"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, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, — LIBERTY and UNION, NOW AND FOREVER, ONE AND INSEPARABLE!"
Webster was the outstanding spokesman for American nationalism with powerful oratory that made him a key Whig leader. He spoke for conservatives, and led the opposition to Democrat Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party.
Taken from "The Great American Book of Biography," by Hamilton W. Mabie, et al. (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896).
IN THE HALL of the United States Senate, on January 26, 1830, occurred one of the most memorable scenes in the annals of Congress. It was then that Daniel Webster made his famous "Reply to Hayne," — that renowned speech which has been declared the greatest oration ever made in Congress, and which, in its far-reaching effect upon the public mind, did so much to shape the future destiny of the American Union. That speech was Webster's crowning work, and the event of his life by which he will be best known to posterity.
Nothing in our history is more striking than the contrast between the Union of the time of Washington and the Union of the time of Lincoln. It was not merely that in the intervening seventy-two years the republic had grown great and powerful; it was that the popular sentiment toward the Union was transformed. The old feeling of distrust and jealousy had given place to a passionate attachment. A weak league of States had become a strong nation; and when in 1861 it was attacked, millions of men were ready to fight for its defense.
What brought about this great change? What was it that stirred this larger patriotism, that gave shape and purpose to the growing feeling of national pride and unity? It was in a great degree the work of Daniel Webster. It was he who maintained and advocated the theory that the Federal Constitution created, not a league, but a nation, — that it welded the people into organic union, supreme and perpetual; who set forth in splendid completeness the picture of a great nation, inseparably united, commanding the first allegiance and loyalty of every citizen; and who so fostered and strengthened the sentiment of union that when the great struggle came, it had grown too strong to be overthrown.
Daniel Webster was born in the year 1782. His father was one of the brave men who fought at Lexington; and like most of the patriots of that day, had a large family to support and educate on his rocky New Hampshire farm. Daniel was the youngest of ten children, and, like the rest, was early put to work. He was intensely fond of books. When at work in his father's saw-mill, he would set a log, and while the saw was going through it, would devour a book. His talents as a reader were known in the neighborhood. and the passing teamsters, while they watered their horses, delighted to get "Webster's boy," with his delicate look and great dark eyes, to come out beneath the shade of the trees and read the Bible to them with all the force of his childish eloquence.
Daniel Webster had surpassing abilities in three great spheres, — those of the lawyer, the orator, and the statesman. As a lawyer his most famous arguments are those in the Dartmouth College case, the White murder case, and the "steamboat case," as it was called. A part of his speech in the murder case is still printed in school readers, and declaimed on examination days. The Dartmouth College case is one of the most famous in American litigation. While very intricate, it may be generally described as a suit to annul the charter of the college on the ground that it had failed to carry out the purposes expressed in the will of its founder. After trial in the State courts, it was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, before which Mr. Webster made his great argument in 1818. Mr. C. A. Goodrich, who was present, has given the following description of the scene:
"The Supreme Court of the United States held its session, that winter, in a mean apartment of moderate size — the Capitol not having been built after its destruction in 1814. The audience, when the case came on, was therefore small, consisting chiefly of legal men, the elite of the profession throughout the country. Mr. Webster entered upon his argument in the calm tone of easy and dignified conversation. His matter was so completely at his command that he scarcely looked at his brief, but went on for more than four hours with a statement so luminous and a chain of reasoning so easy to be understood, and yet approaching so nearly to absolute demonstration, that he seemed to carry with him every man in his audience, without the slightest effort or weariness on either side. It was hardly eloquence, in the strict sense of the term; it was pure reason. Now and then, for a sentence or two, his eye flashed and his voice swelled into a bolder note, as he uttered some emphatic thought; but he instantly fell back into the tone of earnest conversation, which ran throughout the great body of his speech.
"A single circumstance will show the clearness and absorbing power of his argument. I had observed that Judge Story, at the opening of the case, had prepared himself, pen in hand, as if to take copious minutes. Hour after hour I saw him fixed in the same attitude, but, so far as I could perceive, with not a note on his paper. The argument closed, and I could not discover that he had taken a single note. Others around me remarked the same thing; and it was among the stories told in Washington that a friend spoke to him of the fact with surprise, when the judge remarked: 'Everything was so clear, and so easy to remember, that not a note seemed necessary, and, in fact, I thought little or nothing about my notes.'
