Daniel Webster

DANIEL WEBSTER was born in the town of Salisbury, New Hampshire, January 18, 1782. His father, Major Ebenezer Webster, was one of the pioneers of the settlement in that quarter. He served with credit in the old French war, and also in the war of the revolution, especially under Stark, at Bennington. Major Webster established himself in a newly-granted township at the confluence of the Winnipisiogee and Pemigewasset, after the peace of 1763. In this region, then lying almost in a state of nature, the great orator and statesman was born, and passed the first years of his life. His opportunities of education were very deficient, and he was indebted for his earliest instruction to his mother, who was a woman of character and intelligence. For a few months only, in 1796, he enjoyed the advantages of Phillips' Exeter academy. Here his education for college commenced; it was completed under the Rev. Dr. Wood, of Boscawen. He entered Dartmouth college in 1797, and during the four years of his study there, gave plain indications of future eminence. Soon after his graduation, he engaged in professional studies, first in his native village, and afterward at Fryeburg, in Maine, where at the same time he had the charge of an academy. He eked out his frugal salary by acting as a copyist in the office of register of deeds. He was moved to these strenuous exertions by the wish to aid his brother to obtain a college education. Having completed his law-studies in the office of governor Gore, of Boston, he was admitted to the bar of Suffolk, Massachusetts, in the year 1805. He immediately commenced the practice of law in his native state and county. His father, a man of sterling sense and character, who for the last twelve years of his life had been a judge of the court of common pleas, died in 1806, but not without the satisfaction of hearing his son's first speeches at the bar. In 1807, Mr. Webster removed to Portsmouth in his native state, and soon became engaged in a most respectable and extensive, but not very lucrative practice. In 1812, he was chosen one of the members of congress from New Hampshire, and in due time was reelected. Although among the youngest members of the house of representatives, and entirely without legislative experience, he rose at once to the front rank, both in the despatch of business and in debate. Among his associates in the house were Clay, Cheves, Lowndes, Calhoun, Forsyth, and other members of great ability. It was soon felt and admitted that he was worthy to be named with the ablest of them. It was the remark of Mr. Lowndes that the south had not his superior, nor the north his equal.' Finding the professional fields at Portsmouth inadequate to the support of a growing family, Mr. Webster removed to Boston in 1816. His professional reputation had grown as rapidly as his fame as a statesman. He placed himself at once by the side of the leaders of the Massachusetts bar. He had already appeared before the supreme court of the United States in Washington. By his brilliant argument in the Dartmouth college case, carried by appeal to Washington in 1817, he took rank among the most distinguished jurists in this country. In 1820, Mr. Webster was chosen a member of a convention called for the purpose of revising the constitution of Massachusetts. No one exercised a more powerful influence over its deliberations. He was offered, about this time, a nomination as a senator of the United States, but declined. In 1822, he yielded to the most pressing solicitations to become a candidate for the place of representative of the city of Boston in the eighteenth congress, and was chosen by a very large majority. This step involved a great sacrifice of professional interest. He took his seat in Congress in December, 1823, and early in the session made his celebrated speech on the Greek revolution, an effort which at once established his reputation as one of the first statesmen of the age. In the autumn of the same year he was reelected by a vote of 4,990, out of 5,000 cast. In 1826 he was again a candidate, and not a hundred votes were thrown against him. Under the presidency of Mr. Adams (1825-29), he was the leader of the friends of the administration, first in the house of representatives, and afterward in the senate of the United States, to which he was elected in June, 1827. His great speech on the Panama mission was made in the first session of the nineteenth congress. When the tariff law of 1824 was brought forward, Mr. Webster spoke with great ability against it on the ground of expediency. He represented one of the greatest commercial constituencies in the Union; and his colleagues, with a single exception, voted with him against the bill. This law, however, forced a large amount of the capital of New England into manufactures; and in 1828 