Skip to content Skip to navigation

Daniel Webster

By Kristin Cook

May 2015

 
Chester Harding (1792–1866), Daniel Webster, 1830, 1848–1849. Oil on canvas. Boston Athenæum, Gift of several subscribers, 1832.

Chester Harding (1792–1866), Daniel Webster, 1830, 1848–1849. Oil on canvas. Boston Athenæum, Gift of several subscribers, 1832.

Daniel Webster has a place amongst America’s second generation of founding fathers, his time in the United States Senate and his famed orations helping to chart the path of the still-young nation in the first half of the nineteenth century. We are familiar with grand portraits of Webster, and five different busts of his likeness can be seen in the current gallery show at the Athenæum. Yet how much do we learn about him after elementary school? Perhaps if we study politics or law we are well-versed in Webster’s influence on the Constitution’s development, but if like many you grew up with Webster only in the periphery, read on for a primer:

Daniel Webster was born on January 18, 1782, in Salisbury, New Hampshire. At the time the small town was part of the exposed northern frontier, and Webster’s modest homestead can still be visited today, though it has been moved multiple times and is now seated in Franklin, New Hampshire. Webster’s father, Ebenezer, had been granted 225 acres of land for his service in the militia during the invasion of Canada in 1759, and was a founder and local leader of Salisbury. He achieved the rank of colonel, though he preferred to retain the title captain. Abigail Eastman was Ebenezer’s second wife and Webster’s mother. Daniel was the ninth of ten children (Abigail’s fourth) and a youth of delicate health. He was precocious and of a passionate nature, which encouraged his father to spare him from physical labor and send him to school—something Captain Webster was never afforded. In 1796, at the age of fourteen, Webster was enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy. He proved capable in his studies but was shy and found himself incapable of participating in the mandatory public declamations. In December of that year Webster returned home with his father without completing his course, and for a short while taught school. An arrangement was made after a brief period for him to study under the Rev. Samuel Wood of Boscawen, a town not too distant, in preparation for entry to Dartmouth College. In the fall of 1797, with competency in Latin and Greek, Webster entered Dartmouth where he proved much more successful than at Exeter. He contributed to the village newspaper, participated in college debating societies, and earned a reputation as a speaker so great that the citizens of Hanover requested he give the Fourth of July oration. At only eighteen years old the characteristic vigor of his early speeches was already on display in this effort.

After graduating near the top of his class, Webster began to study law at the office of Thomas W. Thompson of Salisbury. He seems to have doubted he was suited for the profession, and after a few months accepted a position as a teacher in the small village of Fryeburg. Webster could have made a good living teaching, which would have allowed him to aid his father and support his elder brother Ezekiel in college. Yet, at the urging of his family and friends, he returned to the tutelage of Thompson in 1802. When Ezekiel began teaching school in Boston he invited Daniel to join him there, and Webster was soon clerking for Christopher Gore. In March 1805 he was admitted to the Boston Bar but was soon recalled to Boscawen due to his father’s failing health. By September 1807, his father had passed and Webster had transferred his practice to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The following nine years he lived on the New Hampshire seacoast with his wife Grace Fletcher (the daughter of a clergyman), and enjoyed the professional rivalry of Jerimiah Mason, from whom he learned to curtail his ostentatious courtroom style in favor of Mason’s incisive manner.

During this period Webster was drawn into politics; the federalist convictions he inherited from his father were reinforced by his contacts in Boston. Though he was conservative in temperament, remember that Webster had come of age amidst the fear of the French revolutionary ideas of democracy, which were more radicalized than those upon which his own nation was founded. Webster thought these ideas undermined national union and threatened civil war, and he became known for Fourth of July orations and occasional pamphleteering in the name of revived federalism. He championed the shipping interests of New England, and voiced the opposition to the embargo laws of the early nineteenth century. At the famous “Rockingham Memorial” in August of 1812, he condemned the national administration for leading the country into an unjustifiable war, and renounced the idea of New England separating from the Union.

