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Great Man Eloquent

July 2024
14min read

To an emotional people, it is not the senator, not the corporation lawyer, not the secretary of state, but the poet’s Daniel Webster who still lives

For more than a hundred years everybody has been writing about Daniel Webster and some have written well, but it can be plausibly argued that only one has written truthfully. There are twelve formal lives of Webster listed in the Dictionary of American Biography , and this takes no account of shorter studies by historians, philosophers, journalists, orators, and every known brand of politician. Few Americans have been more assiduously studied’ over so long a period.

But if effective history is such knowledge of the past as modifies contemporary thought and action, then one must agree with William A. Dunning that truth in history is not necessarily what happened, but what men believe happened, for it is on their beliefs that they act. What the vast majority of Americans believe about Daniel Webster is only slightly related to the mass of documentary evidence that scholarship has turned up: but it is not on that account to be dismissed as untrue. Fact and truth are related, but they are not identical, which accounts for our ability to weld “sophist” and “moron” into one word—the eternal sophomore who may acquire massive factual knowledge, but whom truth eludes.

The pedestrian writers who have dealt with Webster, even Gamaliel Bradford the Younger, even Samuel Hopkins Adams, have been hamstrung by their reliance on demonstrable fact as the key to essential truth. Not until the man had been almost a century dead did one who was no pedestrian, but a rider on Pegasus, have the boldness to repudiate fact altogether and present Webster not as he was prior to 1852, but as he is now.

There was indeed a senator named Webster who represented Massachusetts, but he is dead. There was a fabulously successful corporation lawyer, but he too is dead, and who cares? There was a man, curiously compounded of wisdom and folly, who suffered adulation for his folly and denunciation for his wisdom, who tried to understand this world and failed, as we all do, and who. as we all must, eventually died.

There never was, in visible, tangible flesh, a man who performed the feats attributed to the hero of Stephen Vincent Benét’s allegory, The Devil and Daniel Webster . The story asserts that this advocate, as counsel for the defense in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone , won a verdict and, incidentally, his own salvation from a jury composed of the twelve greatest villains in American history, because the advocate’s fiery patriotism burned away his client’s and his own offenses. Nevertheless, in the eyes of posterity this fictional pleader has been the living Webster rather than the subject of the twelve biographies.

For the poet Benét did not create this figure any more than the poet Homer created the figure of Achilles. Like Homer,

’E’d ’eard sing by land and sea; An’ what ’e thought ’e might require, ’E went an’ took—

to distill it in the alembic of poetic art and produce the Immortal. He gathered up the pre-existing legends and traditions, stripped oft their crudity and added grace and dignity to a figure that the folk imagination had limned before Benét was born. But in so doing he revealed the potency of Daniel Webster in the modern world more precisely than any !actual historian has revealed it.

The potency does not rest upon the statutes Webster drew, the contracts he negotiated, nor the politics he played. It is based upon his success as the establisher of moods, and that kind of success is never attested by documents. On the contrary, the documentary evidence frequently seems to contradict it, which is so much the worse for the documentary evidence. It is just this failure of the letter to capture the spirit that is the ruin of biographers and historians and the opportunity of poets. Talking of Daniel Webster conveys little that is of importance today; it was when Benét began to sing that the still surviving power and glory appeared.

The industrious pedestrians have uncovered the facts down to astonishingly small details. A New Hampshire farmer, wise beyond most of his generation, spared one of his many children the hard labor of the fields because the boy was physically sickly, although mentally precocious. Instead, the boy was sent to the best teachers available and eventually to Dartmouth College. He justified this indulgence twice, first by helping one of his brothers through college, and later by abandoning a promising professional career to care for his parents in their declining years. But the lofty intelligence, like the Scriptural city set upon a hill, could not be hid; at 31 the man was in the House of Representatives from New Hampshire. This was in 1813, just before the final wreck of the Federalist party in the Hartford Convention at the beginning of 1815. With his party shot from under him, the young man repaired to Boston in 1816 and in ten years had pushed his income from legal practice to $15,000 a year—in purchasing power the equivalent of $50,000 to $75,000 today. He went to the Senate in 1827, became secretary of state in 1841, returned to the Senate in 1845, became secretary of state again in 1850, and died in 1852.

Like every first-rate American who goes into politics, he wished to be President of the United States, and like most first-rate men he suffered the mortification of seeing second-raters chosen in his stead. During his time in Washington, Webster saw ten individuals occupying the White House and knew in his heart that he was superior to eight of them. No doubt he thought he was superior to the other two, Madison and Jackson, but history disallows that claim.

