The Story of Daniel Webster
Many years ago there lived in New Hampshire a poor farmer, whose name was Ebenezer Webster.
His little farm was among the hills, not far from the Merrimac River. It was a beautiful place to live in; but the ground was poor, and there were so many rocks that you would wonder how anything could grow among them.
Ebenezer Webster was known far and wide as a brave, wise man. When any of his neighbors were in trouble or in doubt about anything, they always said, "We will ask Captain Webster about it."
They called him Captain because he had fought the French and Indians and had been a brave soldier in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, he was one of the first men in New Hampshire to take up arms for his country.
When he heard that the British were sending soldiers to America to force the people to obey the unjust laws of the King of England, he said, "We must never submit to this."
So he went among his neighbors and persuaded them to sign a pledge to do all that they could to defend the country against the British. Then he raised a company of two hundred men and led them to Boston to join the American army.
The Revolutionary War lasted several years; and during all that time, Captain Webster was known as one of the bravest of the American patriots.
One day, at West Point, he met General Washington. The patriots were in great trouble at that time, for one of their leaders had turned traitor and had gone to help the British. The officers and soldiers were much distressed, for they did not know who might be the next to desert them.
As I have said, Captain Webster met General Washington. The general took the captain's hand, and said: "I believe that I can trust you, Captain Webster."
You may believe that this made Captain Webster feel very happy. When he went back to his humble home among the New Hampshire hills, he was never so proud as when telling his neighbors about this meeting with General Washington.
If you could have seen Captain Ebenezer Webster in those days, you would have looked at him more than once. He was a remarkable man. He was very tall and straight, with dark, glowing eyes, and hair as black as night. His face was kind, but it showed much firmness and decision.
He had never attended school; but he had tried, as well as he could, to educate himself. It was on account of his honesty and good judgment that he was looked up to as the leading man in the neighborhood.
In some way, I do not know how, he had gotten a little knowledge of the law. And at last, because of this as well as because of his sound common sense, he was appointed judge of the court in his county.
This was several years after the war was over. He was now no longer called Captain Webster, but Judge Webster.
It had been very hard for him to make a living for his large family on the stony farm among the hills. But now his office as judge would bring him three hundred or four hundred dollars a year. He had never had so much money in his life.
"Judge Webster," said one of his neighbors, "what are you going to do with the money that you get from your office? Going to build a new house?"
"Well, no," said the judge. "The old house is small, but we have lived in it a long time, and it still does very well."
"Then I suppose you are planning to buy more land?" said the neighbor.
"No, indeed, I have as much land now as I can cultivate. But I will tell you what I am going to do with my money, I am going to try to educate my boys. I would rather do this than have lands and houses."
II.—The Youngest Son
Ebenezer Webster had several sons. But at the time that he was appointed judge there were only two at home. The older ones were grown up and were doing for themselves.
It was of the two at home that he was thinking when he said, "I am going to try to educate my boys."
Of the ten children in the family, the favorite was a black-haired, dark-skinned little fellow called Daniel. He was the youngest of all the boys; but there was one girl who was younger than he.
Daniel Webster was born on the 18th of January, 1782.
He was a puny child, very slender and weak; and the neighbors were fond of telling his mother that he could not live long. Perhaps this was one of the things that caused him to be favored and petted by his parents.
But there were other reasons why every one was attracted by him. There were other reasons why his brothers and sisters were always ready to do him a service.
He was an affectionate, loving child; and he was wonderfully bright and quick.
He was not strong enough to work on the farm like other boys. He spent much of his time playing in the woods or roaming among the hills.
And when he was not at play he was quite sure to be found in some quiet corner with a book in his hand. He afterwards said of himself: "In those boyish days there were two things that I dearly loved—reading and playing."
He could never tell how or when he had learned to read. Perhaps his mother had taught him when he was but a mere babe.
He was very young when he was first sent to school. The schoolhouse was two or three miles away, but he did not mind the long walk through the woods and over the hills.
It was not a great while until he had learned all that his teacher was able to teach him; for he had a quick understanding, and he remembered everything that he read.
The people of the neighborhood never tired of talking about "Webster's boy," as they called him. All agreed that he was a wonderful child.
Some said that so wonderful a child was sure to die young. Others said that if he lived he would certainly become a very great man.
When the farmers, on their way to market, drove past Judge Webster's house, they were always glad if they could see the delicate boy, with his great dark eyes.
If it was near the hour of noon, they would stop their teams under the shady elms and ask him to come out and read to them. Then, while their horses rested and ate, they would sit round the boy and listen to his wonderful tones as he read page after page from the Bible.
There were no children's books in those times. Indeed, there were very few books to be had of any kind. But young Daniel Webster found nothing too hard to read.
"I read what I could get to read," he afterwards said; "I went to school when I could, and when not at school, was a farmer's youngest boy, not good for much for want of health and strength, but expected to do something."
One day the man who kept the little store in the village, showed him something that made his heart leap.
It was a cotton handkerchief with the Constitution of the United States printed on one side of it.
In those days people were talking a great deal about the Constitution, for it had just then come into force.
Daniel had never read it. When he saw the handkerchief he could not rest till he had made it his own.
