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.
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!"
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.
"I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union," he said. "Hear me for my cause! I speak to-day out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and harmony, which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all."
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."