The second most brilliant period of American politics was beginning when Webster entered Congress, and he was, in popular estimation, one third of it. That was, of course, the same kind of exaggeration that gives the most brilliant period one half to Jefferson and the other half to Hamilton, although they were merely the two brightest stars in a galaxy. In the second period, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun outshone all other members of Congress, but not by much. Benton, Hayne, John Quincy Adams, Van Kuren, Marcy, and John Randolph were no dim lights, and outside of Congress stood the gigantic figures of Andrew Jackson and John Marshall.

Of the illustrious trio, Webster was the latest arrival and, on technicalities, the least successful. All of them made Cabinet rank, but Calhoun was Vice President for seven years and Clay was three times a candidate for President, twice as the nominee of a major party. Thus it may fairly he said that both came doser to the White House than Webster did, although none reached it.

Without doubt Webster was refused even a nomination because his affiliations made him politically unavailable. He was the recognized spokesman of Big Business, and even al that early date party leaders were sure that nomination of such a candidate would be party suicide. It was not regarded as scandalous for a member of Congress to continue to serve his rich clients even—indeed especially—before government agencies, but it was regarded as a political handicap, and Webster’s party was never strong enough to assume that handicap. Curiously enough, this favorite advocate of astute businessmen had so little “money sense” that in spite of an income that was. for the time, a huge one. he was perpetually in debt and therefore never able to break away from subservience to wealth.

But there is another aspect of this man that is even more curious. The spokesman of Big Business, the great corporation lawyer, is a familiar figure. There is always at least one in Congress, frequently half a dozen in the Administration, and they are conspicuous, often dominant, figures, so we know the type or think we do; and the common opinion is that the agent of Big Business, whatever his merits, is decidedly a cold fish, emphatically not the kind of material out of which popular heroes are made. Is it imaginable that a poet could have woven a folk tale around Thomas C. Platt or Nelson W. Aldrich or Elihu Root or Andrew Mellon? But Webster was legendary even before his death, and since that event the legend has grown until it overshadows that of Henry Clay, much the more popular figure while he lived.

The inescapable inference is that there was a link between the ordinary American and this extraordinary individual, some quality that enables the common man to feel a kinship with Webster that he never feels with any cold fish. The easy assumption is that his faults endeared him to the sinful majority, and no doubt they did to some extent.

Dan Webster stoke his boilers with brown jugs of apple cider, And when he made a speech he yanked the spigot open wider. Sing ho! those spirited debates, benefit of all restrictions, When statesmen carried on their hip the strength of their convictions,

is evidence that his fondness for the bottle passed into the legend, and his amorous adventures, probably apocryphal, have been the theme of innumerable smoking-room stories. But these things the people regard with indulgence, not with approval; and somewhere in the American mind there is a deep and powerful approval of Daniel Webster, and a proprietary pride.

Yet when one examines any of his specific activities it seems far away and long ago, frequently without much logical significance even at the time. The celebrated Reply to Hayne, for example, was not a reply to Hayne at all. It was the evocation of a mood, not the refutation of an argument, a histrionic, not a logical triumph. “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” had nothing whatever to do with the points that Hayne had raised, but it stirred up a tremendous emotional reaction against the idea of disunion. Logic frequently eludes the grasp of the masses, but they understand feeling instantly; and they understood Webster. His heart was in the right place.

At least four of his exploits have affected and still affect the destinies of every man and woman in the United States, and each of them was of the same order —the establishment of a mood rather than the defense of a thesis. These were the Dartmouth College case, the case of McCulloch v. Maryland , the negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and the Compromise of 1850.

Examined in the cold light of reason all of these are without significance as of the year 1957; but in the warm glow of emotion it is apparent that each of them grips us today with an unbreakable hold. None was the work of Daniel Webster alone, but he was an operative forte in all four, and he remains an operative force to this day.

The Dartmouth College case established the sanctity of contract. The case revolved around an effort by the state of New Hampshire to move in and take control of a college that it had chartered, perpetually, as a private institution; which, Webster argued, was an effort by the state to repudiate its own contract, which not even a sovereign has a right to do. The court presumably was moved by the logic of the argument, but Webster’s passing remark, “She is small, but there are those who love her,” hit the country with an impact that no kind of logical exposition could achieve. The fact that this case came dangerously close to repealing the Statutes of Mortmain and delivering the future into economic bondage was something for jurisconsults to worry over; the people saw in it only the rescue of cherished and threatened institutions, and that mood has persisted through all the discomforts that immortality of corporations has brought upon us.