He counted all his pennies, he borrowed a few from his brother Ezekiel. Then he hurried back to the store and bought the wished-for treasure.
In a short time he knew everything in the Constitution, and could repeat whole sections of it from memory. We shall learn that, when he afterwards became one of the great men of this nation, he proved to be the Constitution's wisest friend and ablest defender.
III.—Ezekiel and Daniel
Ezekiel Webster was two years older than his brother Daniel. He was a strong, manly fellow, and was ready at all times to do a kindness to the lad who had not been gifted with so much health and strength.
But he had not Daniel's quickness of mind, and he always looked to his younger brother for advice and instruction.
And so there was much love between the two brothers, each helping the other according to his talents and his ability.
One day they went together to the county fair. Each had a few cents in his pocket for spending-money, and both expected to have a fine time.
When they came home in the evening Daniel seemed very happy, but Ezekiel was silent.
"Well, Daniel," said their mother, "what did you do with your money?"
"I spent it at the fair," said Daniel.
"And what did you do with yours, Ezekiel?"
"I lent it to Daniel," was the answer.
It was this way at all times, and with everybody. Not only Ezekiel, but others were ever ready to give up their own means of enjoyment if only it would make Daniel happy.
At another time the brothers were standing together by their father, who had just come home after several days' absence.
"Ezekiel," said Mr. Webster, "what have you been doing since I went away?"
"Nothing, sir," said Ezekiel.
"You are very frank," said the judge. Then turning to Daniel, he said:
"What have you been doing, Dan?"
"Helping Zeke," said Daniel.
When Judge Webster said to his neighbor, "I am going to try to educate my boys," he had no thought of ever being able to send both of them to college.
Ezekiel, he said to himself, was strong and hearty. He could make his own way in the world without having a finished education.
But Daniel had little strength of body, although he was gifted with great mental powers. It was he that must be the scholar of the family.
The judge argued with himself that since he would be able to educate only one of the boys, he must educate that one who gave the greatest promise of success. And yet, had it not been for his poverty, he would gladly have given the same opportunities to both.
IV.—Plans for the Future
One hot day in summer the judge and his youngest son were at work together in the hayfield.
"Daniel," said the judge, "I am thinking that this kind of work is hardly the right thing for you. You must prepare yourself for greater things than pitching hay."
"What do you mean, father?" asked Daniel.
"I mean that you must have that which I have always felt the need of. You must have a good education; for without an education a man is always at a disadvantage. If I had been able to go to school when I was a boy, I might have done more for my country than I have. But as it is, I can do nothing but struggle here for the means of living."
"Zeke and I will help you, father," said Daniel; "and now that you are growing old, you need not work so hard."
"I am not complaining about the work," said the judge. "I live only for my children. When your older brothers were growing up I was too poor to give them an education; but I am able now to do something for you, and I mean to send you to a good school."
"Oh, father, how kind you are!" cried Daniel.
"If you will study hard," said his father—"if you will do your best, and learn all that you can, you will not have to endure such hardships as I have endured. And then you will be able to do so much more good in the world."
The boy's heart was touched by the manner in which his father spoke these words. He dropped his rake; he threw his arms around his father's neck, and cried for joy.
It was not until the next spring that Judge Webster felt himself able to carry out his plans to send Daniel to school.
One evening he said, "Daniel, you must be up early in the morning, I am going with you to Exeter."
"To Exeter?" said the boy.
"Yes, to Exeter. I am going to put you in the academy there."
The academy at Exeter was then, as it still is, a famous place for preparing boys for college. But Daniel's father did not say anything about making him ready for college. The judge knew that the expenses would be heavy, and he was not sure that he would ever be able to give him a finished education.
It was nearly fifty miles to Exeter, and Daniel and his father were to ride there on horseback. That was almost the only way of traveling in those days.
The next morning two horses were brought to the door. One was Judge Webster's horse, the other was a gentle nag, with a lady's sidesaddle on his back.
"Who is going to ride on that nag?" asked Daniel.
"Young Dan Webster," answered the judge.
"But I don't want a sidesaddle. I am not a lady."
"Neighbor Johnson is sending the nag to Exeter for the use of a lady who is to ride back with me. I accommodate him by taking charge of the animal, and he accommodates me by allowing you to ride on it."
"But won't it look rather funny for me to ride to Exeter on a lady's saddle?"
"If a lady can ride on it, perhaps Dan Webster can do as much."
And so they set out on their journey to Exeter. The judge rode in advance, and Daniel, sitting astride of the lady's saddle, followed behind.
It was, no doubt, a funny sight to see them riding thus along the muddy roads. None of the country people who stopped to gaze at them could have guessed that the dark-faced lad who rode so awkwardly would some day become one of the greatest men of the age.
It was thus that Daniel Webster made his first appearance among strangers.
V.—At Exeter Academy
It was the first time that Daniel Webster had been so far from home. He was bashful and awkward. His clothes were of home-made stuff, and they were cut in the quaint style of the back-country districts.
He must have been a funny-looking fellow. No wonder that the boys laughed when they saw him going up to the principal to be examined for admission.
