Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle said of Daniel Webster: “No man can be as great as that man looks.” Looked and sounded . I elect to have heard and seen him; but I don’t choose one of the famous set-piece occasions (in the Supreme Court, or the Senate, or at Bunker Hill, where an attentive multitude listened for hours in the hot sun). Instead I go for a more relaxed, almost neighborly set of vignettes, spread out over several days in August 1843.
Webster had come to Concord, Massachusetts, to argue a case before the Suffolk County bar. Emerson went along to observe and was enchanted. Even among prominent attorneys Webster was, said Emerson, “a schoolmaster among his boys.” His rhetoric was “perfect, so homely, so fit, so strong.” He dominated the scene, even to adjourning the court, “which he did by rising, & taking his hat & looking the Judge coolly in the face.”
In the evenings I would with Daniel be entertained in local parlors, where Emerson found him irresistibly “goodnatured” and “nonchalant.” A glowing Concord lady said Webster was “magnificent,” as prodigious as Niagara Falls.
What a President Webster might have been! But history is full of if and alas . In a few years New Englanders—and Emerson—were denouncing him as a compromiser over slavery. In that heady week of 1843, though, they (and I) would have been content merely to appreciate the magic of “godlike Daniel.”