Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was a leading American politician who is famous for his oratory, his legal and diplomatic skills, and his efforts to prevent the Civil War in the name of American nationalism. In an era that appreciated long complex speeches, Webster was acclaimed the greatest of all orators. He was one of the nation's most prominent Whigs, an opponent of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, and a spokesman for modernization and the industrial interests of New England. During his forty years in national politics Webster served in the House of Representatives for ten years (representing New Hampshire), in the Senate for nineteen years (representing Massachusetts), and as Secretary of State for three presidents.
Early life and career
He was born on January 18, 1782 in Salisbury, New Hampshire, the ninth of the ten children of Ebenezer Webster, a prominent local politician. Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801. After teaching school in Maine for a short time, he studied law with the noted politician Christopher Gore in Boston, where he was admitted to the bar in 1805. Webster practiced law briefly in Boscawen, N.H., and then (1807-1816) in Portsmouth, N.H. He became a spokesman for merchants and shipowners who objected to the Embargo of 1807, the Nonintercourse Acts, and other commercial restrictions imposed by the federal government under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
During this period, Webster was an advocate of states' rights, and suggested that New Hampshire might "interpose" to protect its citizens from unconstitutional measures of the federal government. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New Hampshire as a Federalist in 1812 and 1814. As a congressman, he criticized the war with England and opposed conscription and other measures for carrying it on, but he did not support the Hartford Convention of 1814 as more extreme Federalists did.
After the war, Webster moved to Boston and, as attorney for the rising corporations located there, soon rose to be one of the best known and most highly paid lawyers of his time. Appearing frequently before the U.S. Supreme Court, he abandoned his former states-rights views. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 122 (1819), he strengthened corporate privileges by successfully arguing that a corporation charter was a contract which no state could infringe. In McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316 (1819), he successfully maintained that states could not constitutionally tax a federal agency, for, as he said, the power to tax involved a "power to destroy." As a delegate to the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820 and in an address at Plymouth celebrating the bicentennial of the landing of the Pilgrims, he expounded a philosophy centering on the proposition that, in the absence of military force, political power must be distributed among the people more or less in proportion to the ownership of property.
Again elected (from Massachusetts this time) he served in the House (1823-1827) and in the U.S. Senate (1827-1841) as a Whig. Webster wanted the national government to speed up modernization through a high ("protective") tariff, a national bank, and transportation improvements. Earlier, he had opposed the Tariff of 1816, but with the rise of the textile industry in New England he gradually changed his position.
By this time, Webster was becoming stronger in his nationalism. In 1828 he supported the "tariff of abominations," as it was called by antiprotectionists. In the Webster-Hayne debate of January 1830 Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina expounded the nullification doctrine, which John C. Calhoun had adopted as a way of safeguarding the interests of the planter class. Webster upheld the powers of the federal government, concluding with the words: "Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!" He approved the use of the national army when (1832-1833) South Carolina attempted to nullify the tariff laws.
Webster opposed Andrew Jackson on the central issue of the day, the Second Bank of the United States. Webster wanted to prolong national authority over the monetary economy but failed to prolong the federal charter for the bank, which expired in 1836. It was known and accepted at the time that he received a retainer from the bank for his political services to it. Along with his perennial Whig rival, Henry Clay, he became a leader of the new Whig Party and in 1836 was one of its regional candidates for the presidency; he carried only his own state of Massachusetts.
Webster believed in a peace policy, and strongly opposed both the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War, which were deeply unpopular in New England. As a Federalist and disciple of George Washington, Webster opposed the invasion of Canada in 1812. Although he never advocated rebellion and did not support the Hartford Convention of 1814, Webster's strong opposition to the war enabled his opponents to question his loyalty for many years and undercut his presidential prospects.
Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842
Webster was appointed secretary of state under presidents William Henry Harrison (who only lasted thirty days) and John Tyler (1841-1843). Tyler, an Anti-Jackson Democrat, when he upheld other aspects of the Democratic Party (low tariff, local rule) broke with the Whig Party and was disowned by it. Webster remained in Tyler's cabinet until May 1843 at the cost of his own standing in the Whig party in order to advance the larger national interest as well the cause of peace. Always an admirer of Britain, and lionized on his visit there in 1839, he considered good Anglo-American relations as desirable for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Great Britain sent a special negotiator, Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, a banker with many financial and personal ties to America. The two of them overcame petty localisms--such as the lumberjacks and farmers in the border region of Maine and New Brunswick who threatened violence if they did not get their border line. Webster did not ignore them but overcame them by flooding Maine with propaganda to the effect the new treaty was a great bargain. The two diplomats focused on the need to secure amicable relations between the two great powers in the North Atlantic, and they succeeded. They settled all the border issues that had festered for a half century by drawing compromise lines. They could not find a compromise on the Oregon question and dropped that issue. Likewise they settled the nasty legal disputes that had arisen when Canadian rebels used American merchant ships to bring in military supplies to the rebels inside Canada.