The principal of the academy at that time was Dr. Benjamin Abbott. He was a great scholar and a very dignified gentleman.
He looked down at the slender, black-eyed boy and asked:
"What is your age, sir?"
"Fourteen years," said Daniel.
"I will examine you first in reading. Take this Bible, and let me hear you read some of these verses."
He pointed to the twenty-second chapter of Saint Luke's Gospel.
The boy took the book and began to read. He had read this chapter a hundred times before. Indeed, there was no part of the Bible that was not familiar to him.
He read with a clearness and fervor which few men could equal.
The dignified principal was astonished. He stood as though spell-bound, listening to the rich, mellow tones of the bashful lad from among the hills.
In the case of most boys it was enough if he heard them read a verse or two. But he allowed Daniel Webster to read on until he had finished the chapter. Then he said:
"There is no need to examine you further. You are fully qualified to enter this academy."
Most of the boys at Exeter were gentlemen's sons. They dressed well, they had been taught fine manners, they had the speech of cultivated people.
They laughed at the awkward, new boy. They made fun of his homespun coat; they twitted him on account of his poverty; they annoyed him in a hundred ways.
Daniel felt hurt by this cruel treatment. He grieved bitterly over it in secret, but he did not resent it.
He studied hard and read much. He was soon at the head of all his classes. His schoolmates ceased laughing at him; for they saw that, with all his uncouth ways, he had more ability than any of them.
He had, as I have said, a wonderful memory. He had also a quick insight and sound judgment.
But he had had so little experience with the world, that he was not sure of his own powers. He knew that he was awkward; and this made him timid and bashful.
When it came his turn to declaim before the school, he had not the courage to do it. Long afterwards, when he had become the greatest orator of modern times, he told how hard this thing had been for him at Exeter:
"Many a piece did I commit to memory, and rehearse in my room over and over again. But when the day came, when the school collected, when my name was called and I saw all eyes turned upon my seat, I could not raise myself from it.
"Sometimes the masters frowned, sometimes they smiled. My tutor always pressed and entreated with the most winning kindness that I would venture only once; but I could not command sufficient resolution, and when the occasion was over I went home and wept tears of bitter mortification."
Daniel stayed nine months at Exeter. In those nine months he did as much as the other boys of his age could do in two years.
He mastered arithmetic, geography, grammar, and rhetoric. He also began the study of Latin. Besides this, he was a great reader of all kinds of books, and he added something every day to his general stock of knowledge.
His teachers did not oblige him to follow a graded course of study. They did not hold him back with the duller pupils of his class. They did not oblige him to wait until the end of the year before he could be promoted or could begin the study of a new subject.
But they encouraged him to do his best. As soon as he had finished one subject, he advanced to a more difficult one.
More than fifty years afterwards, Dr. Abbott declared that in all his long experience he had never known any one whose power of gaining knowledge was at all equal to that of the bashful country lad from the New Hampshire hills.
Judge Webster would have been glad to let Daniel stay at Exeter until he had finished the studies required at the academy. But he could not afford the expense.
If he should spend all his money to keep the boy at the academy, how could he afterwards find the means to send him to college where the expenses would be much greater?
So he thought it best to find a private teacher for the boy. This would be cheaper.
VI.—Getting Ready for College
One day in the early winter, Judge Webster asked Daniel to ride with him to Boscawen. Boscawen was a little town, six miles away, where they sometimes went for business or for pleasure.
Snow was on the ground. Father and son rode together in a little, old-fashioned sleigh; and as they rode, they talked about many things. Just as they were going up the last hill, Judge Webster said:
"Daniel, do you know the Rev. Samuel Wood, here in Boscawen?"
"I have heard of him," said Daniel. "He takes boys into his family, and gets them ready for college."
"Yes, and he does it cheap, too," said his father. "He charges only a dollar a week for board and tuition, fuel and lights and everything."
"But they say he is a fine teacher," said Daniel. "His boys never fail in the college examinations."
"That is what I have heard, too," answered his father. "And now, Dannie, I may as well tell you a secret. For the last six years I have been planning to have you take a course in Dartmouth College. I want you to stay with Dr. Wood this winter, and he will get you ready to enter. We might as well go and see him now."
This was the first time that Daniel had ever heard his father speak of sending him to college. His heart was so full that he could not say a word. But the tears came in his eyes as he looked up into the judge's stern, kind face.
He knew that if his father carried out this plan, it would cost a great deal of money; and if this money should be spent for him, then the rest of the family would have to deny themselves of many comforts which they might otherwise have.
"Oh, never mind that, Dan," said his brother Ezekiel. "We are never so happy as when we are doing something for you. And we know that you will do something for us, some time."
And so the boy spent the winter in Boscawen with Dr. Wood. He learned everything very easily, but he was not as close a student as he had been at Exeter.
He was very fond of sport. He liked to go fishing. And sometimes, when the weather was fine, his studies were sadly neglected.
There was a circulating library in Boscawen, and Daniel read every book that was in it. Sometimes he slighted his Latin for the sake of giving more time to such reading.
One of the books in the library was Don Quixote. Daniel thought it the most wonderful story in existence. He afterwards said:
"I began to read it, and it is literally true that I never closed my eyes until I had finished it, so great was the power of this extraordinary book on my imagination."
