The Life of Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster was born on January 18th, 1782 in Salisbury, New Hampshire. His father had led the local militia during the War for Independence, and had ten children. Daniel attended Darthmouth College, and after his graduation was apprenticed to a local lawyer. At the age of 22, he moved to Boston and worked for Christopher Gore, a prominent Massachusetts lawyer, who had helped negotiate the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. In 1808 Webster married Grace Fletcher, and had four children before her death in 1828. Daniel Webster gained prominence by his opposition to the War of 1812, giving a speech and writing pamphlets against it. New England opposed the war because its commercial interests were hurt by the trade embargo against England and France. Ultimately, he was elected to the Rockingham Convention, which sent the Rockingham Memorial to President James Madison, declaring its opposition to the ongoing war. Webster’s contributions to the debate led to his election to the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts in 1812. In the House, he continued to oppose the war, as well as the paper money that Madison used to fund it. He was against the protective tariff of the American System authored by Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House, saying it was against the true spirit of the Constitution.
Daniel Webster came into national prominence through his work as a Constitutional lawyer. In the first quarter of the 19th century, he argued 223 cases before the Supreme Court, and often the justices would base their decisions on his arguments. He was involved in eight of the leading cases of the time. He became a leading statesman and many people called him the “Great Expounder of the Constitution.” He played a major role at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820, where he argued unsuccessfully that voting should be tied to property. He became famous throughout New England and the nation as an orator, giving famous speeches on the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
In 1822 Webster was re-elected to the United States House, and in 1827 moved on to the Senate. When the issue of the tariff was brought up again in 1828, he changed his position from what he had previously argued. Now he was much more supportive of the protective tariff and Clay’s American System. When the tariff passed, South Carolina objected strongly. They began talking of nullification, where a state, if it believes a Federal bill to be unconstitutional, can pass a bill rendering a Federal law null and void. At that point, Webster reversed another position he had held years before. Now he was much less supportive of state’s rights than he had been during the War of 1812. At the time, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the leading intellectual of the nullification movement, was Vice President of the United States and, as the head of the Senate, could not address the body. Instead Robert Hayne, Senator from South Carolina, engaged Webster in a famous multi-day debate in January, 1830. Webster ended his Second Reply to Hayne by saying:
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… not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all 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 true American heart,— Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!1
Webster supported the sending of troops to South Carolina when nullification was enacted, and was wary of the compromise that Henry Clay worked out in 1833 which ended the crisis.
Daniel Webster joined Clay in opposing Andrew Jackson’s attempt to shut down the National Bank, of which Webster was the legal counsel and director of the Boston Branch. In 1836 Webster ran for the nomination of the Whig Party, but was unsuccessful in gaining national support. In 1839 he was offered the opportunity to run for Vice President under William Henry Harrison, but he declined and John Tyler of Virginia was chosen instead. Instead, he was appointed Secretary of State in 1840, and continued in that role under John Tyler when he became president after Harrison’s death. Tyler was an unpopular president in most of the country, opposing Clay’s economic plans and supporting state’s rights. Neither political party supported Tyler, and the Whigs began impeachment proceedings against him based on their view that vetoing bills on policy rather than constitutionality was unconstitutional. Webster, along with all the other Whig’s in Tyler’s cabinet, resigned in protest of the president’s actions.
Webster was re-elected to the Senate in 1845, and, like Clay, opposed the annexation of Texas and Mexican War as it would reopen the issue of slavery. In 1848, he again sought the presidential nomination of the Whig party and once again failed to receive it. He was offered to run as vice president under Zachary Taylor, but he refused again as he had done with Harrison. Taylor, like Harrison, died soon after being elected. Ironically, Webster had twice been offered the opportunity to become vice president and twice he refused, although both times he would have eventually become president through the death of his running mate.
Compromise of 1850
Webster joined with Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas in pushing for the Compromise of 1850, in an effort to prevent a Civil War which they saw looming in the distance. He gave one of the most famous speeches of his career on March 7th, 1850 which he began by saying:
I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States …. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. ‘Hear me for my cause.’2
Webster’s support for the Compromise, which included a more strict fugitive slave law, greatly angered the abolitionists of Massachusetts, his home state. Theodore Parker said that “no living man has done so much to debauch the conscience of the nation; to debauch the press, the pulpit, the forum, the bar!”3 Webster resigned from the Senate in 1850, and accepted the position of Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore. In that position, he strove to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which made him unpopular in the north and ensured that he did not receive the presidential nomination of 1852.
Even if he had been nominated in 1852, Webster would not have gotten a chance to be elected. He fell from his horse and suffered a wound to his head, which resulted in a hemorrhage and his eventual death on October 24th, 1852. One of Webster’s greatest failings was his poor mangement of money. He maintained a constant debt, which he accrued through land speculation, living beyond his means, and gambling. He often needed friends to provide money to pay his obligations. Daniel Webster is remembered today for his work to preserve the Union.
1. Personal Memorials of Daniel Webster including a Sketch of his Public Life and the Particulars of his Death by Charles Lanman (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co, 1852) p. 52.
2. Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster upon the subject of Slavery; Delivered in the United States Senate on Thursday, March 7, 1850 by Daniel Webster (Boston: Redding & Company, 1850) p. 3.
3. The Collected Works of Theodore Parker edt. Frances Power Cobbe (London: Trubner & Co, 1865) vol. 12 p. 98.