Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Daniel Webster,
the Giant of the American Senate

On the 26th of January, 1830, was heard in the hall of the United States Senate the greatest oration ever delivered on the American rostrum. It was Daniel Webster's famous "Reply to Hayne," the noblest effort in the career of our noblest orator, and as great in its way as the world-famed oration of Demosthenes, "On the Crown."

Forty years before this Webster was a poor boy, the son of a New Hampshire farmer, who seems to have had plenty to do, but was so fond of books that he snatched every spare minute of time to read. His father had a saw mill, and Daniel had to set the logs, but while the saw was cutting through them he kept his eyes on the pages of a book. It was the same with his odd minutes on the farm or when on an errand, and at night he read diligently by the light of a log fire. In this way the boy ran through the circulating library of the village. He read the Bible so ardently that he had much of it by heart.

It is said that the first twenty-five cents he ever earned he gave to a peddler for a handkerchief on which was printed the Constitution of the United States. This he read again and again, till every word of it was impressed on his memory. He little dreamed in those days how useful this intimate knowledge of the Constitution was to become to him in his later days. As for his memory, it was extraordinary. By the time he grew up his mind was like a great store-house of useful information.

Daniel Webster was born at Salisbury, New Hampshire, January 18, 1782. The Revolution was just ending, and five years more were to elapse before the making of the Constitution, that great state paper which he was so nobly to defend in the years to come.

Webster, Clay, and Jackson


There were ten children in the family, he being the youngest. He was a feeble little fellow, so weak that the people around said he could not live. In his young days he was not fit to work, so he grew fond of wandering through the fields and woods, his chief comrade being an old British sailor who was as fond of the woods as he. The two would lie on the river banks for hours at a time while the old man told the child long yarns of his life on the sea.

His outdoor life made him strong and fit for work, and he grew up a large, finely formed man. But all his life he kept his fondness for the woods and for the hunting and fishing which he had shared with his childhood friend.

One day while Daniel was in the hayfield with his father a Man who was riding by stopped to speak for a few minutes with Squire Webster, as the father was called. When the man had gone his father said:

"Dan, that man beat me by a few votes when I ran against him for Congress, and all because he had a better education. For that reason I intend you shall_ have a good education, and hope to see you work your way up to Congress."

The squire had a high opinion of his son's ability, from his studious habits, and felt that a boy like him should have every chance. Daniel was delighted with the prospect, but he felt that his elder brother, Ezekiel, a bright boy, ought to have the first chance. In the end Squire Webster mortgaged his farm and sent both boys to the Phillips Exeter Academy.

There they studied heartily, Daniel teaching school for a time and copying law papers to help pay his way and that of his brother. In this way he fitted himself for college, entered Dartmouth College in 1797, and after graduation engaged in the study of law.

The story is told that Squire Webster, who had now advanced to the dignity of judge, got for Daniel, at the end of his college course, the position of clerk of the courts, with a fifteen hundred dollar salary. This was a great temptation for the boy, whose life had been one of poverty, but he refused it, saying, "I intend to be a lawyer myself and not to spend my life jotting down other men's doings."

The judge argued against this, deeming that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. There were already more lawyers than there was any need of, and not half work enough for them, he said. Daniel sturdily replied, "There is always room at the top."

This resolution he kept, against the advice of his father and friends, beginning his law studies at Salisbury and ending them at Boston, when he was admitted to the bar in 1805. Ezekiel, with whom Daniel had taught school to help in his college studies, was already gaining a reputation as a brilliant lawyer. He was a fine-looking fellow, and some say that he was the handsomest man in the United States.

Daniel himself grew to be a man of impressive appearance. As many readers may wish to know what this great man looked like, we quote Senator Lodge's description of him in later years:

"In face, form, and voice, nature did her utmost for Daniel Webster. He seemed to every one to be a giant; that, at least, is the word we most commonly find applied to him; and there is no better proof of his wonderful impressiveness than this fact, for he was not a man of extraordinary stature. He was five feet ten inches in height, and in health weighed a little less than two hundred pounds. These are the proportions of a large man, but there is nothing remarkable about them. We must look elsewhere than to mere size to discover why men spoke of Webster as a giant. He had a swarthy complexion and straight black hair. His head was very large; at the same time it was of noble shape, with a broad and lofty brow, and his features were finely cut and full of massive strength. His eyes were extraordinary. They were large and deep-set and, when he began to rouse himself to action, shone with the deep light of a forge-fire, getting ever more glowing as excitement rose. His voice was in harmony with his appearance. It was low and musical in conversation; in debate it was high but full, ringing out in moments of excitement like a clarion, and then sinking to deep notes with the solemn richness of organ-tones, while the words were accompanied by a manner in which grace and dignity mingled in complete accord."

Such was Daniel Webster in the years of his fame. He began to win a reputation as an orator even in college, where he was looked upon as the best writer and speaker of his class. While at the bar he added to his reputation by several Fourth-of-July orations. In the law he soon became highly regarded, and in a few years was looked upon as a fit antagonist of Jeremiah Mason, a man many years older and the greatest lawyer in the State.

In 1812 the ambition of Squire Webster was realized, his son Daniel being elected to Congress. He had run as a member of the Federalist party, then in strong opposition to the Democratic war party, led by John C. Calhoun, and supported by Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House. Webster strongly opposed the war. At the same time he advocated an increase in the navy. The force and intellectual power of his speeches on this subject placed him in the first rank as a debater, and he quickly became looked upon as the Federal leader of New England.

