While at Exeter he could hardly muster courage to speak before his class, but
before he had finished his college course he had delivered addresses before the
societies, which found their way into print. His diligence soon placed him at
the head of his class, a position he maintained until the close of his college
studies, graduating in 1801 with high honors.
Choosing law as his profession, he entered the law office of a friend and
neighbor, Thomas Thompson, who afterwards became a congressman and eventually a
senator. Mr. Webster remained here for some time when he left the office to
become a teacher in Maine at a salary of $350 per year, which he enlarged
somewhat by copying deeds. He afterwards returned to the office of Mr. Thompson
where he remained until 1804, when he went to Boston and entered the office of
Christopher Gove, who also distinguished himself afterwards as governor of
He had previously helped his brother Ezekiel to prepare for college, and
Daniel now in turn was helped to continue his law studies as Ezekiel was
teaching. His opportunity to enter the office of Mr. Gove proved most
fortunate, as he was thus enabled to study men, books and daily hear intelligent
discussions on the topics of national interest.
In 1805 he was admitted to the bar, and established himself at Boscawen. He
had been offered the clerkship of the Hillsboro County Court at a salary of
$1,500 a year, which was then a large income, and he was urged to accept it by
his father and other friends, but was dissuaded from so doing by Mr. Gove, who
foresaw great honor in store for him at the bar. He practiced at Boscawen one
year, when he was admitted to practice in the Superior Court of New Hampshire,
and he established himself at Portsmouth, at that time the capital of the State.
Here he rose to distinction among the most eminent counsellors. During his nine
years residence in Portsmouth he gave his especial attention to constitutional
law, becoming one of the soundest practitioners in the State.
He had inherited from his father the principles of the Federalist party, and,
therefore, advocated them in speeches on public occasions, but did not for some
years enter into politics. Mr. Webster came forward in a time when party spirit
ran high, and the declaration of war in 1812, long deprecated by his party,
created a demand for the best talent the country afforded. Mr. Webster now held
a commanding reputation, and in 1812 he was sent to Congress. This was a most
favorable time for Webster to enter Congress, as measures of the greatest
importance were now to be discussed.
Henry Clay was speaker of the house, and placed this new member on a most
important committee. June 10, 1813, he delivered his maiden speech on the repeal
of the Berlin and Milan decrees. These decrees were a scheme of Napoleon's, avowedly directed
against the commercial interests of Great Britain.
They closed all ports of France, and her allied countries against all vessels
coming from England or any English colony. All commerce and correspondence was
prohibited. All English merchandise was seized, and English subjects found in
any country governed by France were held prisoners of war.
Great Britain retaliated by prohibiting neutral vessels from entering the
ports of France under pain of confiscation; and a later order placed France and
her allies, together with all countries with whom England was at war, under the
Napoleon then issued his decree from Milan and the Tuileries declaring that
any vessel that had ever been searched by English authority, or had ever paid
duty to England, should be treated as a lawful prize of war.
Mr. Webster's first speech, as before stated, was upon a resolution on the
repeal of these decrees, and so ably did he define our duty as a country, in the
matter, and so clearly did he show wherein both England and France had
transgressed; that, being a new member, unknown outside of his own section of
the Union, his lucid and eloquent appeal took the house and nation by
His subsequent speeches on the increase of the navy and the repeal of the
embargo act won for him a first place among the great debaters of his day. He
cultivated a friendly relation with political opponents as well as partisan
friends, which soon gained for him the respect of all and he became the
acknowledged leader of the Federal party. He was re-elected to Congress in 1814
by a large majority, and in the debates upon the United States bank which
followed, he displayed a most remarkable mastery of the financial questions of his time.
Afterward a bill which was introduced by him passed, requiring all payments to
the treasury to be made in specie or its equivalent, restored the depreciated
currency of the country.
His home and library was burned and after some hesitation as to whether to
locate in Boston or Albany, he decided on the former whither he moved, and where
he lived the remainder of his life. This change of location gave greater scope
for the extension of his legal business, and his resignation from Congress
increased still further his time and opportunities. During the next seven years
he devoted his exclusive attention to his profession, taking a position as
counsellor, above which no one has ever risen in this country, and the best
class of business passed into his hands.
