When a speech achieved such power that it moved minds, he wrote, "it is something greater and higher than all eloquence—it is action, noble, sublime, godlike action." His speech on "First Settlement of New England" (1820) shaped the imaginations of schoolchildren for generations. ("This oration," said John Adams, "will be read five hundred years hence with as much rapture as it was heard.") "The Constitution Is Not a Compact between Sovereign States" (1833)—superior to his more famous "Second Reply to Hayne"—was political scripture for Unionists up to the Civil War. Webster's speeches often did for America what Winston Churchill's did for England: they rallied the deepest, best instincts of a people.
Age of Improvement
Even today's Libertarians should feel nervous at the powerlessness of the federal government in Webster's day. The great case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) declared, in Marshall's organ tones, that the power to tax involved the power to destroy (a line, as it happens, from Webster's brief); so the people of one state, Maryland, could not tax a bank that served the people of all states. Yet six months later, Ohio enacted an illegal tax more punitive than Maryland's. In 1821 the federal government had 6,914 employees, most of them in the Post Office. In 1828, then-Vice President Calhoun felt entitled to publish a pamphlet describing how states could nullify a federal law.
"Commerce, credit, and confidence were the principal things which did not exist under the old Confederation," Webster argued in Ogden v. Saunders (1827), "and which it was a main object of the present Constitution to create and establish." He envisioned a free, rich continent, teeming with the colorful bounties of field, steamboats churning the rivers white, merchant houses overflowing with bills of credit, goods gliding on newly laid railways, stock reports beamed by newly invented telegraphs. The stimulation of commerce filled up much of the time during his two rounds as secretary of state, first under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (Harrison expired one month into his term) and later President Millard Fillmore. "You have many productions, which we should be glad to buy," he wrote the emperor of Japan in 1851, in a typical letter, "& we have productions which might suit your people." A banker said that diplomat Webster "watched our commercial interests more closely and acted more promptly than the merchants themselves." Among the happier circumstances of his life was that his politics coincided neatly with the interests of his clients at the bar, which he continued to represent even as secretary of state. Shippers, financiers, insurance houses, mercantile companies, and banks made Webster, in the 1820s, probably the highest paid attorney in the nation.
Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington in 1829 in a carriage and left eight years later on a train—a train Occupy Wall Street missed by 175 years. Old Hickory was their man, the impetuous bank crusher, demagogue-in-chief, fearsome enemy of "money power," and a man with few scruples about the niceties of constitutional limits. (Jackson also enjoyed wagering his slaves on horse races.) "It is no matter of regret or sorrow to us that few are very rich," replied Webster, in one of many speeches during years of opposition to Jackson, "but it is our pride and glory that few are very poor."
Democratic presidents like Jackson, Madison, James Monroe, and James Polk had at times all doubted Congress's power to sponsor "internal improvements," i.e., waterways, rails, roads, and bridges, all Whig preoccupations. "What interest has South Carolina in a canal in Ohio?" Senator Hayne had asked. The Whigs, the party of the business community, was the party sympathetic to federal intervention. A study showed that Prussia contributed 7% of the capital needed to lay that country's first railroads; in the U.S., by contrast, the state governments ponied up 45% of the initial investment. The Erie Canal was begun on July 4, 1817, and within a few years floated twice the cargo of the Mississippi. Local headlines were made when fresh Long Island oysters appeared in western New York. Whigs in Congress took inspiration. It would not have bothered Webster in the least to learn that the elegant brick building in Boston he knew as the offices of Ticknor & Fields, publisher to Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.
This is America!
Does Daniel Webster matter today? Polemics, however great, usually die with the circumstances that called them forth. This is true for Webster's, most obviously, on the questions of slavery, Union, and nullification—vast, defining questions, and finally resolved by civil war. But other disputes about American government remain as vital as ever. In many of these Webster's papers constitute an eloquent tutorial in republican order, especially in his arguments on the scope of presidential authority, laid out in a series of quite respectful cannonades against Andrew Jackson between 1832 and 1835, and on the breadth of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause, argued in many cases but above all in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), both before the Supreme Court. It is no accident that those two cases were invoked twelve times in the briefs from both sides during arguments over the Affordable Care Act in summer 2012.
