Son of Ebenezer Webster and Abigail Eastman, Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire on January 18, 1782. Along with his nine siblings, Daniel grew up on a small farm and attended Phillips Exeter Academy. Following completion of his studies at Phillips, he enrolled in Dartmouth College. A Phi Beta Kappa at graduation, Webster read law under the direction of Salisbury attorney Thomas W. Thompson. He later left Attorney Thompson’s office when older brother Ezekiel needed his help and became a schoolteacher. In 1802, Webster became the headmaster of Fryeburg Academy in Maine and served one year, then returned to Attorney Thompson’s office.
Webster left New Hampshire for Boston in 1804 where he clerked for prominent attorney Christopher Gore. Attorney Gore’s practice involved politics on all levels – state, national and international. This exposed Webster to a great many legal and political subjects, in addition to allowing him to meet many of New England’s politicians. In 1805, Webster was admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
Following his acceptance to the bar, Webster returned to New Hampshire and established a practice in Boscawen in an effort to remain close to his ailing father, a fervent Federalist. Coupling his father’s views with Dartmouth’s Federalist-leaning faculty, the young Webster grew up supporting Federalism in the manner of many New Englanders, along with its candidates. Ebenezer Webster died in 1806. Daniel now turned over the law practice he had established to Ezekiel, who had since passed the bar, and moved to Portsmouth in 1807.
At the time of Webster’s move to Portsmouth, the Napoleonic Wars began and Britain now began to take young American men by force into its Navy. In retaliation to Britain’s behavior, President Thomas Jefferson retaliated through use of the Embargo Act of 1807. This stopped all trade with both France and England. New Englanders were not overly thrilled with Jefferson’s actions, due in part to the fact they relied on commerce with both nations. Referring to the Embargo Act as “peaceable coercion,” Webster penned a pamphlet anonymously attacking it.
In time, the flare-up with England spiraled into the War of 1812. At this time, Webster presented a speech to the Washington Benevolent Society. This address would later prove to play a critical role in his budding career. The text of his address was used to condemn both the war and the violation created on the shipping rights of New England. It also denounced in a very strong manner the extremism shown by radical New Englanders who now began to call for the region to secede from the Union.
In 1812, Daniel Webster was appointed to the Rockingham Convention, in no small part due to the speech he delivered to the Benevolent Society. The Rockingham Convention was an assembly seeking to inform President James Madison of New Hampshire’s grievances with both himself and the federal government. Webster was appointed to the drafting committee and selected to write the Rockingham Memorial, scheduled to be sent to President Madison. The document alluded to the possibility of secession by stating, “If a separation of the states shall ever take place, it will be, on some occasion, when one portion of the country undertakes to control, to regulate, and to sacrifice the interests of another.”
The efforts Webster put forth regarding shipping interests and New England Federalism, in addition to his opposition to war, won for him a seat in the House of Representatives during 1812’s election, where he would serve two terms. An outspoken critic of President Madison and his wartime policies, and opposed Secretary of War James Monroe’s proposal of conscription (draft) service. In his second term, he supported reestablishing a stable national bank and opposed the Tariff of 1816, due to believing the tariff’s reason for existing to be, “great object was to raise revenue, not to foster manufacture,” thereby contradicting “the true spirit of the Constitution.” At the close of his second term, Webster declined the offer to run for a third and returned to his law practice. He now moved with his wife, Grace Fletcher, whom he married in 1808, and their four children to Boston in an effort to further his legal career.
As his legal career progressed, Webster achieved the notoriety of being one of his generation’s leading constitutional scholars. It is also felt he welded more influence on the powerful Marshall Court than another other advocate. Webster argued 223 cased before the Supreme Court and won half of them. Of these, eight were highly celebrated constitution cases which were heard by the Court between 1801 and 1824. The Court’s decision on two of them – Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), was decided largely on the arguments Webster presented. A number of Chief Justice Marshall’s decisions were patterned after briefs Webster presented. In addition, Webster helped the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. His efforts won him the title “Great Expounder of the Constitution.”
