Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Daniel Webster


One day, many many years ago, an eight-year-old boy hurried into a New Hampshire village store. His black eyes were bright, and he was eager, for he had come to buy a coveted treasure.

On a past visit to the store the lad had seen a cotton handkerchief on which was printed the new Constitution of the Unitcd States. How he had wanted this wonderful handkerchief! But it takes money to buy things; and for lack of the price the treasure had been left behind, while the boy went home to save up the needed twenty-five cents.

At last he had succeeded and, money in hand, had come to buy the longed-for copy of the Constitution. It was from his printed cotton handkerchief that Daniel Webster learned the Constitution from end to end. Little did he think then that he would ever be called the defender of that same Constitution.

Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury,—now Franklin, —New Hampshire, in 1782. He was the ninth of ten children. From the very first he was a frail, sickly child, for whom the neighbors foretold a short life.

Daniel Webster

Because of his ill health little was expected of him on the farm, and he was allowed to roam at will over the hills and through the meadows. His companion on these rambles was an old soldier-sailor, who had deserted from the British ranks to help the Americans fight for freedom. And many thrilling tales did he pour into the willing ears of his little listener.

Ebenezer Webster, Daniel's father, had fought in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars; and he, too, often told Daniel about his adventures. The boy liked to hear especially how his father had been on guard in front of Washington's tent just after Arnold's treason, and how the great general himself had come to Ebenezer and said, "Captain Webster, I believe I can trust you." Such stories filled Daniel with love for his country.

Reading was another pleasure of Daniel Webster's boyhood. He read all the books he could get hold of, time and again. As he had great power of expression, people loved to hear him read; and teamsters, while they rested their horses near his home, often called Webster's boy to come out into the shade of the trees and read to them.

Whenever he could, Daniel went to school. As he learned easily and remembered well, he soon came to be considered the brightest boy in his class. Once his teacher promised a jackknife to the pupil who could recite the greatest number of verses from the Bible. When Daniel's turn came, he reeled off so many verses that the master had to stop him. There was no question as to who had won the knife.

His talents were a delight to his father, who had had little chance himself for study and appreciated what he had missed. Knowing that Daniel's poor health would prevent him from ever doing hard physical labor, Mr. Webster determined to give the boy an education. Ezekiel, who was two years older than Daniel, and strong and robust, was to stay at home and help his father on the farm. But Daniel was to be sent to school and, if possible, to college.

This was a great undertaking in those days, especially to people of small means. For the Websters it meant much sacrifice on the part of the whole family. Not only would the farm have to be mortgaged, but they would be obliged to pinch and save in order to live. Still Ebenezer Webster and his wife were willing to do without comforts, that their boy might be educated.

Mr. Webster told Daniel about the plan and spoke sadly of his own lack of schooling. Daniel was much moved and never forgot his father's words. The next spring Mr. Webster took the boy to Exeter Academy.

This was Daniel's first step in the outside world, and it proved a bitter experience for him. The boys at Exeter were mostly sons of wealthy parents. They were well dressed and came from cultured homes, and they laughed at Daniel's country clothes and manners. Such treatment hurt the sensitive boy, but he had the good sense not to resent it. Although he rose rapidly in his classes, one thing he could not do. He could not face these schoolboys and declaim. Much as he had read and recited to teamsters, relatives, and friends, he invariably failed completely whenever he was called upon to speak before his schoolmates. Alone in his room, he would go over and over what he wanted to say; but as soon as he faced the boys, not a word could he utter. And yet in years to come, this lad was to be one of the greatest orators of modern times.

When Daniel Webster had been nine months at Exeter, his father took him to a Dr. Wood to be tutored. On the way there, Mr. Webster told his son that a college course was in store for him. Under Dr. Wood's tutorship, he was ready to enter Dartmouth College before he was sixteen.

During the first two years of life at college, Webster was not the best student in his class. He was never a scholar, in the true sense of the word; but he had the reputation of being one. Webster himself said that it was because he read so much and remembered so well what he read, that he could talk with ease; and that when he came to the end of his knowledge he was careful to stop and let other people do the talking.

Everyone wondered at his eloquence. He had overcome the bashfulness which made his life wretched at Exeter, and now he delighted in nothing so much as holding an audience spellbound by the music of his marvelous voice.

During his first two rears in Dartmouth, Daniel Webster often thought of his brother Ezekiel. He saw the wide gulf that was beginning to yawn between him and his stay-at-home brother; and his heart felt a great pity. He knew his brother's talents to be equal to his own, and he wanted Ezekiel, too, to have a college education.

But how was it to be done? The farm had already been mortgaged, and how could he ask his father to sacrifice himself still more? It seemed too much. How ever, when Daniel went home on his vacation, he did ask his father if in some way Ezekiel could not be sent to college.

As all his other sons had now left home, Mr. Webster realized that, in Ezekiel, he was sending away the prop and stay of his last years. He gave his consent on condition that the mother and daughters also were willing, as they were the ones who would suffer most. They proved as self-sacrificing as Mr. Webster. "I will trust my boys," was all the mother had to say. And so it was settled that Ezekiel should go to college.

Daniel was graduated from Dartmouth in 1801. That summer he studied in a law office. But as he had offered to do his share toward earning the money for Ezekiel's education, he accepted a position to teach during the winter.

At the close of the school year Daniel returned home and again took up the study of law. He longed to go to Boston to finish his law studies, but saw no way to do it. Finally Ezekiel found a way, and they both went to Boston.

Daniel was fortunate enough to get into the office of a famous lawyer who taught him many things besides law. After being admitted to the bar in 1807, he went to Boscawen, six miles from home, and opened a law office. Here, before long, he had a fairly good practice.

