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EBENEZER WEBSTER, the father of the subject of the present sketch, was an independent and frugal farmer, who enjoyed the confidence and respect of his fellow-citizens, and for some time served them both in a military and civil capacity. During the Seven Years War, he distinguished himself as a soldier in the ranks of Sir Jeffrey Amherst, and General Wolfe; and was present at the battles of Bennington and White Plains, in the war of the Revolution. At the time of his death, in 1806, he had occupied for several years, the position of judge of the Court of Common Pleas, for the county of Rockingham, in New Hampshire. He was twice married. His second wife, the mother of Ezekiel and Daniel Webster, was Abigail Eastman, a woman of Welsh extraction, and “like the mothers of so many men of emir ce, she was a woman of more than ordinary intellect, and possessed a force of character which was felt throughout the humble circle in which she moved. She was proud of her sons and ambitious that they should excel. Her anticipations went beyond the narrow sphere in which their lot seemed to be cast, and the distinction attained by both, and especially by the younger, may well be traced in part to her early promptings and judicious guidance."
Daniel Webster was born in the town of Salisbury, New Hampshire, on the eighteenth day of January, 1782. His early opportunities for education were exceedingly limited. The village school, kept during the few months of winter, by persons illy qualified for the task, was the scene of his youthful instruction, and thither he daily went, on foot, trusting for all occaional ride with the miller or the blacksmith, whose course lay in the same direction with his own. These advantages Mr. Webster enjoyed much more than his older brothers; partly because he evinced a greater desire for learning, and partly because his father thought he was of too frail a constitution for any robust employment. “But Joe, his eldest half brother, who was somewhat of a wag, used to say that ‘Dan was sent to school, in order that he might know as much as the other boys.?” As soon as he was able to read, which must have been when he was very young, for he says, in his letter to Master Tappan, “I have never been able to recollect the time when I could not read the Bible," he manifested an ardent desire for books, and owing to the scarcity of them in the neighborhood of his father's house, he read the old ones over and over, till he had committed most of their contents to memory. Before he was fourteen years of age, he could repeat the whole Essay on Man, and at a subsequent period he committed to memory Watts' Psalms and Hymns.
In the spring of 1796, Mr. Webster left his father's house and went to Exeter, where he entered Phillips Academy, at that time the only institution in the State, with the exception of Dartmouth College, above the rank of a district school. Here he remained only a few months, but during that brief period, receiving the aid and encouragement of the celebrated Joseph Stevens Buckminster, who was a member of the senior class of the Academy, he made rapid advancement in his studies. A singular fact of his connection with this school has been related by Mr. Webster himself. “I believe," says he, “I made tolerable progress in most branches which I attended to while in this school; but there was one thing I could not do. I could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the school. The kind and excellent
Buckminster sought especially to persuade me to perform the exercise of declamation, like other boys, but I could not do it. Many a piece did I commit to memory, and recite and rehearse in my own room, over and over again; yet when the day came, when the school collected to hear declamations, when my name was called, and I saw all eyes turned to my seat, I could not raise myself from it. Sometimes the instructors frowned, sometimes they smiled. Mr. Buckminster always pressed and entreated, most winningly, that I would venture. But I never could command sufficient resolution.” *
At the termination of his studies in Exeter, Mr. Webster returned to Salisbury, and shortly after was placed under the instruction of the Rev. Samuel Woods, in Boscawen, to prepare for College. While with Mr. Woods he applied himself with the greatest zeal to his studies, and "learned all that his preceptor could teach.” He read Virgil and Cicero, and at the same time devoted much of his leisure to reading and the study of general literature. Here, for the first time, he met Don Quixote in English. “I began to read it,” he said, in a conversation with Mr. March, "and it is literally true that I never closed my eyes till I had finished it; nor did I lay it down any time for five minutes; so great was the power of this extraordinary book on my imagination."
In August, 1797, Mr. Webster entered the freshman class of Dartmouth College. Here he de voted himself attentively to the prescribed studies, at the same time spending many of his hours in general reading; especially in English history and literature. He took part in the publication of a college periodical, often contributing original articles to its pages, besides making selections for it from the current books and magazines. During his college life he maintained a high reputation among his classmates for wit and talent. “It is, known,” says Mr. Ticknor, “in many ways, that by those who were acquainted with him at this period of life, he was already regarded as a marked man, and that to the more sagacious of them the honors of his subsequent careor have not been unexpected.” In the intervals of his student life, he was engaged in teaching school, not only for the purpose of providing a means of his own support, but to aid his elder brother, who was at that time preparing to enter college.