In 1816 the legislature of New Hampshire reorganized the corporation of
Dartmouth College, changing its name to Dartmouth University, and selecting new
trustees. The newly-created body took possession of the institution, and the old
board brought action against the new management. The case involved the powers of
the legislature over the old corporation without their consent. It was decided
twice in the affirmative by the courts of the State, when it was appealed to
Washington, the highest court.
Mr. Webster opened the case, delivering a most eloquent and exhaustive
argument for the college. His argument was that it was a private institution
supported through charity, over which the State had no control, and that the
legislature could not annul except for acts in violation of its charter, which
had not been shown. Chief Justice Marshal decided that the act of the
legisature was unconstitutional and reversed the previous
decisions. This established Mr. Webster's reputation in the Supreme Court, and
he was retained in every considerable case thereafter, being considered one of
the greatest expounders of constitutional law in the Union.
He was already acknowledged to be among the greatest criminal lawyers, and at
the anniversary of the landing of the pilgrim fathers he delivered the first of
a series of orations which, aside from his legal and legislative achievements
must have made him renowned. He was elected in 1822 to congress, being chosen
from Boston, and during 1823 made his world-famous speech on the Greek
revolution; a most powerful remonstrance against what has passed into history as
"The holy alliance," and he also opposed an extravagant increase of the tariff.
He also reported and carried through the house a complete revision of the
criminal law of the United States, being chairman of the judiciary committee.
In 1827 he was selected by the legislature of Massachusetts to fill a vacancy in
the United States senate. In that body he won a foremost position.
Probably the most eloquent exhibition of oratory, based on logic and true
statesmanship, ever exhibited in the Senate of the United States was the contest
between Mr. Webster, of Massachusetts, and Mr. [Robert y.] Hayne, the silver-tongued orator
of South Carolina; the debate transpiring in 1830. The subject of discussion
before the senate by these two intellectual gladiators grew out of a resolution
brought forward by Senator Foot, of Connecticut, just at the close of the
previous year with a view of some arrangement concerning the sales of the public
lands. But this immediate question was soon lost sight of in the discussion of
a great vital principle of constitutional law, namely: The relative powers
of the States and the national government.
Upon this Mr. Benton and Mr. Hayne addressed the Senate, condemning the
policy of the Eastern States as illiberal toward the West. Mr. Webster replied
in vindication of New England, and of the policy of the Government. It was then
that Mr. Hayne made his attack—sudden, unexpected, and certainly unexampled—upon
Mr. Webster personally, upon Massachusetts and other Northern States
politically, and upon the constitution itself. In respect to the latter, Mr.
Hayne taking the position that it is constitutional to interrupt the
administration of the Constitution itself, in the hands of those who are chosen
and sworn to administer it; by the direct interference in form of law, of the
States, in virtue of their sovereign capacity.
All of these points were handled by Mr. Hayne with that rhetorical
brilliancy, and the power which characterized him as the oratorical champion of
the South on the floor of the Senate, and it is not saying too much that the
speech produced a profound impression. Mr. Hayne's great effort appeared to be
the result of premeditation, concert, and arrangement.
He selected his own time, and that, too, peculiarly inconvenient to Mr.