He was nominated for Congress soon after, and upon winning a seat became a member of the committee of foreign relations. Reelected in 1814, he was influential in the attempts to make peacetime economic adjustments. He was well known for his devotion to sound principles of public finance and for his opposition to the high protective duties of the 1816 tariff, which threatened the import and shipbuilding industries in New England. In August of that year Webster moved from New Hampshire back to Boston, where he put aside politics and focused on his law practice. It was not long before he was bringing in high profile cases and high profits. In fact, Webster was the lawyer for the Dartmouth College trustees in the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward case, a landmark decision from the United States Supreme Court dealing with the application of the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution to private corporations. The case arose when the president of Dartmouth College was deposed by its trustees, and the New Hampshire legislature attempted to force the college to become a public institution and thereby place the ability to appoint trustees in the hands of the governor of New Hampshire. On February 2, 1819, the Supreme Court upheld the sanctity of the original charter of the college, which predated the creation of the state, and Webster became, in the opinion of many, the foremost lawyer of the time. Three weeks after this decision he appeared for the Bank of the United States in McCullough v. Maryland, which concerned the state of Maryland taxing banks that had been chartered by the federal government rather than by the state. The tax was ruled unconstitutional and the case became the legal cornerstone of subsequent expansions of federal power.

As Webster rose in prominence, he was unable to stay out of politics (and the public eye) for long. In December 1819 he publicly opposed the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and the next autumn made the main address in favor of free trade at a meeting of New England importers in Faneuil Hall. On December 22, 1820, he gave a moving speech at Plymouth in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. By then, he had made popular the idea of the occasional oratory, a trend that would thrive for decades. He briefly held a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the spring of 1822 before being elected to represent Boston in Congress, where he was made chairman of the judiciary committee in December 1823. An oration on Greek independence in January signaled his return to the national arena, but his main focus was to be the tariff question and what he could do to challenge Henry Clay’s arguments for protection, beginning in April 1824 with his attack on the proposed tariff bill. Other issues at play during his term were his support for John Quincy Adams’s doctrine of internal improvements; his leading of the (futile) fight for a revision of the federal judicial system; and his appeal for representation in the congress for Panama. In 1827 he was elected to the United States Senate from Massachusetts, but he temporarily lost interest in public life when his wife died around the time he took office. However, once the Tariff Act of 1828 passed, Webster found himself again embroiled in the debate. Now less satisfied with economic theory and more concerned with the realities of life, he believed the federal government had decided on its policy and that the New England states must adapt to a future of protection (later he would become an aggressive champion of this policy). Unfortunately for Webster, more losses followed: Jackson defeated Adams for reelection, and Webster’s favorite brother Ezekiel (who had entered New Hampshire politics) died. Webster's life took on newfound meaning upon his marriage to the young New York sophisticate Caroline Le Roy in mid-December 1829, and just over a month later he was back in action in the famous Webster-Hayne debate, battling Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina on the topic of protectionist tariffs. The heated speeches between Webster and Hayne from January 19 to 27 1830 were unplanned, and stemmed from debate over a resolution by Connecticut Senator Samuel A. Foot calling for the temporary suspension of further land surveying until land already on the market was sold (this would effectively stop the introduction of new lands onto the market). Webster's "Second Reply to Hayne" was generally regarded as the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress, and Webster's description of the U.S. government as "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people," was later paraphrased by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address in the words "government of the people, by the people, for the people." The debate was considered a victory for federalism over the cause of states’ rights, and over nullification, the legal theory that a state has the right to nullify or invalidate any federal law that the state deems unconstitutional. Known as the Defender of the Constitution, Webster’s fame again reached national scale, and with this turning point in all aspects of his life, dreams of the White House seemed as though they could come true.  

