Comic History of the United States - Bill Nye

The Websters

Daniel Webster, together with Mr. Clay, had much to do with the Compromise measures of 1850. These consisted in the admission of California as a free State, the organizing of the Territories of Utah and New Mexico without any provision regarding slavery pro or con, the payment to Texas of one hundred million dollars for New Mexico,—which was a good trade for Texas,—the prohibition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, and the enactment of a Fugitive Slave Law permitting owners of slaves to follow them into the free States and take them back in irons, if necessary. The officials and farmers of the free States were also expected to turn out, call the dog, leave their work, and help catch these chattels and carry them to the south-bound train.

Daniel Webster was born in 1782, and Noah in 1758. Daniel was educated at Dartmouth College, where he was admitted in 1797. He taught school winters and studied summers, as many other great men have done since, until he knew about everything that anybody could. What Dan did not know, Noah did.

Strange to say, Daniel was frightened to death when first called upon to speak a piece. He says he committed dozens of pieces to memory and recited them to the woods and crags and cows and stone abutments of the New England farms, but could not stand up before a school and utter a word.

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In 1801 he studied law with Thomas W. Thompson, afterwards United States Senator. He read then for the first time that "Law is a rule of action prescribing what is right and prohibiting what is wrong."

In 1812 he was elected to Congress, and in 1813 made his maiden speech. One of his most masterly speeches was made on economical and financial subjects; and yet in order to get his blue broadcloth coat with brass buttons from the tailor-shop to wear while making the speech, he had to borrow twenty-five dollars.

When the country has wanted a man to talk well on these subjects it has generally been compelled to advance money to him before he could make a speech. Sometimes he has to be taken from the pawn-shop. Webster, it is said, was the most successful lawyer, after he returned to Boston, that the State of Massachusetts has ever known; and yet his mail was full of notices from banks down East, announcing that he had overdrawn his account.

Once he was hard pressed for means, as he was trying to run a farm, and running a farm costs money: so he went to a bank to borrow. He hated to do it, because he had no special inducements to offer a bank or to make it hilariously loan him money.

"How much did you think you would need, Mr. Webster?" asked the President, cutting off some coupons as he spoke and making paper dolls of them.

"Well, I could get along very well," said Webster, in that deep, resinous voice of his, "if I could have two thousand dollars."

"Well, you remember," said the banker, "do you not, that you have two thousand dollars here, that you deposited five years ago, after you had dined with the Governor of North Carolina?"

"No, I had forgotten about that," said Webster. "Give me a blank check without unnecessary delay."

We may learn from this that Mr. Webster was not a careful man in the matter of detail.

His speech on the two-hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims was a good thing, and found its way into the press of the time. His speech at the laying of the corner-stone of the Bunker Hill Monument, and his eulogy of Adams and Jefferson, were beautiful and thrilling.

Daniel Webster had a very large brain, and used to loan his hat to brother Senators now and then when their heads were paining them, provided he did not want it himself.

His reply to Robert Y. Hayne, of South Carolina, in 1830, was regarded as one of his ablest parliamentary efforts. Hayne attacked New England, and first advanced the doctrine of nullification, which was even more dangerous than secession,—Jefferson Davis in 1860 denying that he had ever advocated or favored such a doctrine.

Webster spoke extempore, and people sent out for their lunch rather than go away in the midst of his remarks.

Webster married twice, but did not let that make any difference with his duty to his country.

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He tried to farm it some, but did not amass a large sum, owing to his heavy losses in trying year after year to grow Saratoga potatoes for the Boston market.

No American, foreign or domestic, ever made a greater name for himself than Daniel Webster, but he was not so good a penman as Noah; Noah was the better pen-writer.

Noah Webster also had the better command of language of the two. Those who have read his great work entitled "Webster's Elementary Spelling-Book, or, How One Word Led to Another," will agree with me that he was smart. Noah never lacked for a word by which to express himself. He was a brainy man and a good speller.

One by one our eminent men are passing away. Mr. Webster has passed away; Napoleon Bonaparte is no more; and Dr. Mary Walker is fading away. This has been a severe winter on Red Shirt; and I have to guard against the night air a good deal myself.