Webster, for at that moment the Supreme Court was proceeding in the hearing of
a case of great importance in which he was a leading counsel. For this reason he
requested, through a friend, the postponement of the debate. Mr. Hayne objected,
however, and the request was refused. The time, the matter, and the manner,
indicated that the attack was made with the design to crush so formidable a
political opponent as Mr. Webster had become. To this end, personal
the annals of New England, and the federal party were ransacked for
It was attempted with the usual partisan unfairness of political harangues to
make him responsible not only for what was his own, but for the conduct and
opinions of others. All the errors and delinquencies, real or supposed, of
Massachusetts and the Eastern States, and of the Federal party during the war of
1812, and indeed prior and subsequent to that period were accumulated and heaped
Thus it was that Mr. Hayne heralded his speech with a bold declaration of
war, with taunts and threats, vaunting anticipated triumph—saying 'that he would
carry the war into Africa until he had obtained indemnity for the past and
security for the future.' It was supposed that as a distinguished representative
man, Mr. Webster would be driven to defend what was indefensible, to uphold what
could not be sustained and, as a Federalist, to oppose the popular resolutions
The severe nature of Mr. Hayne's charges, the ability with which he brought
them to bear upon his opponents, his great reputation as a brilliant and
powerful declaimer, filled the minds of his friends with anticipations of
complete triumph. For two days Mr. Hayne had control of the floor. The vehemence
of his language and the earnestness of his manner, we might properly say the
power of his oratory, added force to the excitement of the occasion. So fluent
and melodious was his elocution that his cause naturally begat sympathy. No one
had time to deliberate on his rapid words or canvass his sweeping and
accumulated statements. The dashing nature of the onset, the assurance, almost
insolence of his tone; the serious character of the
accusations, confounded almost every hearer.
The immediate impression of the speech was most surely disheartening to the
cause Mr. Webster upheld. Congratulations from almost every quarter were
showered upon Mr. Hayne. Mr. Benton said in full senate that as much as Mr.
Hayne had done before to establish his reputation as an orator, a statesman, a
patriot and a gallant son of the South; the efforts of that day would eclipse
and surpass the whole. Indeed the speech was extolled as the greatest effort of
the time or of other times-neither Chatham or Burke nor Fox had surpassed it in
their palmiest days.
Mr. Webster's own feelings with reference to the speech were freely expressed
to his friend, Mr. Everett, the evening succeeding Mr. Hayne's closing speech.
He regarded the speech as an entirely unprovoked attack on the North, and what
was of far more importance, as an exposition of politics in which Mr. Webster's
opinion went far to change the form of government from that which was
established by the constitution into that which existed under the
confederation—if the latter could be called a government at all. He stated it to
be his intention therefore to put that theory to rest forever, as far as it
could be done by an argument in the senate chamber. How grandly he did this is
thus vividly portrayed by Mr. March, an eye-witness, and whose account has been
adopted by most historians.
It was on Tuesday, January 26th, 1830—a day to be hereafter memorable in
senatorial annals—that the senate resumed the consideration of Foot's
resolution. There was never before in the city an occasion of so much
excitement. To witness this great intellectual contest multitudes of strangers had, for
two or more days previous, been rushing into the city, and the hotels
overflowed. As early as nine o'clock in the morning crowds poured into the
capitol in hot haste; at twelve o'clock, the hour of meeting, the senate
chamber, even its galleries, floor, and lobbies was filled to its utmost
capacity. The very stairways were dark with men who hung on to one another like
bees in a swarm.
The House of Representatives was early deserted. An adjournment would hardly
have made it emptier. The speaker, it is true, retained his chair, but no
business of moment was or could be attended to. Members all rushed in to hear
Mr. Webster, and no call of the House or other parliamentary proceedings could
call them back. The floor of the Senate was so densely crowded that persons once
in could not get out.
Seldom, if ever, has a speaker in this or any other country had more powerful
incentives to exertion; a subject, the determination of which involved the most
important interests and even duration of the Republic—competitors unequaled in
reputation, ability, or position; a name to make still more renowned or lose
forever; and an audience comprising, not only American citizens most eminent in
intellectual greatness, but representatives of other nations where the art of
oratory had flourished for ages.
Mr. Webster perceived and felt equal to the destinies of the moment. The very
greatness of the hazard exhilarated him. His spirits arose with the occasion. He
awaited the time of onset with a stern and impatient joy. He felt like the
war-horse of the Scriptures, who 'paweth in the valley and rejoiceth in his
strength: who goeth on to meet the armed men who sayeth among the trumpets, ha! ha! and who
smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the Captains and the shouting.'
A confidence in his resources, springing from no vain estimate of his power
but the legitimate off-spring of previous severe mental
discipline, sustained and excited him. He had gauged his opponents, his
subject and himself.