With the formation of the new Whig Party, which opposed Jackson and his war on the Bank of the United States, Webster was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate from Massachusetts for the 1836 election. With other Whig nominees in the field, however, he did not garner much support outside of New England, and following his defeat he gave serious consideration to retiring from politics. His interests turned to the personal, including his seaside home in Marshfield where he entertained lavishly and fell into debt. In 1839, he and his family visited England, hoping to find buyers for lands he owned in the American West, and also to acquaint himself with the issues surrounding the border dispute between Maine and Canada. Not long after his return to Boston, Webster was made secretary of state by the new president, William Henry Harrison; upon Harrison’s death a month later, his successor John Tyler retained the cabinet in office. When Tyler successfully vetoed two measures by the Whigs that sought to reestablish a United States bank, all the members of the cabinet resigned except for Webster, who tried to play a conciliatory role. He was determined not to throw the foreign concerns of the country into disarray over party proceedings, and in fact brought to a successful conclusion the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1824, which negotiated the Maine-New Brunswick border and established shared use of the Great Lakes, reaffirming the western frontier of the Rocky Mountains at the 49th parallel, defining seven crimes subject to extradition, and calling for an end to the slave trade on the high seas. Webster’s other successes in the State Department include successful negotiations with Portugal, important discussions with Mexico, and preliminary discussions about the opening of diplomatic relations with China. He was, however, under strong Whig pressure to resign, and with reluctance in May 1843 he did just that. Overwhelmed with debt, Webster returned to his legal practice for a short time, and in the winter of 1845 he returned to the Senate. In the spring of 1846—after the United States annexed Texas—The Mexican-American War began, as Webster feared would happen. He had opposed the annexation and the resulting extension of slavery, and joined the Whig policy of condemning the war. He held, however, that supplies should be voted in an attempt to bring the conflict to a speedy and successful termination. His second son, Major Edward Webster, died on exposure in service near Mexico City.

Not entranced by notions of empire, Webster introduced resolutions repudiating the dismemberment of Mexico, yet the war ended in a treaty that gave the United States a vast domain carved out of their neighboring country. Webster voted consistently for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in territory acquired from Mexico had it ever passed both houses of Congress. Seeking his former glory and the one office he had not attained, Webster made a Southern tour in the spring of 1847, which only drew him further into debt, as well as into poor health and spirits. His daughter Julia had also died fairly young, and coupled with the death of Edward he fell into a depression. He was passed over for the nomination of his party in favor of military hero General Zachary Taylor, but became secretary of state again in 1850 after Taylor’s death, for Millard Fillmore’s cabinet. In 1851 Webster wrote to denounce as revolution the secession of Southern states, and in foreign affairs dealt with diplomatic difficulties with Spain, Mexico, Peru, Great Britain, and with the Hungarian Revolution and the Austrian empire. Webster’s presidential aspirations were revived once more in 1852 (much to the embarrassment of many in his party, as Fillmore was also a candidate). Ultimately neither was chosen to represent the Whigs, and Webster became increasingly ill as the year progressed. By autumn he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. He died on October 24, 1852. He was survived by his second wife Caroline and his son Fletcher, who was later killed in the Civil War.

A stirring champion of the American Union, Daniel Webster left his mark on American history through his work in the constitutional courts, the House of Representatives, and twice as the secretary of state. His political career spanned four decades and he became nationally renowned for his oratorical skill. Webster is today still a revered figure in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and is also the subject of a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which was made into a 1941 Academy Award-winning film titled All That Money Can Buy. It tells the story a fictional farmer who sells his soul to the devil but is defended by a fictional version of Daniel Webster, who is able to win over the jury of the damned and save the farmer’s soul from hell solely by virtue of his eloquence.

Selected Works

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Library of Congress PZ3.B4292 De) The Life, Speeches, and Memorials of Daniel Webster : Containing his most celebrated orations, a selection from the eulogies delivered on the occasion of his death, and his life and times (Cutter 65 .W395 .sm)

One And Inseparable : Daniel Webster and the Union (Library of Congress CT275.W408 B29)

Daniel Webster (Library of Congress CT275.W408 B27)

Daniel Webster (Cutter 65 .W395 .fu [2 volumes])

References

Baxter, Maurice G. “Daniel Webster.” Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. Gale,
2000.

“Daniel Webster.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1936.

“Daniel Webster.” Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. Springfield, Ma: Merriam-
Webster, 1995.

Daniel Webster Homestead. Accessed March 18, 2015. http://www.nhstateparks.org/explore/state-parks/daniel-webster-birthplace-state-historic-site.aspx.