"The argument ended. Mr. Webster stood for some moments silent before the court, while every eye was fixed intently upon him. At length, addressing the Chief Justice, Marshall, he proceeded thus:
" 'This, sir, is my case! It is the case, not merely of that humble institution, it is the case of every college in our land. It is more. It is the case of every eleemosynary institution throughout our country; of all those great charities founded by the piety of our ancestors to alleviate human misery, and scatter blessings along the pathway of life. It is more! It is, in some sense, the case of every man among us who has property of which he may be stripped; for the question is simply this: Shall our State Legislatures be allowed to take that which is not their own, to turn it from its original use, and apply it to such ends and purposes as they, in their discretion, shall see fit.'
" 'Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out. But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land.'
" 'Sir, I know not how others feel' (glancing at the opponents of the college before him), 'but, for myself, when I see my Alma Mater surrounded, like Caesar in the senate-house, by those who are reiterating stab upon stab, I would not, for this right hand, have her turn to me and say, "Et tu quoque mu fili! And thou too, my son!" ' "
Beyond all doubt, Mr. Webster's greatest and most renowned oratorical effort was his speech in reply to Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina delivered in the Senate on the 26th of January, 1830. "There was, says Edward Everett "a very great excitement in Washington, growing out of the controversies of the day, and the action of the South; and party spirit ran uncommonly high. There seemed to be a preconcerted action on the part of the Southern members to break down the Northern men, and to destroy their force and influence by a premeditated onslaught.
"Mr Hayne's speech was an eloquent one, as all know who ever read it. He was considered the foremost Southerner in debate, except Calhoun, who was Vice-President and could not enter the arena. Mr. Hayne was the champion of the Southern side. Those who heard his speech felt much alarm, for two reasons; first on account of its eloquence and power, and second, because ot its many personalities. It was thought by many who heard it, and by some of Mr. Webster's personal friends, that it was impossible for him to answer the speech.
" 'I shared a little myself in that fear and apprehension,' said Mr. Everett. 'I knew from what I heard concerning General Hayne's speech that it was a very masterly effort, and delivered with a great deal of power and with an air of triumph. I was engaged on that day in a committee of which I was chairman, and could not be present in the Senate. But immediately after the adjournment, I hastened to Mr. Webster's house, with, I admit, some little trepidation, not knowing how I should find him. But I was quite reassured in a moment after seeing Mr. Webster, and observing his entire calmness. He seemed to be as much at his ease and as unmoved as I ever saw him. Indeed, at first I was a little afraid from this that he was not quite aware of the magnitude of the contest. I said at once :
" 'Mr. Hayne has made a speech?'
" 'Yes, he has made a speech.'
" 'You reply in the morning?'
" 'Yes,' said Mr. Webster, ' I do not propose to let the case go by default, and without saying a word.'
" 'Did you take notes, Mr. Webster, of Mr. Hayne's speech.'
"Mr. Webster took from his vest pocket a piece of paper about as big as the palm of his hand, and replied, 'I have it all: that is his speech.'
"On the morning of the memorable day," writes Mr. Lodge, "the Senate chamber was packed by an eager and excited crowd. Every seat on the floor and in the galleries was occupied, and all the available standing-room was filled. The protracted debate, conducted with so much ability on both sides, had excited the attention of the whole country, and had given time for the arrival of hundreds, of interested spectators from all parts of the Union, and especially from New England.
"In the midst of the hush of expectation, in that dead silence which is so peculiarly oppressive because it is possible only when many human beings are gathered together, Mr. Webster arose. His personal grandeur and his majestic calm thrilled all who looked upon him. With perfect quietness, unaffected apparently by the atmosphere of intense feeling about him, he said, in a low, even tone:
" 'Mr. President: When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence; and, before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may, at least, be able to conjecture where we are now. I ask for the reading of the resolution before the Senate.'