The slave trade issue was solved by agreement that the U.S. Navy would cooperate with the Royal Navy to halt the African slave trade, which was illegal in both nations. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty achieved peaceful relations that have lasted since.
Webster rejected the pleas by the independent Republic of Texas that it join the United States, and helped prepare the Cushing mission to China, which concluded the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), opening several Chinese ports to American trade.
Return to the Senate
Following the election of James K. Polk, Webster was picked to again represent Massachusetts in the Senate (1845-1850). He opposed the Mexican American War (1846-1848) and the subsequent annexation of New Mexico and California. He feared that, because of the controversy regarding slavery in the territories, annexation might lead to a disunion threat, as in fact it did.
Secretary of State
After the succession of Millard Fillmore to the presidency in 1850 Webster served a second time as secretary of state. He now devoted himself to the enforcement of the Fugitive-Slave Act and to the enunciation of an assertive nationalism. Expressing sympathy with Louis Kossuth and the Hungarian rebels of 1848-1849, he boasted of American power in the so-called "Hülsemann Note" to the Austrian government.
Webster opposed the expansion of slavery primarily because it threatened national unity. In his Seventh of March speech (1850) he spoke powerfully in favor of Clay's compromise proposals, though the strong fugitive-slave law was deeply unpopular in New England. He was bitterly, and perhaps unfairly, denounced by abolitionists.
Webster made many famous speeches, including the presentation to the Supreme Court in the Dartmouth College case, the Plymouth Speech (1820, where he interpreted the sweep of American history), the Second Reply to Hayne (1830, where Webster emphasized the indissoluble nature of the government), and the Seventh of March speech during the debates on the Compromise of 1850, where he cried out for compromise and reconciliation to preserve the Union. In every case the theme was the links between past, present, and future, especially the roles of republicanism and civic virtue with nationalism a sacred cause that should override all other concerns.
Webster, in his speech at the "Mass Meeting at Saratoga," makes a similarly consensual plea for the establishment of a common currency throughout the U.S., and uses the analogy of the circulation of currency through the nation and the circulation of blood through the body in order to represent the interdependency between the idea of Union and its material, particular manifestations.
In 1840 Webster spoke at Saratoga, New York, to rebut Andrew Jackson's attack on the Second Bank of the US as a danger to the nation. Webster insisted there must be some form of abstract assurance for the nation's economic continuity. His argument was not so much a specialist economic analysis but rather a depiction of the national currency as intrinsic and fundamental to the larger question of national unity and sovereignty. The logic of his presentation thus persuades the audience of its details by first getting it to embrace his grand vision of the American Union:
When that fluid in the human system indispensable to life becomes disordered, corrupted, or obstructed in its circulation, not the head or the heart alone suffers; but the whole body--head, heart, and hand, all the members, and all the extremities--is affected with debility, paralysis, numbness, and death. The analogy between the human system and the social and political system is complete; and what the lifeblood is to the former, circulation, money, currency, is to the latter; and if that be disordered or corrupted, paralysis must fall on the system. The original, leading, main cause, then, of all our difficulties and disasters, is the disordered state of the circulation. This is, perhaps, not a perfectly obvious truth; and yet it is one susceptible of easy demonstration. In order to explain this the more readily, I wish to bring your minds to the consideration of the internal condition, and the vast domestic trade, of the United States. Our country is not a small province or canton, but an empire, extending over a large and diversified surface, with a population of various conditions and pursuits. It is in this variety that consists its prosperity; for the different parts become useful one to the other, not by identity, but by difference, of production, and thus each by interchange contributes to the interest of the other. Hence, our internal trade, that which carries on this exchange of the products and industry of the different portions of the United States, is one of our most important interests, I had almost said the most important. Its operations are easy and silent, not always perceptible, but diffusing health and life throughout the system by the intercourse thus promoted, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from State to State. This circuit of trade, in a country of such great extent as ours, demands, more than in any country under heaven, a uniform currency for the whole people; that what is money in Carolina shall be so elsewhere; that what the Kentucky drover receives, what the planter of Alabama sells for, what the laborer in New York gets in pay for his work, and carries home to support his family, shall be of ascertained and uniform value."