The case of McCulloch v. Maryland successfully asserted the right of judicial review of legislation. Logically, it is untenable, but practically it has worked, and that is enough for the common man. Possibly the hard core of that decision was John Marshall’s determination to bow his arrogant head to no man, even at the behest of the Aristotelian syllogism. That is as it may be. Hut deep in the heart of the common man is a conviction that logic is an invention of schoolmasters that bears precious little relation to life as he lives it; so if the advocate in this case departed from the accepted rules he did not thereby offend the typical American. Rather, he aroused a fraternal understanding among men more intent upon devising a workable method than upon making their reasoning conform to BARBARA or FRESISON . So even in this legalistic matter they have felt close to Daniel Webster; and the mood then established, the feeling that the Constitution must be made to work, even if it has to be bent into the shape of a pretzel, has persisted from that day to this.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty is one of the most remarkable in the history of diplomacy, not for what is contained so much as for the manner in which it was negotiated. Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, was sent over in 1842 as a special envoy to take up with Webster, then secretary of state, a number of issues in dispute between the United States and Great Britain, the most important of which was the boundary line between Maine and Canada. That line had never been properly surveyed, but simply marked out on maps supposed to be attached to the treaty, but which had somehow become detached. The matter then hinged on discovery of the right map and both parties ransacked the archives.

Through the agency of Jared Sparks, in Paris, Webster was supplied with a map said to have been marked by Benjamin Franklin and given to the French ministry—and it knocked the bottom out of the American claim. About the same time someone discovered in the British archives a map supposed to have been marked for the information of King George III—and it knocked the bottom out of the British claim. But neither negotiator suspected the existence of the other map; all either knew was that his own position was exceedingly precarious.

Thus each went into the discussions warily and with the most scrupulous regard for punctilio. When the citizens of Maine threatened to become obstreperous, Webster privately showed their leaders the Jared Sparks map, and they instantly subsided. So, since neither principal could risk being adamant, the dickering and dealing proceeded smoothly to a conclusion reasonably satisfactory to both sides.

But much more was accomplished than the boundary settlement, much that does not appear in the written records and, indeed, was never formally admitted by either side. This accomplishment was a marked softening of our diplomatic contacts with Great Britain. His lordship discovered that the American, far from being a raucous and semiliterate backwoodsman, was an urbane and gentlemanly fellow. The American, on his part, discovered that a noble lord is not necessarily arrogant and supercilious, but may be a reasonable, fair-minded character with whom it is a pleasure to do business. The discovery that each was carefully polite because he distrusted his own case came long afterward and did not destroy the mood created in 1842.

Of course this mood was reinforced by many other factors, but without doubt it was helped along by the Webster-Ashburton negotiations; and 115 years later it still persists. Before that date our contacts with the British were, as a rule, unpleasantly rough, but since then they have been the smoothest of all. Even the Anglophobes among us feel the effect and hold that while to swindle the English may be permissible and even praiseworthy, it must always be done with a certain suavity amid expressions of the utmost good will. Daniel Webster had much to do with establishing that mood and therein he touches your life and mine.

But it was on March 7, 1850, that Daniel Webster probably saved the Union and ruined himself by rising to greatness. The aftermath of the Mexican War had had the usual effect of war’s aftermath—it had driven the more emotional elements of the population into raving insanity. It is at such times that formerly gentle souls turn into vipers, and formerly shrewd fellows take to a braying that drowns the voice of reason. As far as the United States is concerned certainly, and perhaps as regards other nations as well, the loss of blood and treasure that attends the actual conflict has never been as permanently injurious to the nation as the loss of common sense and common decency that follows the cessation of hostilities.

The Mexican affair had ended in 1848, and by 1850 mass hysteria had reached its height. In Congress John C. Calhoun, for the South, and William H. Seward, for the North, were no longer arguing, they were merely screeching; and each was attended by a rabble of noise-makers whose din all but obliterated calm counsel. It was plain, all too appallingly plain, that any small spark might set off an explosion that would destroy the Union.

Then old Henry Clay, already mortally ill, summoned the last of his strength to devise the nine measures known as the Compromise of 1850 and, dying on his feet, prevented the death of his country. His success was not immediate. Since it was a genuine compromise, it was furiously attacked by both Calhoun and Seward, and its fate wavered in the balance week after week and month after month. So evenly matched were the contestants that eventually it became plain that all depended upon Webster, who had so far said nothing.