It would ill become me, at this late date, to criticise Mr. Webster's work, a work that is now, I may say, in nearly every home and school-room in the land. It is a great book. I only hope that had Mr. Webster lived he would have been equally fair in his criticism of my books.

I hate to compare my books with Mr. Webster's, because it looks egotistical in me; but, although Noah's book is larger than mine, and has more literary attractions as a book to set a child on at the table, it does not hold the interest of the reader all the way through.

He has introduced too many characters into his book at the expense of the plot. It is a good book to pick up and while away a leisure hour, perhaps, but it is not a work that could rivet your interest till midnight, while the fire went out and the thermometer stepped down to 47 deg. below zero. You do not hurry through the pages to see whether Reginald married the girl or not. Mr. Webster did not seem to care how the affair turned out.

Therein consists the great difference between Noah and myself. He doesn't keep up the interest. A friend of mine at Sing Sing, who secured one of my books, said he never left his room till he had devoured it. He said he seemed chained to the spot; and if you can't believe a convict who is entirely out of politics, whom, in the name of George Washington, can you trust?

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Mr. Webster was certainly a most brilliant writer, though a little inclined, perhaps, to be wordy. I have discovered in some of his later books one hundred and eighteen thousand words no two of which are alike. This shows great fluency and versatility, it is true, but we need something else. The reader waits in vain to be thrilled by the author's wonderful word-painting. There is not a thrill in the whole tome.

I had heard so much of Mr. Webster that when I read his book I confess I was disappointed. It is cold, methodical, dry, and dispassionate in the extreme, and one cannot help comparing it with the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Horace.

As I said, however, it is a good book to pick up for the purpose of whiling away an idle hour. No one should travel without Mr. Webster's tale. Those who examine this tale will readily see why there were no flies on the author. He kept them off with this tale.

It is a good book, as I say, to take up for a moment, or to read on the train, or to hold the door open on a hot day. I would never take a long railroad ride without it, eyether. I would as soon forget my bottle of cough-medicine.

Mr. Webster's Speller had an immense sale. Ten years ago he had sold forty million copies. And yet it had this same defect. It was cold, dull, disconnected, and verbose. There was only one good thing in the book, and that was a little literary gem regarding a boy who broke in and stole the apples of a total stranger. The story was so good that I have often wondered whom Mr. Webster got to write it for him.

The old man, it seems, at first told the boy that he had better come down, as there was a draught in the tree; but the young sass-box—apple-sass-box, I presume—told him to avaunt.

At last the old man said, "Come down, honey. I am afraid the limb will break if you don't." Then, as the boy still remained, he told him that those were not eating-apples, that they were just common cooking-apples, and that there were worms in them. But the boy said he didn't mind a little thing like that. So then the old gentleman got irritated, and called the dog, and threw turf at the boy, and at last saluted him with pieces of turf and decayed cabbages; and after the lad had gone away the old man pried the bull-dog's jaws open and found a mouthful of pantaloons and a freckle.

I do not tell this, of course, in Mr. Webster's language, but I give the main points as they recur now to my mind.

Though I have been a close student of Mr. Webster for years and have carefully examined his style, I am free to say that his ideas about writing a book are not the same as mine. Of course it is a great temptation for a young author to write a book that will have a large sale; but that should not be all. We should have a higher object than that, and strive to interest those who read the book. It should not be jerky and scattering in its statements.

I do not wish to do an injustice to a great man who is now no more, a man who did so much for the world and who could spell the longest word without hesitation, but I speak of these things just as I would expect others to criticise my work. If one aspire to be a member of the literati of his day, he must expect to be criticised. I have been criticised myself. When I was in public life,—as a justice of the peace in the Rocky Mountains,—a man came in one day and criticised me so that I did not get over it for two weeks.

I might add, though I dislike to speak of it now, that Mr. Webster was at one time a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts. I believe that was the only time he ever stepped aside from the strait and narrow way. A good many people do not know this, but it is true.

Mr. Webster was also a married man, yet he never murmured or repined.