"This opening sentence was a piece of consummate art. The simple and appropriate image, the low voice, the calm manner, relieved the strained excitement of the audience, which might have ended by disconcerting the speaker if it had been maintained. Every one was now at his ease; and when the monotonous reading of the resolution ceased, Mr. Webster was master of the situation, and had his listeners in complete control.
" ‘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 dis-severed, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance behold rather the glorious ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured; bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as, What is all this worth? or 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, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, — LIBERTY and UNION, NOW AND FOREVER, ONE AND INSEPARABLE!’ "
As the last words died away into silence, those who had listened looked wonderingly at each other, dimly conscious that they had heard one of the grand speeches which are landmarks in the history of eloquence; and the men of the North and of New England went forth full of the pride of victory, for their champion had triumphed, and no assurance was needed to prove to the world that this time no answer could be made.
Later, in 1850, the contest over slavery had become so fierce that it threatened to break up the Union. The advocates of slavery were bent upon its extension, while its opponents wished to restrict it to the States where it already existed.
Webster was always opposed to slavery; but in the crisis of 1850, he thought that all other measures should be subordinate to the preservation of the Union. No one had done more than he to strengthen and perpetuate the Union; but it was his conviction that it would be destroyed if the struggle over slavery came to an issue at that time. Every year the attachment of the people to the Union was growing stronger. Every year the free States were gaining upon the slave States in strength, population, and power. If the contest over slavery could be averted, or even postponed, slavery would decline and ultimately die out, and the Union be preserved; while if the conflict were precipitated, the Union would be destroyed, and slavery perpetuated. Accordingly, he gave his support to the Compromise measures; and on the 7th of March, 1850, he made in advocacy of them the most famous speech of his life, before a great audience, hushed to death-like stillness, in the Senate chamber.
"Mr. President," Mr. Webster began, "I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States, — a body to which the country looks, with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels. It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions of government. The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the West, the North, and the stormy South, all combine to throw the whole ocean into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and disclose its profoundest depths. . .I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear, or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. 'Hear me for my cause.' I speak today out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all."
The Compromise measures before the Senate included two provisions which were particularly odious to the North, — one for the extension of slavery to the territory purchased from Mexico; the other for a more stringent law for the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Webster in his speech advocated the acceptance of these provisions as part of the Compromise, and in doing so gave great offense to many supporters in the North, who had looked upon him as a steady opponent of slavery, who would never yield an inch to its exactions. In his speech Webster maintained that the constitution recognized the right of the master to the return of his escaped slave, and that its obligations could not be evaded without a violation of good faith. As to the territories, he argued that slavery was already by nature excluded from New Mexico, which was not adapted to the products of slave labor, and that to "re-enact a law of God," by formally excluding it, was a needless irritation to the South.
Although he supported his position with great force, his speech was nevertheless regarded by anti-slavery men in the North as a surrender to the slave power, made with a view to securing support in the South as a candidate for the Presidency. He was denounced as recreant to the cause of freedom, and accused of having sold himself to the South. These charges did much to embitter the last years of his life; but he firmly adhered to his course, supported the Compromise measure in Congress, and made a number of speeches in its favor throughout the North. After his death there was a gradual reaction, and many who had condemned him came to admit that his course, whether wise or not, was at least guided by pure and patriotic motives. In July, 1S50, while the great Compromise was still before Congress, Webster was appointed by President Fillmore Secretary of State, which office he held until his death.
In May, 1852, while driving near his Marshfield home, Mr. Webster was thrown from the carriage and seriously injured. Although he recovered sufficiently to visit Washington afterward, he never regained his health, and a few months later, in the autumn of 1852, he died at Marshfield. His death and burial were scenes of sublime pathos. In his last hours he manifested a strong desire to be conscious of the actual approach of death, and his last words were, "I still live." An immense concourse gathered at his funeral. It was a clear, beautiful autumn day, and his body was brought from the house and placed on the lawn, under the blue sky, where for several hours a stream of people of every class moved past, to gaze for the last time upon his majestic features. One, a plain farmer, was heard to say in a low voice, as he turned away, "Daniel Webster, without you the world will seem lonesome."