He was, too, at this period in the very prime of manhood. He had reached
middle-age—an era in the life of man when the faculties, physical or
intellectual, may be supposed to attain their fullest organization and most
perfect development. Whatever there was in him of intellectual energy and
vitality the occasion, his full life and high ambition might well bring forth.
He never arose on an ordinary occasion to address an ordinary audience more
self-possessed. There was no tremulousness in his voice or manner; nothing
hurried, nothing simulated. The calmness of superior strength was visible
everywhere; in countenance, voice and bearing. A deep-seated conviction of the
extraordinary character of the emergency and of his ability to control it seemed
to possess him wholly. If an observer more than ordinarily keen-sighted detected
at times something like exultation in his eye, he presumed it sprang from the
excitement of the moment and the anticipation of victory. The anxiety to hear
the speech was so intense, irrepressible and universal that no sooner had the
vice-president assumed the chair that a motion was made and unanimously carried
to postpone the ordinary preliminaries of senatorial action and take up
immediately the consideration of the resolution.
Mr. Webster arose and addressed the Senate. His exordium is known by heart
everywhere. "Mr. President when the mariner has been tossed about 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 further on the waves of this debate
refer to the point from which we departed that we may at least be able to form
some conjecture where we now are. I ask for the reading of the resolutions."
Calm, resolute, impressive was this opening speech. There wanted no more to
enchain the attention. There was a spontaneous though silent expression of eager
attention as the orator concluded these opening remarks. And while the clerk
read the resolution many attempted the impossibility of getting nearer the
speaker. Every head was inclined closer toward him, every ear turned in the
direction of his voice—and that deep, sudden, mysterious silence followed which
always attends fullness of emotion. From the sea of upturned faces before him
the orator beheld his thought, reflected as from a mirror. The varying
countenance, the suffused eye, the earnest smile and ever attentive look
assured him of the intense interest excited. If among his hearers there were
some who affected indifference at first to his glowing thoughts and fervant
periods, the difficult mask was soon laid aside and profound, undisguised,
devout attention followed.
In truth, all sooner or later, voluntarily, or in spite of themselves were
wholly carried away by the spell of such unexampled eloquence. Those who had
doubted Mr. Webster's power to cope with and overcome his opponent were fully
satisfied of their error before he had proceeded far in this debate. Their fears soon
took another direction. When they heard his sentences of powerful thought
towering in accumulated grandeur one above the other as if the orator strove
Titan-like to reach the very heavens themselves, they were giddy with an
apprehension that he would break down in his flight. They dared not believe that
genius, learning—any intellectual endowment however uncommon, that was simply
mortal—could sustain itself long in a career seemingly so perilous. They feared
an Icarian fall. No one surely who was present, could ever forget the awful
burst of eloquence with which the orator apostrophized the old Bay State which
Mr. Hayne had so derided, or the tones of deep pathos in which her defense was
"Mr. President: I shall enter on no encomium upon Massachusetts. There she
is—behold her and judge for yourselves. There is her history, the world knows it
by heart. The past at least is secure. There is Boston, and Concord, and
Lexington, and Bunker Hill, and there they will remain forever. The bones of her
sons falling in the great struggle for independence now lie mingled with the
soil of every State from New England to Georgia, and there they will remain
forever. And sir, where American liberty raised its first voice, and where its
youth was nurtured and sustained, there it still lives in the strength of its
manhood and full of its original spirit. If discord and disunion shall wound
it, if party strife and blind ambition shall hawk at and tear it, if folly and
madness, if uneasiness under salutary and necessary restraint, shall succeed to
separate it from that Union by which alone its existence is made sure it will
stand in the end by the side of that cradle in which its infancy was rocked, it will
stretch forth its arm with whatever vigor it may still retain over the friends
who gather around it and it will fall at last, if fall it must, amidst the
proudest monuments of its own glory and on the very spot of its origin."
No New England heart but throbbed with vehement emotion as Mr. Webster dwelt
upon New England sufferings, New England struggles, and New England triumphs
during the war of the Revolution. There was scarcely a dry eye in the Senate;
all hearts were overcome; grave judges and men grown old in dignified life
turned aside their heads to conceal the evidence of their emotion.