Mr. Webster graduated in August, 1801, and immediately commenced the study of law in the office of Mr. Thompson, a neighbor of his father. Here he continued until “ he felt it necessary to go somewhere and do something to earn a little money.” To this end he took charge of an academy at Fryeburg, in Maine. In September, 1802, he returned to his legal studies with Mr. Thompson, where he remained until the spring of 1804. He now went to Boston and obtained admission as a student in the office of Christopher Gore, at that time one of the principal lawyers, and among the most eminent men of the State. With Mr. Gore he remained until his admission to the bar in March, 1805. About this time he received a letter from his father, in which he was informed that the appointment of clerk in the Court of Common Pleas, for the county of Hillsborough, in New Hampshire, had been procured for him, and he was advised to liasten home and take possession of the office. His father considered the appointment as a very favorable position, but Mr. Webster, before deciding to accept it thought it most proper to consult with his preceptor, Mr. Gore. The case being laid before him, that gentleman suggested that should he accept the office, he would probably remain a mere clerk of the court all his life, and advised him to refuse it. He accordingly declined, and soon after opened an office at Boscawen, not far from his father's residence, where he commenced practice. His personal appearance at this period of his life, has been described by one who was present at the trial of one of his first cases, as
a tall, gaunt young man, with rather a thin face, but all the peculiarities of feature and complexion by which he was distinguished in later life. The case alluded to, was concerning the property of a certain sheep, of the value of thirty shillings or thereabouts; and was tried in a long hall, before a justice of the peace, and the assembled idlers of the village. The case was argued at great length, and though Mr. Webster, who had not yet become known, did not seem to attract any great attention, he spoke and reasoned after the same fashion, with the same plainness, point and force, for which he has since been so much celebrated." +
* Reminiscences of Congress, by Charles W. March, page 12. + Sketches of the American Bar. Knickerbocker. May, 1833.
In the spring of .1807, Mr. Webster was admitted to the bar of the Superior Court of New Hampshire, and in the following autumn, relinquishing his practice to his brother Ezekiel, he removed to Portsmouth, and continued there in the practice of his profession during the greater part of nine years. “They were years of assiduous labor, and of unremitted devotion to the study and practice of law.” During this time his practice was an extensive but not a lucrative one. Though his energies were devoted almost exclusively to lis profession, it never afforded him more than a bare livelihood.
From an early period, Mr. Webster evinced a decided inclination for politics. He was a frequent contributor to the newspapers, and occasionally took part in the discussions in the local meetings and conventions, which abounded in New Hampshire during the eventful period preceding the war of 1812. About that time he was chosen to represent his native State in the United States House of Representatives, and took his seat at the extra session in May 1813. On the tenth of the following June, he delivered his first speech in Congress, on a series of resolutions, submitted by himself, in relation to the repeal of the Berlin and Milan Decrees. The design of these resolutions was to “elicit information that might throw some light upon the proximate causes of the war, and enable the members best to judge the most proper manner of conducting it.” The speech was not reported, and is only known from the imperfect sketches presented in cotemporaneous periodicals, and from the recollection of those who heard it. Chief Justice Marshall, writing to a friend, some time after its delivery, says, “ At the time when this speech was delivered, I did not know Mr. Webster, but I was so much struck with it that I did not hesitate then to state, that Mr. Webster was a very able man, and would become one of the very first statesmen in America, and perhaps the very first.” This effort attracted great attention, and first made Mr. Webster known throughout the country. His arguments prevailed, and an elaborate report on the subject of the resolutions was presented to the Congress.
During the same session he made several other speeches, the ablest of which were upon the Increase of the Navy, the Repeal of the Embargo, and one, on an appeal from the Chair on a motion for the previous question. Of the two last Mr. Everett says :-"His speeches on these questions raised him to the front rank of debaters. He manifested upon his entrance into public life, that variety of knowledge, familiarity with the history and traditions of the government, and self-possession on the floor, which in most cases are acquired by time and long experience. They gained for him the reputation indicated by the well-known remark of Mr. Lowndes, that “the North had not his equal, nor the South his superior.” In the session of 1814–1815, Mr. Webster delivered a masterly speech on the re-charter of the United States Bank, in which he denounced it as a mere machine for making irredeemable paper. At the adjournment of Congress he returned to New Hampshire and resumed his attendance upon the courts.