Mr. Webster sustained. the law of that year for a more equal adjustment of the benefits of protection. The change which took place in his course in this respect was the result of the circumstances alluded to, and was approved by his constituents. Mr. Webster remained in the senate under the administration of Gen. Jackson, and Mr. Van Buren, a period of twelve years. During this time the most important questions were discussed, measures of the highest moment to the country were brought forward, and political events and combinations of the most novel and extraordinary character succeeded each other. Under all changes of men and measures, Mr. Webster maintained the position of a constitutional and patriot statesman, second to none who had ever devoted himself to the service of his country. In 1830, he made what is generally regarded the ablest of his parliamentary efforts, his second speech in reply to colonel Hayne of South Carolina. This gentleman in a speech on a resolution moved by Mr. Foote, of Connecticut, relative to the surveys of the public lands, had indulged in some personalities against Mr. Webster, had commented with severity on the political course of the New England states, and had laid down in rather an authoritative manner those views of the constitution usually known as the doctrines of Mr. Webster was accordingly called upon to defend himself from the insinuations of the distinguished senator from South Carolina, to vindicate New England, and to point out the fallacies of nullification. To accomplish these objects, he employed all the resources of the most skillful rhetoric, polished sarcasm, and acute argument. The records of modern eloquence contain nothing of superior force and beauty. The second speech of Mr. Webster in this debate may be regarded as the greatest effort of this consummate orator. Shaping his public course by principle, and not by the blind impulse of party, Mr. Webster, though opposed to the administration of General Jackson, gave it a cordial support in its measures for the defense of the Union in 1832-'33. The doctrines of the president's proclamation against the theories of South Carolina were mainly adopted from Mr. Webster's speeches, and he was the chief dependence of the administration upon the floor of congress. When, however, the financial system of general Jackson was brought forward and fully developed, it was strenuously opposed by Mr. Webster. He foretold with accuracy the explosion which took place in the spring of 1837, and contributed materially to rally the public opinion of the country alike against the first phase of the new financial system, which was that of an almost boundless expansion of paper currency, issuing from the state banks, and against the opposite extreme, which was adopted as a substitute, that of an exclusive use of specie in all payments to or by the government Mr. Webster maintained with great force of argument, and variety of illustration, the superior convenience of the financial system which had been adopted in the infancy of the government, with the approval of every administration, from that of Washington down, viz: that of a mixed currency of specie and convertible paper, kept within safe bounds by the law requiring all payments to be made in specie or its equivalent, and regulated by a national institution acting as a check upon the state banks. The clear and forcible manner in which these principles were inculcated by Mr. Webster contributed materially to the downfall of Mr. Van Buren's administration. In 1839, Mr. Webster made a short visit to Europe. His time was principally passed in England, but he devoted a few weeks to the continent. His fame had preceded him to the old world, and he was received with the attention due to his character and talents at the French and English courts, and in the highest circles of both countries. On the accession of General Harrison to the presidency, Mr. Webster was placed at the head of his cabinet as secretary of state. His administration of the department during the two years he remained in it was signalized by the most distinguished success. The United States was at that time involved in a long standing controversy with Great Britain, on the subject of the northeastern boundary of Maine. To this had been added the difficult questions arising out of the detention of American vessels by British cruisers on the coast of Africa. Still more recently, the affair of M'Leod, in New York, had threatened an immediate rupture between the two governments. The correspondence between the United States' minister, in London, in 1841, Mr. Stevenson and the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Palmerston, was of an uncompromising character. Other causes of mutual irritation existed, which the limits of this sketch do not permit us to enumerate.

