Four Great Americans  by James Baldwin

The Story of Daniel Webster

Part 4 of 5

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.