Daniel Webster Biography
WEBSTER, Daniel (1782- 1852). An American statesman, orator, and constitutional lawyer. He was born in Salisbury (now Franklin), N. H., Jan. 18, 1782, the son of Ebenezer Webster, who had been a Revolutionary soldier. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, and then studied law, first at Salisbury and later in the office of Christopher Gore (q.v.) in Boston. In 1805 he was admitted to the New Hampshire bar, from 1807 practicing at Portsmouth, where he soon acquired distinction. Webster was, in 1812, elected by the party opposed to the war with England to a seat in Congress and was reelected in 1814. While a member of the important Committee on Foreign Relations, he spoke ably against the embargo and in favor of strengthening the navy, on the currency, the bank, and the tariff. In 1816 Webster removed to Boston, and for nearly seven years devoted himself to the practice of law. He soon rose to the position of one of the foremost advocates of the country and appeared before the United States Supreme Court in several famous constitutional cases, among them the Dartmouth College Case (q.v.); McCulloch v. Maryland (4 Wheaton 316), in which he argued successfully against the right of a State to tax a branch bank of the United States; and Gibbons v. Ogden (9 Wheaton 1), which established the complete control of Congress over interstate commerce. In 1820 he aided greatly in the revision of the constitution of Massachusetts. In the same year he delivered the oration at Plymouth on the second centennial of the landing of the Pilgrims, in 1825 an oration at the laying of the corner stone of the Bunker Hill Monument, and in 1826 a eulogy on Adams and Jeffersonóthree addresses which established his fame as one of the greatest of orators.
In the meantime, in 1822, Webster had been elected to Congress from the Boston district, and was twice reŽlected by a practically unanimous vote. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee he was instrumental in securing a codification of the criminal jurisprudence of the United States. He made notable speeches on the Greek Revolution and in opposition to the protective tariff measure of 1824. In 1827 he was elected to the United States Senate. He now abandoned his opposition to protective tariffs and became a supporter of the measure of 1828 known as the "tariff of abominations." In 1830 his fame as an orator reached its culmination in his reply to the speech of Robert Y. Hayne (q.v.), Senator from South Carolina, on the nature of the Union and the right of nullification. In this epochmaking oration Webster successfully combated the theory of nullification and ably vindicated the nationalist view of the Union. His argument was later supplemented and reŽnforced in debate with Calhoun (q.v.) on the Force Bill (see Nullification). In the controversy over the renewal of the charter of the United States Bank, Webster advocated renewal and opposed President Jacksonís financial policy in general (see Bank, Banking). Many of the principles of sound finance, developed by his speeches at this time, have been incorporated in the Federal Reserve System (see Reserve Bank, Federal). Upon the organization of the Whig party, Webster became one of its leaders, and in 1836 received the electoral vote of Massachusetts for President. Again in 1840 the Whigs failed to nominate either one or the other of their greatest statesmen, Webster or Clay. They offered Webster the vice presidency but he refused. Upon the election of Harrison, however, Webster was appointed Secretary of State, a position which he retained under Tyler. In this capacity he managed, with tact, the cases growing out of the McLeod and Creole (q.v.) affairs and brought to a successful conclusion the negotiations with Lord Ashburton chiefly for the settlement of the northeast boundary dispute with Great Britain (see Webster-Ashburton Treaty). He now retired from the cabinet, largely on account of President Tyler's break with the Whigs, declined a reŽlection to the Senate, and resumed his law practice in Boston.
In 1844 he was again suggested for the presidency, but his following was small, and in the succeeding year he reŽntered the Senate as the successor of Rufus Choate, in which capacity he opposed the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico. Webster greatly desired the Whig nomination for the presidency in 1848, and was sorely disappointed at the nomination of Taylor, pronouncing it "one not fit to be made." He at first declined to support Taylor's candidacy, but later ably defended the Whig administration. His last years in the Senate were devoted to efforts to preserve the Union and maintain peace between the North and the South by means of compromise. His last great speech and one of the most notable of his life was that delivered in the Senate, March 7, 1850, on the Compromise Measures of 1850, in which he vindicated his own consistency in the matter of the extension of slavery, rebuked the North for violating the Fugitive Slave Law, and advocated concessions to the South. The speech aroused indignation at the North, where it was said that he was truckling to the South in order to gain support in his candidacy for President. Upon the succession of Fillmore to the presidency in 1850, Webster became Secretary of State. During this second tenure of the office he carried on a memorable correspondence with Chevalier HŁlsemann, the Austrian Minister, boldly championing the right of the United States to recognize the new Hungarian Republic and its head, Kossuth (q.v.), and to sympathize with the development of "responsible and popular government in any part of the world." Again in 1852 he was disappointed in not receiving the Whig nomination for the presidency, refused to support the candidacy of General Scott, and took no part in the campaign. He returned to his home at Marshfield, Mass., in September, and there died on October 24.
Hardly in the history of the country has there been a more general expression of sorrow; the mourning can only be compared with that which followed the deaths of Washington and Lincoln. Hallam, the historian, who met Webster when he was in London, thus summarizes his character: "Mr. Webster approaches as nearly to the true ideal of a Republican Senator as any man I have ever seen in the course of my life; worthy of Rome or Venice rather than of our noisy and wrangling generation." In 1903 a collected edition of Webster's works in eighteen volumes was published in Boston as Webster's Writings and Speeches. This contains all the matter originally published in six volumes (1856) with memoir by Edward Everett, his Private Correspondence (ed. by his son Fletcher Webster in 1857), and many speeches and letters collected for the first time.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XXIII (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 429-430.