But it was so easy for the boy to learn, that he made very rapid progress in all his studies. In less than a year, Dr Wood declared that he was ready for college.
He was then fifteen years old. He had a pretty thorough knowledge of arithmetic; but he had never studied algebra or geometry. In Latin he had read four of Cicero's orations, and six books of Virgil's Æneid. He knew something of the elements of Greek grammar, and had read a portion of the Greek Testament.
Nowadays, a young man could hardly enter even a third-rate college without a better preparation than that. But colleges are much more thorough than they were a hundred years ago.
VII.—At Dartmouth College
Dartmouth College is at Hanover, New Hampshire. It is one of the oldest colleges in America and among its students have been many of the foremost men of New England.
It was in the fall of 1797, that Daniel Webster entered this college.
He was then a tall, slender youth, with high cheek bones and a swarthy skin.
The professors soon saw that he was no common lad. They said to one another, "This young Webster will one day be a greater man than any of us."
And young Webster was well-behaved and studious at college. He was as fond of sport as any of the students, but he never gave himself up to boyish pranks.
He was punctual and regular in all his classes. He was as great a reader as ever.
He could learn anything that he tried. No other young man had a broader knowledge of things than he.
And yet he did not make his mark as a student in the prescribed branches of study. He could not confine himself to the narrow routine of the college course.
He did not, as at Exeter, push his way quickly to the head of his class. He won no prizes.
"But he minded his own business," said one of the professors. "As steady as the sun, he pursued, with intense application, the great object for which he came to college."
Soon everybody began to appreciate his scholarship. Everybody admired him for his manliness and good common sense.
"He was looked upon as being so far in advance of any one else, that no other student of his class was ever spoken of as second to him."
He very soon lost that bashfulness which had troubled him so much at Exeter. It was no task now for him to stand up and declaim before the professors and students.
In a short time he became known as the best writer and speaker in the college. Indeed, he loved to speak; and the other students were always pleased to listen to him.
One of his classmates tells us how he prepared his speeches. He says: "It was Webster's custom to arrange his thoughts in his mind while he was in his room, or while he was walking alone. Then he would put them upon paper just before the exercise was to be called for.
"If he was to speak at two o'clock, he would often begin to write after dinner; and when the bell rang he would fold his paper, put it in his pocket, go in, and speak with great ease.
"In his movements he was slow and deliberate, except when his feelings were aroused. Then his whole soul would kindle into a flame."
In the year 1800, he was chosen to deliver the Fourth of July address to the students of the college and the citizens of the town. He was then eighteen years old.
The speech was a long one. It was full of the love of country. Its tone throughout was earnest and thoughtful.
But in its style it was overdone; it was full of pretentious expressions; it lacked the simplicity and good common sense that should mark all public addresses.
And yet, as the speech of so young a man, it was a very able effort. People said that it was the promise of much greater things. And they were right.
In the summer of 1801, Daniel graduated. But he took no honors. He was not even present at the Commencement.
His friends were grieved that he had not been chosen to deliver the valedictory address. Perhaps he also was disappointed. But the professors had thought best to give that honor to another student.
VIII.—How Daniel Taught School
While Daniel Webster was taking his course in college, there was one thing that troubled him very much. It was the thought of his brother Ezekiel toiling at home on the farm.
He knew that Ezekiel had great abilities. He knew that he was not fond of the farm, but that he was anxious to become a lawyer.
This brother had given up all his dearest plans in order that Daniel might be favored; and Daniel knew that this was so.
Once, when Daniel was at home on a vacation, he said, "Zeke, this thing is all wrong. Father has mortgaged the farm for money to pay my expenses at school, and you are making a slave of yourself to pay off the mortgage. It isn't right for me to let you do this."
Ezekiel said, "Daniel, I am stronger than you are, and if one of us has to stay on the farm, of course I am the one."
"But I want you to go to college," said Daniel. "An education will do you as much good as me."
"I doubt it," said Ezekiel; "and yet, if father was only able to send us both, I think that we might pay him back some time."
"I will see father about it this very day," said Daniel.
He did see him.
"I told my father," said Daniel, afterwards, "that I was unhappy at my brother's prospects. For myself, I saw my way to knowledge, respectability, and self-protection. But as to Ezekiel, all looked the other way. I said that I would keep school, and get along as well as I could, be more than four years in getting through college, if necessary, provided he also could be sent to study."
The matter was referred to Daniel's mother, and she and his father talked it over together. They knew that it would take all the property they had to educate both the boys. They knew that they would have to do without many comforts, and that they would have a hard struggle to make a living while the boys were studying.
But the mother said, "I will trust the boys." And it was settled that Ezekiel, too, should have a chance to make his mark in the world.
He was now a grown-up man. He was tall and strong and ambitious. He entered college the very year that Daniel graduated.
As for Daniel, he was now ready to choose a profession. What should it be?
His father wanted him to become a lawyer. And so, to please his parents, he went home and began to read law in the office of a Mr. Thompson, in the little village of Salisbury, which adjoined his father's farm.