In 1817 he established his residence in Boston, and for many years devoted himself almost altogether to his profession. His congressional career had won him a wide spread reputation, and his business increased very rapidly. During the autumn of this year he was engaged in the celebrated Dartmouth College case, and on its removal to the Supreme Court of the United States, in March, 1818, he there appeared and delivered his powerful exposition of constitutional law, which placed him in the front rank of the American bar. It is hardly necessary to refer to his practice from this period. In the Supreme Court of the United States as well as those of the several States, his career was a continual exhibition of the most gigantic powers and consequent successes. A detail of them would far exceed the limits of this sketch.
On the meeting of the Massachusetts convention, in 1820, held for the revision of the State Constitution, Mr. Webster took his seat in that body as a delegate from Boston. This was, perhaps, the ablest and most venerable public body ever assembled in New England; and during its session, Mr. Webster gained high distinction by several powerful speeches on most of the important points which came up for consideration. In the winter of the same year, he pronounced the oration at Plymouth, commemorative of the landing of the Pilgrims.
After serving for a brief period in the Massachusetts legislature, he was chosen to represent the city of Boston in the seventeenth Congress, and took his seat December, 1823. He remained in the House of Representatives antil 1826, at which time he was transferred to the
Senate. Of his speeches, while in the lower House of Congress, that in favor of the Greeks, one on the Congress of Panama, and that on the Tariff, are the most important. In 1825 he delivered the address at the laying of the corner-stone of Bunker Hill monument, and during the summer of the year following he pronounced the eulogy in commemoration of the lives and services of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; one of the most sublime and beautiful specimens of panegyrical eloquence in the English language.
Mr. Webster entered the Senate of the United States in January, 1828, and continued s member of that assembly until 1841. Of the many oratorical efforts made by him during this portion of his senatorial career, no one has gained more celebrity than the reply to Mr. Hayne, delivered during the debate on the resolution of Mr. Foot. That speech, together with that of Mr. Hayne, will be found among the selections of this work. In the summer of 1839 he visited Europe, where he met with the most distinguished consideration, in all places, and from all classes of citizens. On his return to America, he took an active part in the presidential election of 1840, and, on the elevation of General Harrison to the chief magistracy of the nation, he was called to the head of the State Department, where he remained until 1843. The settlement of the protracted and long disputed question of the northeastern boundary, by the Ashburton treaty, was the prominent feature of his secretaryship. Soon after the adjustment of this question, he resigned his office and returned to Massachusetts, from whence he was elected again to the Senate in 1845. In 1850, on the accession of President Fillmore, he was once more elected to the State Department, in the occupancy of which he died on the twenty-fourth of October, 1852.
Of the numerous tributes to his memory, and estimates of his public character and statesmanship, no one will have more interest to the reader than the following, by his friend and contemporary, Rufus Choate :—It was while Mr. Webster was ascending throngh the long gradations of the legal profession to its highest rank, that by a parallel series of display on a stage, and in parts totally distinct, by other studies, thoughts, and actions, he rose also to be at his death the first of American Statesmen. The last of the mighty rivals was dead before, and he stood alone. Give this aspect also of his greatness a passing glance. His public life began in May, 1813, in the House of Representatives in Congress, to which this State had elected him. It ended when he died. If you except the interval between his removal from New Hampshire and his election in Massachusetts, it was a public life of forty years. By what political morality, and by what enlarged patriotism, embracing the whole country, that life was guided, I shall consider hereafter. Let me now fix your attention rather on the magnitude and variety and actual value of the service. Consider that from the day he went upon the Committee of Foreign Relations, in 1813, in time of war, and more and more, the longer he lived and the higher he rose, he was a man whose great talents and devotion to public duty placed and kept him in a position of associated or sole command; command in the political connection to which he belonged, command in opposition, command in power; and appreciate the responsibilities which that implies, what care, what prudence, what mastery of the whole ground-exacting for the conduct of a party, as Gibbon says of Fox, abilities and civil discretion equal to the conduct of an empire. Consider the work he did in that life of forty years—the range of subjects investigated and discussed ; composing the whole theory and practice of our organic and administrative politics, foreign and domestic: the vast body of instructive thought he produced and put in possession of the country; how much he achieved in Congress as well as at the bar; to fix the true interpretation, as well as to impress the transcendent value of the constitution itself, as much altogether as any jurist or statesman since its adoption; how much to establish in the general mind the great doctrine that the government of the United States is a government proper, established by the people of the States, not a compact between sovereign communities,-that within its limits it is supreme, and that whether it is within its limits or not, in any given exertion of itself, is to be determined by the Supreme Court of the United States—the ultimate arbiter in the last resort-from which there is no appeal but to revolution; how much ho did in the course of the discussions which grew out of the proposed mission to Panama, and, at a later day, out of the removal of the deposits, to place the executive department of the government on
