The Devil and Daniel Webster Summary
by Stephen Vincent Benét

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The Devil and Daniel Webster Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)