When Ezekiel, too, was admitted to the bar, Daniel turned his business over to his brother and moved to Portsmouth.


In Portsmouth, Webster practiced law and took an active part in politics. Soon he was elected to Congress, and took his seat there in May, 1813.

There were many noted men in the House at this time. Among them were Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Both were statesmen and born debaters and orators. They were leaders of the southern states; and, as Webster became a northern leader, he was often opposed to them on the great questions of the day.

Clay and Webster


One of these questions had to do with the tariff, or duty, on certain imported goods. Mr. Clay, and at that time the South, thought that there ought to be a tariff on these articles to protect the growing American industries. Webster did not agree with him and made several speeches against the different tariff laws as they came up from time to time.

But when the tariff bill of 1828 was before the House, to the general surprise Webster changed about, and spoke in favor of it and voted for it. The reason for his change was that New England had, by this time, increased her manufacturing and was now in a position to profit by a tariff that placed a tax on competing goods imported from other countries. With New England it was simply a matter of dollars and cents, not one of right and wrong. And being a New England man, Webster changed his views to accord with those of his home section.

By this time the South, too, had changed about, and was bitterly opposed to the tariff bill of 1828; for she had found that foreign goods were, on the whole, cheaper than goods made in the North. However, the bill was passed and became a law. As a result the enraged southern people held mass meetings and declared the new tariff a violation of the Constitution, claiming that Congress had no power to impose duties except those necessary for the expenses of the Government. South Carolina even went so far as to say that the law would not be obeyed and that, if force was used, she would withdraw from the Union.

It was in January, 1830, that Senator Hayne of South Carolina made his bitter attack on Massachusetts and on Webster, and in the Senate of the United States declared this southern doctrine—that any state has the right to disobey the nation's laws.

Webster, now Massachusetts Senator, agreed to reply to Hayne on the next day. He had only one night in which to prepare what he had to say. But none knew the Constitution better than he, for had he not been a close student of it ever since his childhood days?

By the opening hour of the following day the great crowd that had come to hear him packed the Senate Chamber.

"It is a critical moment," said a friend; "and it is time, it is high time that the people of this country should know what this Constitution is."

"Then," answered Webster, "by the blessing of Heaven, they shall learn this day before the sun goes down what I understand it to be."

His theme was "Nationality." His sole purpose was to strengthen the claims of the Union; to put the Union first and the State second. For four hours he held that vast throng spellbound, while he set forth the meaning of the Constitution. His whole life had been a preparation for this moment. And his closing words, "Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable," inspired all loyal Americans with deeper devotion to the Union. These words were put into text-books; schoolboys used them in declamations, feeling their pride in the Union increase as they made Webster's words their own. Finally the time came when men were needed to preserve the Union. Then it was that these boys, whose love for their country had been fostered and kept alive by the undying words of Webster, became the "Boys in Blue" and fought to save the land they loved so well.

In his "Reply to Hayne" Daniel Webster reached his highest point as a public speaker. More than his eloquence was the influence of the man himself. Nature had been most lavish with her gifts to him. His voice, face, and form were perfectly suited to an orator. He lacked but little of six feet. He had a swarthy complexion and straight black hair. His head was large and well shaped. His brow was high and broad. His wonderful eyes were deVp set, black and glowing. But perhaps his voice was the most remarkable of all. In conversation, it was low and musical. In debate, it was high and full, sometimes ringing out like a clarion and then sinking to deep notes like the tones of an organ.

By his splendid defense of the Constitution, Daniel Webster won a national fame which brought with it talk of the Presidency. This high honor dangled before his eyes all the rest of his public life—a dream never to be realized.

One reason why Webster failed to arouse general enthusiasm as a Presidential candidate in 1852 was the stand he had taken in regard to Clay's compromise two years before.

This period in our history was a most critical one. On the one side was the South anxious to extend slavery into the new territory acquired through the Mexican War; on the other side was the North with the feeling against slaveholding constantly growing stronger. Between these two came Henry Clay in 1850 with his great compromise, which he thought would settle all the problems. One term of his compromise was the enforcing of the fugitive slave law, which ordered that all escaped slaves found in the North must be returned to their masters.

Up to this time Webster had always been a foe to compromise and to the extension of slavery, and he had always spoken eloquently in behalf of the poor down trodden slave. Now he rose in the Senate and declared in favor of Clay's compromise, saving nothing at all about the horrors of slavery and, worst of all, urging the carrying out of the fugitive slave law.

It was a shock and disappointment to his friends in the North that Daniel Webster should speak coldly and calmly of sending the runaway slaves back to their owners. This was hard to believe. Why did he do it?

Many said that his purpose was to preserve the Union and that he had decided that this was the only way to do it. Whatever his motive, many of his friends deserted him.

Through years of his long public career, Daniel Webster had taken much pleasure in his country home at Marshfield near the Massachusetts coast. It was to Marshfield that he came in disappointment over his failure to gain the Presidency in 1852. And it was here that he died in October of that same Year. From his boyhood he had loved the flag with an intensity which increased with his years. And now, when he lay dying, his eyes constantly looked through the whndow in the dark hours of the night to a small boat anchored at the shore, for over this boat were flying the stars and stripes, lighted by a ship lantern on the mast.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Daniel Webster was a true American citizen. His chief desire was to see the nation great and glorious. He wished only to procure the good of the whole country and always strove with all the ardor and force of his great soul to preserve the Union. For years he poured the message of nationality into the ears of the people. He it was who fostered and strengthened this spirit so that, when the South seceded, the North had the courage to perform her mighty task. This is the debt the American people owe to Daniel Webster, and in this lies his importance in the history of our country.