its true basis, and under its true limitations; to secure to that department all its just powers on the one hand, and on the other hand to vindicate to the legislative department, and especially to the Senate, all that belonged to them; to arrest the tendencies which he thought at one time threatened to substitute the government of a single will, of a single person of great force of character and boundless popularity, and of a numerical majority of the people, told by the head, without intermediate institutions of any kind, judicial or senatorial, in place of the elaborate system of checks and balances, by which the constitution aimed at a government of laws, and not of men ; how much, attracting less popular attention, but scarcely less important, to complete the great work which experience had shown to be left unfinished by the judiciary act of 1789, by providing for the punishment of all crimes against the United States; how much for securing a safe currency and a true financial system, not only by the promulgation of sound opinions, but by good specific measures adopted, or bad ones defeated; how much to develope the vast material resources of the country, and push forward the planting of the West—not troubled by any fear of exhausting old States—by a liberal policy of public lands, by vindicating the constitutional power of Congress to make or aid in making large classes of internal improvements, and by acting on that doctrine uniformly from 1813, whenever a road was to be built, or a rapid suppressed, or a canal to be opened, or a breakwater or a lighthouse set up above or below the flow of the de, if so far beyond the ability of a single State, or of so wide utility to commerce or labor as to rise to the rank of a work general in its influences—another tie of union because another proof of the beneficence of urion; how much to protect the vast mechanical and manufacturing interests of the country, a value of many hundreds of millions—after having been lured into existence against his counsels, against his science of political economy, by a policy of artificial encouragement—from being sacrificed, and the pursuits and plans of large regions and communities broken up, and the acquired skill of the country squandered by a sudden and capricious withdrawal of the promise of the government; how much for the right performance of the most delicate and difficult of all tasks, the ordering of the foreign affairs of a nation, free, sensitive, self-conscious, recognising, it is true, public law and a morality of the State, binding on the conscience of the State, yet aspiring to power, eminence, and command, its whole frame filled full and all on fire with American feeling, sympathetic with liberty every where; how much for the right ordering of the foreign affairs of such a state-aiming in all its policy, from his speech on the Greek question in 1823, to his letters to M. Hulsemann in 1850, to occupy the high, plain, yet dizzy ground which separates influence from intervention, to avow and promulgate warm, good will to humanity, wherever striving to be free, to inquire authentically into the history of its struggles, to take official and avowed pains to ascertain the moment when its success may be recognised, consistently, ever, with the great code that keeps the peace of the world, abstaining from every thing which shall give any nation a right under the law of nations to utter one word of complaint, still less to retaliate by war—the sympathy, but also the neutrality, of Washington; how much to compose with honor a concurrence of difficulties with the first power in the world, which any thirg less than the highest degree of discretion, firmness, ability, and means of commanding respect and confidence at home and abroad would inevitably have conducted to the last calamity-a disputed boundary line of many hundred miles, from St. Croix to the Rocky Mountains, which divided an exasperated and impracticable border population, enlisted the pride and affected the interests and controlled the politics of particular States, as well as pressed on the peace and honor of the nation, which the most popular administrations of the era of the quietest and best public feelings, the times of Monroe and of Jackson, could not adjust; which had grown so complicated with other topics of excitement that one false step, right or left, would have been a step down a precipice—this line settled for ever-the claim of England to search our ships for the suppression of the slave-trade silenced for ever, and a new engagement entered into by treaty, binding the national faith to contribute a specific naval force for putting an end to the great crime of man--the long practice of England to enter an American ship and impress from its crew, terminated for ever; the deck henceforth guarded sacredly and completely by the flag; how much, by profound discernment, by eloquent speech, by devoted life to strengthen ies of Union, and breathe the fine and strong spirit of nationality through all our numbers; how