"Almost all the business and intercourse of life," he argued in Gibbons, "may be connected incidentally, more or less, with commercial regulations." In this sentence Webster anticipated the problem with the Commerce Clause, that mysterious, all-important enumeration, which gives Congress power to "regulate" commerce "among the several States." Some of Webster's boldest arguments prefigure the holdings of the New Deal Court, but it was only in the 20th century that the Commerce Clause became a general power for Congress to enact laws in areas that in any plausible, or implausible, way touch on buying and selling—workplace discrimination, child pornography, the sale of bald-eagle feathers. The swell of the federal government—which is the story of American government—would have staggered Webster, but not altogether surprised him. How could the Commerce Clause avoid a more expansive construction as states integrated through roads, railways, telegraph lines, and cross-border manufacturing? Today, purchasing John C. Calhoun's Collected Works probably involves half a dozen states in various stages of editing, publication, payment, and shipping. Webster, like Marshall, hoped that "completely" internal commerce might one day largely disappear. But they never had much occasion to speak of the limits of federal power. That's our problem.
Friends said that after his humiliation at the 1852 Whig convention in Baltimore, at which he placed a distant third, Webster looked "sad and weary." Southern hotheads had begun to squeak and gibber about a "Southern Confederacy." "To dismember this glorious country!" cried Webster—this was his nightmare. The Union was a "miracle," and now it appeared that it would be his generation, the first after the framers, who would fumble it away. He had been declawed as a Supreme Court advocate, too, after Jackson named six of the seven Justices, all largely hostile to Webster. Worst of all, family sorrows never stopped. In 1848, he buried his daughter Julia on the same day he received the coffin of his son Edward, dead of typhoid fever while serving in the war in Mexico. Four of his five children would precede Webster to the grave—except Fletcher, who died at the Second Battle of Bull Run.
But a few days after Baltimore, Webster, now 70, returned to Boston and found himself greeted by roaring applause, fluttering handkerchiefs, and his portrait on balconies. Mothers held up their infants that they might one day say they had seen the great "Defender of the Constitution." He had predicted civil war, but his cast of thought in his final months was faithful to the prophetic young Webster. "This is the New World! This is America!" he had said on July 4, 1851. "This fresh and brilliant morning blesses our vision with another beholding of the birthday of our nation; and we see that nation, of recent origin, now among the most considerable and powerful, and spreading over the continent from sea to sea." California, full of gold and harbors, joined the union months earlier; its rough adventurers, he said, proved more fit for self-rule than Cicero's descendants in Rome. The U.S. population surpassed Great Britain's a decade ago. Years earlier Americans watched their vessels fall prey to European cruisers during the Napoleonic wars, but in 1850 Secretary Webster felt confident enough to tell Austria (which had threatened us over our support for Hungarian independence) that our republic was now spread over a region next to which the "possessions of the House of Hapsburg are but as a patch on the earth's surface."
In 1837, on a tour of the west, he visited Springfield, Illinois. He met a 28-year-old fellow Whig, Abraham Lincoln, who had read Webster's lines about "the people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people" or how "if a house be divided against itself, it will fall" or that the "last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us." Few deeds of Lincoln's would have failed to gain Webster's hearty approval. Both were American conservatives because they believed that this country was heir to great moral principles of natural right and a tradition of enlightened patriotism. Webster is the link between James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington on one side, and Lincoln on the other—believers all in national-minded and energetic government, champions of strong central government, sound currency and credit, and expansive construction of the Constitution. The "peculiar conservatism" that defined American statesmanship, said Webster, was "to do what was necessary, and no more; and to do that with the utmost temperance and prudence."
Webster's great theme was that the inheritance enjoyed by Americans was the most noble and precious imaginable, but we had to take care to transmit it unimpaired. His writings brim with words like "defend," "maintain," "uphold," "perpetuate," "support," and "preserve." "I profess to feel a strong attachment to the liberty of the United States," said Webster, "I feel every injury inflicted upon it, almost as a personal injury." Contemporaries attest to the almost physical transformation Webster underwent when pleading for the Constitution. But he needed conflict to energize him. This is why Webster's legendary triumphs are all defenses: against New Hampshire's attack on Dartmouth College, Jackson's scorn for the separation of powers, the South's assault on the Union. Once these attacks were made and Webster rose to the defense, he was nearly invincible. Not even his enemies seem willing to deny this. This country never knew a President Webster because he was a creature of resistance, of preservation, of guardianship. Yet when the fate of America depended on him, as it did in profound degree, he did not fail.