After serving through two terms of Congress he withdrew from politics and settled at law practice in Boston, where his former reputation increased so rapidly that he came to be looked upon as the leading lawyer of New England. His first great case was in defence of the charter rights of his old college, Dartmouth. This he argued before the Supreme Court of the United States with a skill, strength of argument, and knowledge of the law which spread his fame over the whole country. He became regarded as a leader among constitutional lawyers, and his services were called for in nearly all important cases before the Supreme Court.

The effect of his arguments was enhanced by the magnificent manner with which they were delivered, his deep-toned and powerful voice, and his great personal magnetism. "His influence over juries was due chiefly to the combination of a power of lucid statement with his extraordinary oratorical force." In criminal law his success was great, alike in pleading, in examining witnesses, and in his skill in baffling deep-laid schemes of perjury and fraud.

During this period of his life Mr. Webster greatly increased his reputation by a series of splendid orations upon great national events. One of the chief of these was delivered at Plymouth in 1820, on the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. Another great one was in 1825, when the corner-stone of the Bunker-Hill Monument was laid. Most brilliant of all was that given in Faneuil Hall in 1826, when he eulogized the two great patriots, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who died on the Fourth of July of that year.

Webster returned to the hall of Congress in 1823, quickly resuming there his former standing, and became active in the very important work of revising the United States Criminal Law. He was transferred to the Senate in 1828, then first entering that arena in which his greatest triumphs were to be gained.

The old Federal party had long since vanished, and new parties were arising, with new aims. Webster took his stand by voting for Clay's tariff bill of 1828, and when the Whig party was organized he and Clay became its foremost men.

He reached the acme of his career as an orator in 1830, when the doctrine of the right of a State to "nullify "the acts of Congress was being maintained by Robert Y. Hayne, an able Senator from South Carolina. The excitement in Washington was great. Party spirit ran high. If the doctrine of nullification was sustained the permanence of the American Union would be in serious danger. Hayne, as the champion of the Southern side, made a speech of marked force and eloquence, in which he bitterly assailed New England and made a sharp personal attack on Webster.

Edward Everett tells us of what followed. After the adjournment he hastened to Webster's house, expecting to find him in a state of great excitement, and was surprised at his entire calmness. He spoke of the Hayne speech, asked Webster if he proposed to reply, and finished by asking him if he had taken notes of his speech.

"Mr. Webster took from his vest pocket a piece of paper about as big as the palm of his hand, and replied, ` I have it all; that is his speech."

That was enough for Everett. He immediately left, confident that Webster would fully hold his own.

On the morning of the following day the Senate chamber and galleries were packed by an eager crowd. It was felt that a great day in the annals of the Senate had dawned. When Webster rose, calm and grand, there was a dead hush of expectation. He began in a low, even tone:

"Mr. President: when the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence, and before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may, at least, be able to conjecture where we are now. I ask for the reading of the resolution before the Senate."

Such was the skilful and artistic beginning of the greatest speech the Senate ever heard. When the reading of the resolution was finished Webster resumed. Never had such a flood of masterly eloquence and argument been poured forth. The audience listened with breathless attention, lest a word should be lost. The strong, resonant sentences, the pathos, the sarcasm, the reasoning, the fervent appeals to love of country, flowed in an unbroken stream. On, on, it went, in crushing and overwhelming weight, closing with the most magnificent burst of eloquence that ever fell from human lips:

"When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let this last feeble and lingering glance behold rather the glorious ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured; bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as, 'What is all this worth?' or those other words of delusion and folly, 'Liberty first and Union afterwards; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing in all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,—LIBERTY AND UNION, NOW AND FOREVER, ONE AND INSEPARABLE!

The audience left the hall silent and awe-stricken, feeling that it had been given to them to listen to one of the greatest efforts of the human intellect.

During the years that followed Webster's voice was often heard on momentous subjects before the Senate, and always with power and effect. He was one of the most popular leaders of the Whigs, and the great opponent of Calhoun in all tariff debates. In 1833 he vigorously opposed Clay's compromise tariff bill and supported the "Force Bill" of the Jackson administration.

He promoted the election of President Harrison in 1840 by a series of speeches, and in 1841 was appointed Secretary of State, resigning in 1843. He returned to the Senate in 1845, and in 1850 supported Clay's compromise measure in one of his ablest speeches.

The great orator was fast nearing the end of his career. In 1852 his name was presented in the National Whig Convention for the Presidential nomination, but he received only thirty-two votes. His support of Clay's compromise had lost him many friends. In May of that year he was thrown from his carriage and seriously injured, and on the 24th of October, 1852, he died.

Thus passed away our greatest orator. "He was," said Fraser's Magazine  in 1890, "the greatest orator that ever lived in the Western hemisphere. Less vehement than Calhoun, less persuasive than Clay, he was yet more grand and powerful than either." Another able English writer says: "Our impression is that, excepting for Mirabeau, Chatham, Fox, and Brougham, no speaker entirely the match of Daniel Webster has trod the world-stage for full two centuries."

There are Americans who would not admit these exceptions, Webster surpassing all the orators named in depth and profundity of knowledge and solidity of argument, his speeches being storehouses of thought and learning, lofty sentiment, solid judgment, brilliant rhetoric, and broad and generous views of the history and destiny of his native land.