Most Americans know Daniel Webster from grade and high school history texts which praise him, along with Henry Clay, as one of the “giants” of nineteenth century political life and a major defender of the Constitution of 1787 and the American Union. Serious historians would add that his life and achievements were important not only in opposing internal threats to the Union but also in securing the American nation from the greatest external threat of the nineteenth century: the presence of Great Britain in North America. Webster did indeed labor long and hard to convince domestic disunionists that theirs was a course that could only end in disaster, above all for themselves, and to convince both Americans and the British that the United States and Canada could peacefully share the North American continent. It may be difficult for a late twentieth century American to appreciate fully Webster’s work and accomplishments, since Appomattox and an unfortified, “open,” 3,000-mile United States-Canadian border (across which people and trade flow unhampered) are now taken for granted; but Webster’s achievements on behalf of the internal and external security of the Union must be acknowledged as among the most meritorious in American history.
Unfortunately for Webster, but fortunately for historians whose work thrives on complexities, conspiracies, and general corruption, these achievements were not easily or even honestly reached, and his reputation has tarnished considerably during this century. Even before his death in 1852 he had lost the support of the moral and intellectual leadership of New England, a section that he faithfully represented in Washington for a lifetime and from which he undertook three unsuccessful presidential campaigns. Because of his refusal to condemn slavery as an outright evil to be eradicated at any cost, and for his acquiescence in the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, which gave slavery new legitimacy within the union, Webster was condemned as the evilest of men and as one who had failed to live up to his promise. Then, after his death it was discovered that most of his career had been spent living off of other people’s money; and this from an acknowledged expert on fiscal policy. Generally, historians have been forced to conclude that his personal finances and public obligations were a tangle of political favoritism and nepotism, and Bartlett devotes much of his biography to putting this side of Webster’s existence into perspective, emphasizing Webster’s undoubted accomplishments, and explaining his inability to take up the cause of reform as the great war over slavery neared. Still, one is left with the feeling that Webster’s life was lived on the borders of corruption, that he was expedient and self-serving, and that perhaps he really was “Black Dan” after all.
Webster was reared in New Hampshire by a father of strong personality, a veteran of the French and Indian wars and of the Revolution and a strong supporter of George Washington and the Federalist party; his religious training was of the conventional, Calvinistic, New England variety. Thus anchored as a youth in federalist politics and Calvinistic religion, Webster developed a certain conservatism which remained with him throughout his life. As a child he displayed great talents of speech and intellect, on which his later successful political career was built; and his father saw to it that he received a good education. After graduating from Dartmouth College, Webster became a law clerk and reader of the law under one of Boston’s most prominent practitioners, and thus he was...
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