On March 7 at last he rose to speak, “… 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.’ ” They heard. They heeded. The squabbling continued for months, but eventually the compromise was adopted and the Civil War was postponed for ten years.

But Webster’s reward was such denunciation from his own people as few American statesmen have had to endure. John Greenleaf Whittier, that singularly bloodthirsty Quaker, promptly consigned him to the tomb without waiting for an attending physician’s certificate:

from those great eyes The soul has fled: When faith is lost, when honor dies. The man is dead!

and less melodious calumniators poured cruder vituperation on him wherever two or three lunatics were gathered together.

Yet every measurement known to statistics shows clearly that from 1820 on the South had been steadily losing and the North steadily gaining in relative strength. Nevertheless, when war did break in 1861, it took every ounce of Northern strength to win through four years of the bloodiest fighting in modern times. Few Americans stop to realize that, in proportion to the numbers engaged, the American Civil War was several times as deadly as either World War I or World War II. If it had come ten years earlier the border states would almost certainly have gone with the South, and the outcome can hardly be doubted.

Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 saved this Union; and Daniel Webster saved the compromise.

But it was not by logic that he did it. Logically, he was a Massachusetts man, a Northern man, but emotionally he was an American; and the emotional appeal, not the logic, carried the compromise. More than that, it carried Daniel Webster into the hearts of an emotional people, and there he abides. We do not believe, we cannot believe, that knowledge, logic, might, or the Devil himself can prevail against a man who loves anything strongly enough to invite ruin in its defense.

This characteristic of human nature is the great weakness of democracy, as has been vociferously proclaimed by every logician from Plato down. Alcibiades played upon it; so did Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and all the demagogues between. But under favorable circumstances it is also the great strength of democracy, as Webster, Lincoln, and the second Roosevelt instinctively recognized. It is the factor that transforms government from a science into an art, maddening the scientists, including—perhaps one should say especially—the social scientists, and inspiring poets and other irresponsible characters.

The obvious fact that democracy is—apparently incurably—emotional rather than logical is the despair of men who have subjected their minds to rigorous intellectual discipline, and who are therefore convinced that intellectual discipline is the only conceivable approach to truth. Thus when they perceive that the great heroes of democracy seem to bear more family likeness to Roscius, the actor, than to Aristotle, the philosopher, they tend to despair of democracy. Webster is a case in point. He was certainly a great constitutional lawyer, which is to say, a logician; but he became immortal only when he abandoned his logic and appealed to the emotions as frankly as Cleon of Athens ever did. The legal precedents he set—as, for example, his arguments for the bank, for and then against free trade, and on municipal and international law—have been largely superseded or abandoned, but the moods he established have endured for more than a hundred years. Superficially, this suggests that demagoguery casts its works in bronze, while statecraft carves in butter, which is a patent absurdity.

What the rigid logicians tend to overlook is that emotionalism as a political instrument is not monolithic. It is divided into separate and antipodal branches, one of which relies on love, the other on hate as its chief agency. Hope is subsidiary to love as fear is to hate. The artists, as distinguished from the scientists, in government can be classified accordingly. If one relies on the emotions of hate and fear of the enemy, it is safe to classify him with Alcibiades; but if he relies on love of country and hope for the future, there you have Pericles.

There is not the slightest doubt on which side of the line Daniel Webster’s appeal to the emotions lay. He spoke as an American. He spoke for the future. He was extravagant, yes; he was turgid and bombastic, if you will. But his worst extravagance and bombast were never designed to foment hatred and fear, but always to stimulate love and pride. Therefore the people, greatly needing both, have looked with an indulgent eye on his faults and frailties and, because he spurred them in the direction of greatness, deemed him, and still deem him, a great man.

True, the eye with which they have regarded him is not only indulgent, but a little sardonic. When his last words were reported, folklore quickly invented an explanation of the utterance. People said that the physician remarked to an attendant when the end was obviously at hand, “If he is still living in an hour, give him brandy,” whereupon Daniel Webster with his dying breath murmured, “I still live.”

Never mind. Whom the American people love, they laugh at. It has always been so, and it will be so until the character of the nation is changed. If his spirit could return to observe what has come of the nation that he saved, it is easy to believe that it would be less impressed by the miraculous changes that have taken place than by the lack of any change in the common people’s love of and pride in their country. And seeing this lack of change the disembodied spirit could repeat, “I still live.”

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