We presume that none but those present can understand the excitement of the
scene. No one who was present can, it seems, give an adequate description of it.
No word-painting can convey the deep, intense enthusiasm, the reverential
attention of that vast assembly, nor limner transfer to canvas their earnest,
eager, awe-struck countenances. Though language were as subtle and flexible as
thought it would still be impossible to represent the full idea of the occasion.
Much of the instantaneous effect of the speech arose of course from the orator's
delivery—the tones of his voice, his countenance and manner. These die mostly
with the occasion, they can only be described in general terms.
"Of the effectiveness of Mr. Webster's manner in many parts," says Mr.
Everett, himself almost without a peer as an orator, "it would be in vain to
attempt to give any one not present the faintest idea. It has been my fortune to
hear some of the ablest speeches of the greatest living orators on both sides of
the water, but I must confess I never heard anything which so completely realized my
conception of what Demosthenes was when he delivered the oration for the
Could there be higher praise than this? Keen nor Kemble nor any other
masterly delineator of the human passions ever produced a more powerful
impression upon an audience or swayed so completely their hearts. No one ever
looked the orator as he did; in form and feature how like a god! His countenance
spake no less audibly than his words. His manner gave new force to his language.
As he stood swaying his right arm like a huge tilt-hammer, up and down, his
swarthy countenance lighted up with excitement, he appeared amid the smoke, the
fire, the thunder of his eloquence like Vulcan in his armory forging thoughts
for the gods!
Time had not thinned nor bleached his hair; it was as dark as the raven's
plumage, surmounting his massive brow in ample folds. His eye always dark and
deep-set enkindled by some glowing thought shown from beneath his somber
overhanging brow like lights in the blackness of night from a sepulcher. No one
understood better than Mr. Webster the philosophy of dress; what a powerful
auxiliary it is to speech and manner when harmonizing with them. On this
occasion he appeared in a blue coat, a buff vest, black pants and white cravat;
a costume strikingly in keeping with his face and expression. The human face
never wore an expression of more withering, relentless scorn than when the
orator replied to Hayne's allusion to the "Murdered Coalition"—a piece of stale
political trumpery well understood at that day.
"It is," said Mr. Webster, "the very cast off slough of a polluted and
shameless press. Incapable of further mischief it lies in the sewer, lifeless
and despised. It is not now, sir, in the power of the honorable member to give it
dignity or decency by attempting to elevate it and introduce it into the Senate.
He cannot change it from what it is—an object of general disgust and scorn. On
the contrary, the contact, if he choose to touch it, is more likely to drag him
down, down, down to the place where it lies itself." He looked as he spoke these
words as if the thing he alluded to was too mean for scorn itself, and the sharp
stinging enunciation made the words still more scathing. The audience seemed
relieved, so crushing was the expression of his face which they held onto as
'twere spell-bound—when he turned to other topics. But the good-natured yet
provoking irony with which he described the imaginary, though life-like scene of
direct collision between the marshaled army of South Carolina under General
Hayne on the one side, and the officers of the United States on the other,
nettled his opponent even more than his severe satire, it seemed so ridiculously
With his true Southern blood Hayne inquired with some degree of emotion if
the gentleman from Massachusetts intended any personal imputation by such
remarks? To which Mr. Webster replied with perfect good humor, "Assuredly not,
just the reverse!" The variety of incident during the speech, and the rapid
fluctuation of passions, kept the audience in continual expectation and
ceaseless agitation. The speech was a complete drama of serious comic and
pathetic scenes, and though a large portion of it was argumentative—an
exposition of constitutional law—yet grave as such portion necessarily must be,
severely logical and abounding in no fancy or episode, it engrossed throughout
undivided attention. The swell of his voice and its solemn roll struck upon the
ears of the enraptured hearers in deep and thrilling cadence as waves upon the shore of
the far-resounding sea.
