Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” is narrated as a folktale told in the border country of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, regarding the famous American orator Daniel Webster. Like so many folk legends, this one contains some exaggeration and several important lessons.
Jabez Stone is an unlucky New Hampshire farmer who, in a moment of frustration, sells his soul to the devil. His farm prospers, but when the devil returns near the end of the seven-year contract, Stone sees the soul of his neighbor Miser Stevens in the devil’s pocket, and his dread grows. Although the devil grants him a three-year extension on his contract, the time weighs on Jabez Stone and, in desperation, he goes to see Daniel Webster, who was born near Stone’s farm but who now lives and practices law in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Webster says that he has not argued such a “mortgage case” in some time, but he agrees to take it. The two return to New Hampshire to await the arrival of the devil, who comes at midnight to claim his property.
The heart of the story is the debate between the devil and Daniel Webster. At the beginning, it looks as if Daniel Webster has met his match. He argues that no American can be pressed into the service of a “foreign prince,” but the devil cleverly demonstrates that he has a long American history: “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck.” Not to be outdone, Webster stands on the Constitution and demands a trial for his client, with an American judge and jury. Mr. Scratch agrees—and calls up a cast of pirates, cutthroats, and turncoats from the darker pages of American history, and the dreaded Judge Hawthorne, who presided at the Salem witch trials.
The trial that night does not go well for Webster, and his opposition nearly tricks him into getting angry and thereby falling into their power: “For it was him they’d come for, not only Jabez Stone.” Thus, in his closing argument, Daniel Webster starts off in a low voice “talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.” He talks about freedom and slavery and the early days of the republic.It wasn’t a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.
His speech thus redeems, not only Jabez Stone and himself, but the jury of renegades as well.And his words came back at the end to New Hampshire ground, and the one spot of land that each man loves and clings to. He painted a picture of that, and to each one of that jury he spoke of things long forgotten. For his voice could search the heart, and that was his gift and his strength.
The jury finds for the defendant, and Daniel Webster wins his toughest case.
However, Webster is not done. He forces Mr. Scratch to draw up a document promising never to bother Jabez Stone or his heirs, “nor any other New Hampshireman till doomsday!” The devil tells Webster’s fortune and predicts, correctly, that he will never become president (his secret ambition), that his two sons will die in the Civil War, but that the Union will be saved, thanks in part to Daniel Webster’s speeches. Finally, Webster boots the devil out the door.But they say that whenever the devil comes near Marshfield, even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn’t been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this. I’m not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont.
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