Webster returned to his alma mater, Dartmouth College, in 1816, where he was retained as legal counsel to represent the Federalist trustees in a case against New Hampshire’s newly elected Democratic-Republican state legislature. New laws had been passed by the legislature in an effort to convert Dartmouth into a state institution. Their argument for doing so was the fact the legislature was now the sovereignty successor to King George III, the one who chartered Dartmouth, and as such, it was within their right to revise the school’s charter. The case went before the Supreme Court, with Webster at the helm. He invoked Article I, Section 10 of the US Constitution, referred to as the “Contract Clause,” against New Hampshire. The Marshall Court was known for having a history of limiting states’ rights and this case became one more it added to that collection. The Court ruled in favor of Webster and Dartmouth 3 to 1. The basis of their decision was that corporations were not required to act in the public interest due to being independent of the states.
Daniel Webster’s New England speaking engagements continued while he served his terms as a Representative. One of his most noted orations was presented in 1825 during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the celebration, Lafayette put in place the cornerstone for the new monument and offered his eulogies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. His celebrity as an orator, combined with a coalition of both Republicans and Federalists, and his work in the House, Webster was elected to the Senate in June 1827where he filled one of the seats for Massachusetts.
In January of the following year, Webster’s first wife, Grace, passed away. He remained single for almost two years, then married Caroline LeRoy in December 1829. Following his return to the Senate from Grace’s funeral in March 1828, he discovered the senators were debating a new tariff bill in an effort to increase duties on foreign goods. This increase came on top of two previous increases, one in 1816 and the other in 1824, both of which Webster opposed. This time, however, Webster supported the tariff increase. His reason for doing so was due to the fact the two prior times New England opposed tariff increases, the rest of the nation turned a deaf ear to the region’s reasoning. Thus, “nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others.” Justus D. Doenecke countered Webster’s remark by stating his change of heart was not due to a desire to “conform to the will of others,” but instead “his new closeness to the rising mill-owning families of the region . . .”
During the presidential election of 1836, Webster became one of four candidates from the Whig Party; however, his only support came from Massachusetts. He would make three attempts to obtain the coveted office; however, all three proved unsuccessful. In 1839 the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison as their candidate and Harrison tapped Webster as his vice president. Webster declined the post, and likely regretted his decision a short time later. President Harrison died one month after his inauguration, which would have made Webster the president had he accepted Harrison’s offer.
Instead of Vice President and then President, Webster instead filled the post of Secretary of State in 1841 in Harrison’s cabinet. When President John Tyler took over following the death of Harrison, he retained Webster in the appointed post. A dispute in September 1841 between Tyler and the Whigs in his cabinet over a question regarding the National Bank, caused all but one of the Whigs to resign. Webster was the only one who did not, due to the fact he was in Europe at the time. Webster was serving as architect of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty which resolved the Caroline Affair and established the eastern border between New Brunswick, Canada and the US state of Maine. The treaty also produced a definite and lasting peace between the United States and Britain. When he returned to Washington, Webster succumbed to pressure placed on him by the Whigs to resign and he left Tyler’s cabinet in May 1843. He did, however, return to the post as Secretary of State during President Millard Fillmore’s administration.
Following Webster’s failed attempt o win the presidency during the election of 1852, he returned home to Marshfield Massachusetts and his wife Caroline. On October 24, 1852, Webster went riding and fell from his horse. In the process, he received a crushing blow to the head, which coupled with cirrhosis of the liver, created a cerebral hemorrhage. He died later that day. One can only wonder if there was a touch of the prophet somewhere within Webster, due to events of the prior day. Peter Harvey, Webster’s best friend, had come to visit and while there, questioned Webster’s health situation, stated he looked like he was suffering. Webster told Harvey, “Be faithful friend; I shall be dead tomorrow.”
The last words Webster spoke were, “I still live.” In some respects, that statement is very true. Historians reflect on the fact Webster’s noted orations taught American history to the country’s population prior to the availability of textbooks to most of them. In his book, Profiles in Courage, President John F. Kennedy spoke of Webster’s defense of the Compromise of 1850. Knowing the risk it would be to the presidential ambitions he still harbored, Webster’s defense of the compromise was seen by Kennedy as one of the “greatest acts of courageous principle” of anyone in the history of the Senate.
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When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic… not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart,— Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable! Daniel Webster
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