Webster was undoubtedly the best constitutional scholar of his generation and probably had more influence on the powerful Marshall Court than any other advocate. Of the 223 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, he won about half of them. But, even more, Webster played a crucial role in eight of the most celebrated constitutional cases decided by the Court between 1801 and 1824. In many of these--particularly in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)--the Supreme Court handed down decisions based largely on Webster's arguments. Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster's briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.
"Godlike Dan" and "Black Dan"
Whether people hated Webster or admired him--there was little middle ground-- everyone agreed on the majesty of his oratory, the immensity of his intellectual powers, and the primacy of his constitutional knowledge. He was the heroic champion of nationalism and modernization.
Although Webster's diplomatic record was good, his 29 years in Congress produced not one significant piece of legislation. Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas were the leaders in legislation, and he never tried to rival them. There is also evidence that Webster took bribes while in public office and sold diplomatic appointments for private gain, both taboos even by 19th standards of probity.
Webster indulged his extravagant tastes (he spent enormous sums on wine, boats, and improvements to his Marshfield estate). A poor money manager, he relied on wealthy friends for indefinite "loans" to sustain his spendthrift lifestyle, a phenomenon that led his enemies to call him "Black Dan." Historians have not found any positions that he adjusted to curry favor with his rich friends, who saw it their duty to see what they considered the greatest man of the era be able to stay in office--they called him "Godlike Dan." "Black Dan" had several mistresses, and drank excessively, but did not dramatically differ from other Senators in these regards.
Webster's "Reply to Hayne" in 1830 was generally regarded as "the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress," and was a stock exercise for oratory students for 75 years.
The historic Daniel Webster farm, known as The Elms, located near Franklin, New Hampshire, was also the site of the New Hampshire Home for Orphans during 1871-1959. Threatened by development in 2004-05, the property was saved by last-minute efforts by the Webster Farm Preservation Association working with the Trust for Public Land.
See the Bibliography subpage for a much longer guide
- Bartlett, Irving H. Daniel Webster (1978) online edition
- Bartlett, Irving H. "Daniel Webster as a Symbolic Hero. New England Quarterly 45 (December 1972): 484-507. in JSTOR
- Baxter, Maurice G. "Webster, Daniel"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. online edition at academic libraries
- Brown, Thomas. "Daniel Webster: Conservative Whig. In Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party, (1985) pp. 49-92. online edition
- Current, Richard Nelson. Daniel Webster and the Rise of National Conservatism (1955), short biography
- Curtis, George Ticknor. Life of Daniel Webster (1870) online edition vol 1; online edition vol 2
- Peterson, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1983) excerpt and text search
- Remini, Robert V. Daniel Webster (1997), 796pp; the standard scholarly biography and the most important place to start excerpt and text search
- Webster, Daniel. Select Speeches of Daniel Webster 1817-1845 edited by A. J. George, (1903) online at Project Gutenberg
- State Department analysis of Webster-Ashburton Treaty, 1842
- text of The Webster-Ashburton Treaty. August 9, 1842/
- Troubles had arisen in 1837 when Canadian militia burned a U.S. steamship, the Caroline, in U.S. waters because it was used by rebels. Also involved was the 1840 arrest in New York State of a Canadian, Alexander McLeod, accused by New York officials of involvement in the Caroline affair. See Howard Jones and Donald A. Rakestraw, Prologue to Manifest Destiny: Anglo-American Relations in the 1840s (1997). Jones (1977) disproves old unfounded rumors that Webster took bribes from the British.
- Informally Webster and Ashburton also solved two other high profile issues. The Creole was an American ship carrying slaves from one American port to another (which was legal). The slaves revolted and landed in Bermuda, where Britain set them free. Britain agreed to pay damages (which came to $110,330); Britain also agreed to end the impressment of American sailors which had been a casus bellum of the War of 1812.
- See David F. Ericson, "The Nullification Crisis, American Republicanism, and the Force Bill Debate." Journal of Southern History 61 (1995), 249-270. Fulltext in JSTOR]
- Select Speeches of Daniel Webster 1817-1845 (1903)
- Remini (1999) pp 162, 208
- Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union" (1947) 1:288
- Contains: Defence of the Kennistons; The Dartmouth College Case; First Settlement of New England; The Bunker Hill Monument; The Reply to Hayne; The Murder of Captain Joseph White; The Constitution Not a Compact Between Sovereign States; Speech at Saratoga; and Eulogy on Mr. Justice Story