The Miltonic grandeur of his words was the fit expression of his great
thoughts and raised his hearers up to his theme, and his voice exerted to its
utmost power penetrated every recess or corner of the Senate—penetrated even the
ante-rooms and stairways, as in closing he pronounced in deepest tones of pathos
these words of solemn significance: "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 their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous 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 nor polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such
miserable interrogatory as 'What is all this worth?' nor those other words of
folly and delusion: 'Liberty first and Union afterwards,' but everywhere spread
all over it characters of living light blazing on all of its ample folds as they
float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens
that other sentiment dear to every American heart: 'Liberty
and union now and forever, one and inseparable!'"
The speech was over but the tones of the orator still lingered on the ear,
and the audience, unconscious of the close, retained their positions. Everywhere
around seemed forgetfulness of all but the orator's presence and words. There
never was a deeper silence; the feeling was too overpowering to allow expression by voice
or hand. But the descending hammer of the chair awoke them with a start, and
with one universal, long drawn, deep breath, with which the over-charged heart
seeks relief, the crowded assembly broke up and departed.
In the evening President Jackson held a levee at the White House. It was
known in advance that Mr. Webster would attend it, and hardly had the
hospitable doors of the mansion been thrown open, when the crowd that had
filled the Senate-Chamber in the morning rushed in and occupied the room,
leaving a vast and increasing crowd at the entrance. On all previous occasions
the general himself had been the observed of all observers. His receptions were
always gladly attended by large numbers, and to these he himself was always the
chief object of attraction on account of his great military and personal
reputation, official position, gallant bearing, and courteous manners. But on
this occasion the room in which he received his company was deserted as soon as
courtesy to the president permitted.
Mr. Webster was in the East room and thither the whole mass hurried. He stood
almost in the center of the room pressed upon by surging crowds eager to pay him
deference. Hayne, too, was there, and with others went up and complimented Mr.
Webster on his brilliant effort. In a subsequent meeting between the two rival
debators Webster challenged Hayne to drink a glass of wine with him, saying as
he did so, "General Hayne I drink to your health, and I hope that you may live a
thousand years." "I shall not live more than one hundred if you make another
such a speech," Hayne replied.
To this day Webster's speech is regarded as the master-piece of modern eloquence—unsurpassed by
even the mightiest efforts of either Pitt, Fox or Burke—a matchless intellectual
achievement and complete forensic triumph. It was to this great, triumphant
effort that Mr. Webster's subsequent fame as a statesman was due.
Upon the election of General Harrison to the presidency Mr. Webster was
offered his choice of the places in the cabinet, a recognition of ability
probably never accorded to any other man before or since. He finally accepted
the office of Secretary of State. Our relation with England demanded prompt
attention. The differences existing between the two nations relative to the
Northern boundary could not be disregarded, and Mr. Webster and Lord Ashburton
brought about a treaty which was equally honorable and advantageous to the
countries. He was also able later to contribute much toward the settlement of
the Oregon boundary question through private channels of influence, though
holding no official position at the time.
In 1847 he started on a tour of the Southern States, being well received
throughout; especially in Charleston, Columbia, Augusta and Savannah was as
well received, but his health failing him in the latter city, he was obliged to
abandon his project of making a tour of the whole South. He became Secretary of
State under Mr. Fillmore. This position he held at his death which occurred at
Marshfield, on the 24th day of October, 1852. Funeral orations were delivered
throughout the country in great numbers.
He was a man of commanding figure, large but well proportioned. His head was
of unusual size, his eyes deep-seated and lustrious, and had a voice powerful
yet pleasing; his action, while not remarkably graceful, was easy and impressive. His social
tastes were very strong and he possessed marked conversational power. He lived
in an age of great legislators and it is needless to add that he was excelled in
statesmanship by none.
Professor Ticknor, speaking in one of his letters of the intense excitement
with which he listened to Webster's Plymouth address, says: "Three or four times
I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood, for after all you must
know I am aware it is no connected and compact whole, but a collection of broken
fragments, of burning eloquence to which his manner gave ten fold force. When I
came out I was almost afraid to come near him. It seemed to me that he was like
the mount that might not be touched, and that burned with fire."
Memorial for Daniel Webster