The summer passed by. It was very pleasant to have nothing to do but to read. And when the young man grew tired of reading, he could go out fishing, or could spend a day in hunting among the New Hampshire hills.
It is safe to say that he did not learn very much law during that summer.
But there was not a day that he did not think about his brother. Ezekiel had done much to help him through college, and now ought he not to help Ezekiel?
But what could he do?
He had a good education, and his first thought was that he might teach school, and thus earn a little money for Ezekiel.
The people of Fryeburg, in Maine, wanted him to take charge of the academy in their little town. And so, early in the fall, he decided to take up their offer.
He was to have three hundred and fifty dollars for the year's work, and that would help Ezekiel a great deal.
He bade good-bye to Mr. Thompson and his little law office, and made ready to go to his new field of labor. There were no railroads at that time, and a journey of even a few miles was a great undertaking.
Daniel had bought a horse for twenty-four dollars. In one end of an old-fashioned pair of saddlebags he put his Sunday clothes, and in the other he packed his books.
He laid the saddlebags upon the horse, then he mounted and rode off over the hills toward Fryeburg, sixty miles away.
He was not yet quite twenty years old. He was very slender, and nearly six feet in height. His face was thin and dark. His eyes were black and bright and penetrating—no person who once saw them could ever forget them.
Young as he was, he was very successful as a teacher during that year which he spent at Fryeburg. The trustees of the academy were so highly pleased that they wanted him to stay a second year. They promised to raise his salary to five or six hundred dollars, and to give him a house and a piece of land.
He was greatly tempted to give up all further thoughts of becoming a lawyer.
"What shall I do?" he said to himself. "Shall I say, 'Yes, gentlemen,' and sit down here to spend my days in a kind of comfortable privacy?"
But his father was anxious that he should return to the study of the law. And so he was not long in making up his mind.
In a letter to one of his friends he said: "I shall make one more trial of the law in the ensuing autumn.
"If I prosecute the profession, I pray God to fortify me against its temptations. To be honest, to be capable, to be faithful to my client and my conscience."
Early the next September, he was again in Mr. Thompson's little law office. All the money that he had saved, while at Fryeburg, was spent to help Ezekiel through college.
IX.—Daniel Goes to Boston
For a year and a half, young Daniel Webster stayed in the office of Mr. Thompson. He had now fully made up his mind as to what profession he would follow; and so he was a much better student than he had been before.
He read many law books with care. He read Hume's History of England, and spent a good deal of time with the Latin classics.
"At this period of my life," he afterwards said, "I passed a great deal of time alone.
"My amusements were fishing and shooting and riding, and all these were without a companion. I loved this solitude then, and have loved it ever since, and love it still."
The Webster family were still very poor. Judge Webster was now too old to do much work of any kind. The farm had been mortgaged for all that it was worth. It was hard to find money enough to keep Daniel at his law studies and Ezekiel in college.
At last it became necessary for one of the young men to do something that would help matters along. Ezekiel decided that he would leave college for a time and try to earn enough money to meet the present needs of the family. Through some of his friends he obtained a small private school in Boston.
There were very few pupils in Ezekiel Webster's school. But there were so many branches to be taught that he could not find time to hear all the recitations. So, at last, he sent word to Daniel to come down and help him. If Daniel would teach an hour and a half each day, he should have enough money to pay his board.
Daniel was pleased with the offer. He had long wanted to study law in Boston, and here was his opportunity. And so, early in March, 1804, he joined his brother in that city, and was soon doing what he could to help him in his little school.
There was in Boston, at that time, a famous lawyer whose name was Christopher Gore. While Daniel Webster was wondering how he could best carry on his studies in the city, he heard that Mr. Gore had no clerk in his office.
"How I should like to read law with Mr. Gore!" he said to Ezekiel.
"Yes," said Ezekiel. "You could not want a better tutor."
"I mean to see him
It was with many misgivings that the young man went into the presence of the great lawyer. We will let him tell the story in his own words:
"I was from the country, I said;—had studied law for two years; had come to Boston to study a year more; had heard that he had no clerk; thought it possible he would receive one.
"I told him that I came to Boston to work, not to play; was most desirous, on all accounts, to be his pupil; and all I ventured to ask at present was, that he would keep a place for me in his office, till I could write to New Hampshire for proper letters showing me worthy of it."
Mr. Gore listened to this speech very kindly, and then bade Daniel be seated while he should have a short talk with him.
When at last the young man rose to go, Mr. Gore said: "My young friend, you look as if you might be trusted. You say you came to study and not to waste time. I will take you at your word. You may as well hang up your hat at once."
And this was the beginning of Daniel Webster's career in Boston.
He must have done well in Mr. Gore's office; for, in a few months, he was admitted to the practice of law in the Court of Common Pleas in Boston.
It was at some time during this same winter that Daniel was offered the position of clerk in the County Court at home. His father, as you will remember, was one of the judges in this court, and he was very much delighted at the thought that his son would be with him.
The salary would be about fifteen hundred dollars a year—and that was a great sum to Daniel as well as to his father. The mortgage on the farm could be paid off; Ezekiel could finish his course in college; and life would be made easier for them all.