Shortly after the accession of General Harrison, the Melbourne administration was overturned in England, and Sir Robert Peel returned to power. This contemporary change of government in the two countries was favorable to a settlement of the long-standing difficulties. Mr. Webster; after coming into the department of state, intimated to the British minister that the government of the United States was convinced of the impossibility of settling the boundary-line by adhering to the course hitherto pursued - that of topographical explorations, with a view to the literal execution of the treaty of 1788 - but was prepared to adopt a conventional line, on the basis of mutual gain and concession, if such a line could be agreed upon. The new ministry, taking advantage of this overture, immediately determined to send Lord Ashburton as a special envoy to the United States, to negotiate upon this and the other subjects in controversy. Massachusetts and Maine were invited to take part by their commissioners in the negotiation; and on August 9, 1842, the treaty of Washington was ratified by the senate. By this treaty the boundary dispute, which had lasted fifty years, was happily adjusted. An amicable and efficient arrangement was made for joint action in the suppression of the slave-trade, and an agreement entered into for a mutual extradition of fugitives from justice. The other subjects of discussion at that period, between Great Britain and the United States, with the exception of the Oregon boundary, were happily disposed of in the correspondence accompanying the treaty. The terms of this important treaty were equally honorable and satisfactory to both parties. Mr. Tyler's cabinet was broken up in 1842, but Mr. Webster remained in office till the spring of 1843, being desirous of putting some other matters connected with our foreign relations in a prosperous train. Steps were taken by him in the winter of 1842-'3, which led to the recognition of the independence of the Sandwich islands by the principal maritime powers. His last official act was the preparation of the instructions of General C. Cushing, as commissioner for negotiating a treaty with China. With the commencement of Mr. Polk's administration, Mr. Webster returned to the senate of the United States. He remained a member of that body during the whole of the administration of Mr. Polk, and till the death of General Taylor. Though unconnected with the executive government, he rendered the most material service in the settlement of the Oregon dispute. It has been publicly stated by Mr. M'Gregor, the distinguished member of parliament for Glasgow, that a letter written to him by Mr. Webster, and shown to the British ministers, led them to agree to the adoption of the line of boundary which was established in 1846. Mr. Webster opposed the Mexican war on principle; and in the full persuasion, which events have confirmed, that acquisitions of territory would disturb the balance of the Union, and endanger its stability. He, however, concurred in granting the supplies which were required for the efficient conduct of the war. His second son, Major Edward Webster, with the entire approbation of his father, accepted a commission in the Massachusetts regiment of volunteers, and sunk under the exposures of the service in Mexico. He was a young man of great promise. In conformity with Mr. Webster's anticipations, the acquisition of Mexican territory led to agitations on the subject of slavery, which, during the years 1849-'50, seriously threatened the Union. The question whether slavery should exist in California seemed likely to lead to the renewal of the Missouri controversy, aggravated by all the bitterness which has grown out of the struggles of the last fifteen years. Mr. Webster entertained the most serious apprehensions of an inauspicious result. The convention of the people of California having unanimously adopted a constitution by which that question was disposed of, without the interference of congress, Mr. Webster conceived the hope that, by mutual concession on other and less important points, the harmony of the South and North could be restored, and a severance of the Union averted. With a view to this consummation, he made his great speech of March 7, 1850. A very powerful influence was exerted by this speech on the public mind. While the debates on what have been called the compromise measures' were in progress in the senate, General Taylor died. The chair of state was assumed by President Fillmore, who immediately called Mr. Webster to the department of state. His administration of the office was marked with characteristic ability and success. In a series of public addresses of unsurpassed ability, made in different parts of the Union, he enforced the great duty of mutual concession, in reference to the sectional controversy which so seriously alarmed the country. In December, 1850, the famous Hülsemann letter was written, to which Kossuth has applied the epithet of immortal.' Mr. Webster, by his firm and judicious manner of treating the Cuba question, obtained Of the Spanish government the pardon of the followers of Lopez, who had been deported to Spain. About the same time, he received from the English government an apology for the interference of a British cruiser with an American steamer in the waters of Nicaragua. This is the second time that the British government has made a similar concession at the instance of Mr. Webster. The first was in reference to the destruction of the Caroline,' at Schlosser. It has been affirmed that these are the only occasions on which the British government has ever apologized for the conduct of its affairs. Mr. Webster's intellectual efforts were not confined to politics. He filled a place second to none of his contemporaries at the American bar, and his discourses upon various historical and patriotic anniversaries are among the brightest gems of modern eloquence. The works of Mr. Webster have been lately published in six volumes, 8vo, with a biographical memoir by Mr. Edward Everett, from which the preceding sketch has been for the most part extracted. He died at his residence in Marshfield, Massachusetts, on the 24th day of October, 1852.