Daniel Webster

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: The greatest orator of his time, Webster, more than any other individual, articulated a near-mystical devotion to the Union which would define Northern patriotism during the Civil War.

Early Life

Daniel Webster was born January 18, 1782, in Salisbury, New Hampshire. His father, Ebenezer, a veteran of the French and Indian War and of the American Revolution, was a tavern keeper, farmer, and local politician. Webster’s mother, Abigail Eastman, was a second wife, who, like her predecessor, bore Ebenezer five children; Daniel was the youngest except for one girl. The teamsters who put up at his father’s tavern nicknamed him “Black Dan” because of his dark complexion, jet-black hair, and black eyes.

Slight of stature for his age, although with an unusually large head, Daniel was often spared the heavier chores which his brothers and sisters shared on the farm. As a boy he cultivated his precocious mind and strongly emotional nature. Books were hard to come by, but he read everything he found and, blessed with almost total recall, remembered what he read. His father, with whom he had a close relationship, hoped Daniel would get the kind of education he had missed, and in May, 1796, enrolled him in the Phillips Academy in Exeter. Tile boy was shy and sensitive about his homespun clothing, clumsy cowhide boots, and awkward manners, but he made “tolerable progress” with his studies. Only in declamation was he unable to match his fellows; at the public exhibitions, despite careful preparation, he could never command sufficient resolution to rise from his seat and present his speeches.

In December, 1796, Webster returned to Salisbury without having completed his course. A brief period of country schoolteaching ended with an arrangement for him to study with a minister in the neighboring community of Boscawen, who had offered to prepare him for Dartmouth College. At Dartmouth, Webster pursued his studies with energy, was graduated near the top of his class, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In contrast to his failure at Exeter, he was outstanding in his college literary society and developed a reputation as a public speaker. While only a junior, he was invited to deliver a Fourth of July address at Hanover.

Following graduation, Webster spent several years in rather desultory preparation for a legal career. He read law with a Salisbury attorney, taught in the academy in Fryeburg, Maine, and finally went to Boston, Massachusetts, in July, 1804, where he was accepted as a clerk in the law office of a leading New England Federalist, Christopher Gore. After completing his studies and being admitted to the bar in March, 1805, he began to practice law in Boscawen, where he could be near his family In September, 1807, his father having died the previous year, Webster moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he remained for nine very happy years. In May, 1808, he married Grace Fletcher, a clergyman’s daughter. In August, 1816, he moved with his wife and two children to Boston, a rising metropolis.

Life’s Work

Webster entered politics as a strict constructionist and an antinationlist. During two terms in the House of Representatives as a Federalist, 1813-1817, Webster opposed the War of 1812. Although he did not advocate secession, he kept up his obstructionist activities in Congress, while the Republican administration grew increasingly desperate. As a spokesman for the dominant merchants and shippers of New England, he vigorously opposed protective tariffs as probably unconstitutional and certainly inexpedient; in later years, as a protectionist, he was hard put to refute himself.

What national reputation Webster enjoyed prior to 1830 was largely derived from his appearances before the United States Supreme Court. He joined with Chief Justice John Marshall in giving a nationalistic, Hamiltonian interpretation to the Constitution. His skillful arguments in the Dartmouth College case (1819), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) brought him recognition as the nation’s leading constitutional lawyer.

In 1822, Webster won the Boston district seat in the House of Representatives. He shortly transcended his early sectionalism to become an outstanding nationalist, favoring a national bank, federal appropriations for internal improvements, and, reflecting New England’s shift from commerce to manufacturing, a protective tariff. He became known as one of the chief exponents of the “cause of humanity” because of his advocacy of American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. In June, 1827, the Massachusetts legislature elected the ex-Federalist...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)