At first Daniel was as highly pleased as his father. But after he had talked with Mr. Gore, he decided not to accept the offered position.
"Your prospects as a lawyer," said Mr. Gore, "are good enough to encourage you to go on. Go on, and finish your studies. You are poor enough, but there are greater evils than poverty. Live on no man's favor. Pursue your profession; make yourself useful to your friends and a little formidable to your enemies, and you have nothing to fear."
A few days after that, Daniel paid a visit to his father. The judge received him very kindly, but he was greatly disappointed when the young man told him that he had made up his mind not to take the place.
With his deep-set, flashing eyes, he looked at his son for a moment as though in anger. Then he said, very slowly:
"Well, my son, your mother has always said that you would come to something or nothing—she was not sure which. I think you are now about settling that doubt for her."
A few weeks after this, Daniel, as I have already told you, was admitted to the bar in Boston. But he did not think it best to begin his practice there.
He knew how anxious his father was that he should be near him. He wanted to do all that he could to cheer and comfort the declining years of the noble man who had sacrificed everything for him. And so, in the spring of 1805, he settled in the town of Boscawen, six miles from home, and put up at his office door this sign:
D. WEBSTER, ATTORNEY.
X.—Lawyer and Congressman
When Daniel Webster had been in Boscawen nearly two years, his father died. It was then decided that Ezekiel should come and take charge of the home farm, and care for their mother.
Ezekiel had not yet graduated from college, but he had read law and was hoping to be admitted to the bar. He was a man of much natural ability, and many people believed that he would some day become a very famous lawyer.
And so, in the autumn of 1807, Daniel gave up to his brother the law business which he had in Boscawen, and removed to the city of Portsmouth.
He was now twenty-five years old. In Portsmouth he would find plenty of work to do; it would be the very kind of work that he liked. He was now well started on the road towards greatness.
The very next year, he was married to Miss Grace Fletcher, the daughter of a minister in Hopkinton. The happy couple began housekeeping in a small, modest, wooden house, in Portsmouth; and there they lived, very plainly and without pretension, for several years.
Mr. Webster's office was "a common, ordinary-looking room, with less furniture and more books than common. He had a small inner room, opening from the larger, rather an unusual thing."
It was not long until the name of Daniel Webster was known all over New Hampshire. Those who were acquainted with him said that he was the smartest young lawyer in Portsmouth. They said that if he kept on in the way that he had started, there were great things in store for him.
The country people told wonderful stories about him. They said that he was as black as a coal—but of course they had never seen him. They believed that he could gain any case in court that he chose to manage—and in this they were about right.
There was another great lawyer in Portsmouth. His name was Jeremiah Mason, and he was much older than Mr. Webster. Indeed, he was already a famous man when Daniel first began the practice of law.
The young lawyer and the older one soon became warm friends; and yet they were often opposed to each other in the courts. Daniel was always obliged to do his best when Mr. Mason was against him. This caused him to be very careful. It no doubt made him become a better lawyer than he otherwise would have been.
While Webster was thus quietly practicing law in New Hampshire, trouble was brewing between the United States and England. The English were doing much to hinder American merchants from trading with foreign countries.
They claimed the right to search American vessels for seamen who had deserted from the British service. And it is said that American sailors were often dragged from their own vessels and forced to serve on board the English ships.
Matters kept getting worse and worse for several years. At last, in June, 1812, the United States declared war against England.
Daniel Webster was opposed to this war, and he made several speeches against it. He said that, although we had doubtless suffered many wrongs, there was more cause for war with France than with England. And then, the United States had no navy, and hence was not ready to go to war with any nation.
Webster's influence in New Hampshire was so great that he persuaded many of the people of that state to think just as he thought on this subject. They nominated him as their representative in Congress; and when the time came, they elected him.
It was on the 24th of May, 1813, that he first took his seat in Congress. He was then thirty-one years old.
In that same Congress there were two other young men who afterwards made their names famous in the history of their country. One was Henry Clay, of Kentucky. The other was John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina. Both were a little older than Webster; both had already made some mark in public life; and both were in favor of the war.
During his first year in Congress, Mr. Webster made some stirring speeches in support of his own opinions. In this way, as well by his skill in debate, he made himself known as a young man of more than common ability and promise.
Chief Justice Marshall, who was then at the head of the Supreme Court of the United States, said of him: "I have never seen a man of whose intellect I had a higher opinion."
In 1814, the war that had been going on so long came to an end. But now there were other subjects which claimed Mr. Webster's attention in Congress.
Then, as now, there were important questions regarding the money of the nation; and upon these questions there was great difference of opinion. Daniel Webster's speeches, in favor of a sound currency, did much to maintain the national credit and to save the country from bankruptcy.
The people of New Hampshire were so well pleased with the record which he made in Congress that, when his first term expired, they reëlected him for a second.
XI.—The Dartmouth College Case
In 1816, before his second term in Congress had expired, Daniel Webster removed with his family to Boston. He had lived in Portsmouth nine years, and he now felt that he needed a wider field for the exercise of his talents.
He was now no longer the slender, delicate person that he had been in his boyhood and youth. He was a man of noble mien—a sturdy, dignified personage, who bore the marks of greatness upon him. People said, "When Daniel Webster walked the streets of Boston, he made the buildings look small."
As soon as his term in Congress had expired, he began the practice of law in Boston.
For nearly seven years he devoted himself strictly to his profession. Of course, he at once took his place as the leading lawyer of New England. Indeed, he soon became known as the ablest counsellor and advocate in America.
The best business of the country now came to him. His income was very large, amounting to more than $20,000 a year.
And during this time there was no harder worker than he. In fact, his natural genius could have done but little for him, had it not been for his untiring industry.
One of his first great victories in law was that which is known as the Dartmouth College case. The lawmakers of New Hampshire had attempted to pass a law to alter the charter of the college. By doing this they would endanger the usefulness and prosperity of that great school, in order to favor the selfish projects of its enemies.
Daniel Webster undertook to defend the college. The speech which he made before the Supreme Court of the United States was a masterly effort.
"Sir," he said, "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 greater lights of science which, for more than a century, have thrown their light over our land!"
He won the case; and this, more than anything else, helped to gain for him the reputation of being the ablest lawyer in the United States.
XII.—Webster's Great Orations
In 1820, when he was thirty-eight years old, Daniel Webster was chosen to deliver an oration at a great meeting of New Englanders at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Plymouth is the place where the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Just two hundred years had passed since that time, and this meeting was to celebrate the memory of the brave men and women who had risked so much to found new homes in what was then a bleak wilderness.
The speech which Mr. Webster delivered was one of the greatest ever heard in America. It placed him at once at the head of American orators.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, was then living, a very old man. He said, "This oration will be read five hundred years hence with as much rapture as it was heard. It ought to be read at the end of every century, and, indeed, at the end of every year, forever and ever."
But this was only the first of many great addresses by Mr. Webster. In 1825, he delivered an oration at the laying of the corner stone of the Bunker Hill monument. Eighteen years later, when that monument was finished, he delivered another. Many of Mr. Webster's admirers think that these two orations are his masterpieces.
On July 4th, 1826, the United States had been independent just fifty years. On that day there passed away two of the greatest men of the country—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Both were ex-Presidents, and both had been leaders in the councils of the nation. It was in memory of these two patriots that Daniel Webster was called to deliver an oration in Faneuil Hall, Boston.
No other funeral oration has ever been delivered in any age or country that was equal to this in eloquence. Like all his other discourses, it was full of patriotic feeling.
"This lovely land," he said, "this glorious liberty, these benign institutions, the dear purchase of our fathers, are ours; ours to enjoy, ours to preserve, ours to transmit. Generations past and generations to come hold us responsible for this sacred trust.
"Our fathers, from behind, admonish us with their anxious, paternal voices; posterity calls out to us from the bosom of the future; the world turns hither its solicitous eyes; all, all conjure us to act wisely and faithfully in the relation which we sustain."
Most of his other great speeches were delivered in Congress, and are, therefore, political in tone and subject.
Great as Daniel Webster was in politics and in law, it is as an orator and patriot that his name will be longest remembered.
XIII.—Mr. Webster in the Senate
When Daniel Webster was forty years old, the people of Boston elected him to represent them in Congress. They were so well pleased with all that he did while there, that they reëlected him twice.
In June, 1827, the legislature of Massachusetts chose him to be United States senator for a term of six years. He was at that time the most famous man in Massachusetts, and his name was known and honored in every state of the Union.
After that he was reëlected to the same place again and again; and for more than twenty years he continued to be the distinguished senator from Massachusetts.
I cannot now tell you of all his public services during the long period that he sat in Congress. Indeed, there are some things that you would find hard to understand until you have learned more about the history of our country. But you will by-and-by read of them in the larger books which you will study at school; and, no doubt, you will also read some of his great addresses and orations.
It was in 1830 that he delivered the most famous of all his speeches in the senate chamber of the United States. This speech is commonly called, "The Reply to Hayne."
I shall not here try to explain the purport of Mr. Hayne's speeches—for there were two of them. I shall not try to describe the circumstances which led Mr. Webster to make his famous reply to them.
But I will quote Mr. Webster's closing sentences. Forty years ago the schoolboys all over the country were accustomed to memorize and declaim these patriotic utterances.
"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, now known and honored throughout the earth, still high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory, '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 folds, as they float over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every American heart—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"
In 1841, Daniel Webster resigned his seat in the senate. He did this in order to become secretary of state in the cabinet of the newly elected President, William Henry Harrison.
But President Harrison died on the 5th of April, after having held his office just one month; and his place was taken by the vice-president, John Tyler. Mr. Webster now felt that his position in the cabinet would not be a pleasant one; but he continued to hold it for nearly two years.
His most important act as secretary of state was to conclude a treaty with England which fixed the northeastern boundary of the United States. This treaty is known in history as the Ashburton Treaty.
In 1843, Mr. Webster resigned his place in President Tyler's cabinet. But he was not allowed to remain long in private life. Two years later he was again elected to the United States senate.
About this time, Texas was annexed to the United States. But Mr. Webster did not favor this, for he believed that such an act was contrary to the Constitution of our country.
He did all that he could to keep our government from making war upon Mexico. But after this war had been begun, he was a firm friend of the soldiers who took part in it, and he did much to provide for their safety and comfort.
Among these soldiers was Edward, the second son of Daniel Webster. He became a major in the main division of the army, and died in the City of Mexico.
XIV.—Mr. Webster in Private Life
Let us now go back a little way in our story, and learn something about Mr. Webster's home and private life.
In 1831, Mr. Webster bought a large farm at Marshfield, in the southeastern part of Massachusetts, not far from the sea.
He spent a great deal of money in improving this farm; and in the end it was as fine a country seat as one might see anywhere in New England.
When he became tired with the many cares of his busy life, Mr. Webster could always find rest and quiet days at Marshfield. He liked to dress himself as a farmer, and stroll about the fields looking at the cattle and at the growing crops.
"I had rather be here than in the senate," he would say.
But his life was clouded with many sorrows. Long before going to Marshfield, his two eldest children were laid in the grave. Their mother followed them just one year before Mr. Webster's first entry into the United States senate.
In 1829, his brother Ezekiel died suddenly while speaking in court at Concord. Ezekiel had never cared much for politics, but as a lawyer in his native state, he had won many honors. His death came as a great shock to everybody that knew him. To his brother it brought overwhelming sorrow.
When Daniel Webster was nearly forty-eight years old, he married a second wife. She was the daughter of a New York merchant, and her name was Caroline Bayard Le Roy. She did much to lighten the disappointments of his later life, and they lived together happily for more than twenty years.
In 1839, Mr. and Mrs. Webster made a short visit to England. The fame of the great orator had gone before him, and he was everywhere received with honor. The greatest men of the time were proud to meet him.
Henry Hallam, the historian, wrote of him: "Mr. Webster approaches as nearly to the beau ideal of a republican senator as any man that I have ever seen in the course of my life."
Even the Queen invited him to dine with her; and she was much pleased with his dignified ways and noble bearing.
And, indeed, his appearance was such as to win the respect of all who saw him. When he walked the streets of London, people would stop and wonder who the noble stranger was; and workingmen whispered to one another: "There goes a king!"
XV.—The Last Years
Many people believed that Daniel Webster would finally be elected President of the United States. And, indeed, there was no man in all this country who was better fitted for that high position than he.
But it so happened that inferior men, who were willing to stoop to the tricks of politics, always stepped in before him.
In the meanwhile the question of slavery was becoming, every day, more and more important. It was the one subject which claimed everybody's attention.
Should slavery be allowed in the territories?
There was great excitement all over the country. There were many hot debates in Congress. It seemed as though the Union would be destroyed.
At last, the wiser and cooler-headed leaders in Congress said, "Let each side give up a little to the other. Let us have a compromise."
On the 7th of March, 1850, Mr. Webster delivered a speech before the senate. It was a speech in favor of compromise, in favor of conciliation.
He thought that this was the only way to preserve the Union. And he was willing to sacrifice everything for the Constitution and the Union.
He declared that all the ends he aimed at were for his country's good.
He then went on to defend the law known as the Fugitive Slave Law. He declared that this law was in accordance with the Constitution, and hence it should be enforced according to its true meaning.
The speech was a great disappointment to his friends. They said that he had deserted them; that he had gone over to their enemies; that he was no longer a champion of freedom, but of slavery.
Those who had been his warmest supporters, now turned against him.
A few months after this, President Taylor died. The vice-president, Millard Fillmore, then became president. Mr. Fillmore was in sympathy with Daniel Webster, and soon gave him a seat in his cabinet as secretary of state.
This was the second time that Mr. Webster had been called to fill this high and honorable position. But, under President Fillmore, he did no very great or important thing.
He was still the leading man in the Whig party; and he hoped, in 1852, to be nominated for the presidency. But in this he was again disappointed.
He was now an old man. He had had great successes in life; but he felt that he had failed at the end of the race. His health was giving way. He went home to Marshfield for the quiet and rest which he so much needed.
In May, that same year, he was thrown from his carriage and severely hurt. From this hurt he never recovered. He offered to resign his seat in the cabinet, but Mr. Fillmore would not listen to this.
In September he became very feeble, and his friends knew that the end was near. On the 24th of October, 1852, he died. He was nearly seventy-one years old.
In every part of the land his death was sincerely mourned. Both friends and enemies felt that a great man had fallen. They felt that this country had lost its leading statesman, its noblest patriot, its worthiest citizen.
Rufus Choate, who had succeeded him as the foremost lawyer in New England, delivered a great oration upon his life and character. He said:
"Look in how manly a sort, in how high a moral tone, Mr. Webster uniformly dealt with the mind of his country.
"Where do you find him flattering his countrymen, indirectly or directly, for a vote? On what did he ever place himself but good counsels and useful service?
"Who ever heard that voice cheering the people on to rapacity, to injustice, to a vain and guilty glory?
"How anxiously, rather, did he prefer to teach, that by all possible acquired sobriety of mind, by asking reverently of the past, by obedience to the law, by habits of patient labor, by the cultivation of the mind, by the fear and worship of God, we educate ourselves for the future that is revealing."