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Daniel Webster’s home and law office at 503 D St. NW (Judiciary Square)
Daniel Webster (January 18, 1782 – October 25, 1852) was a United States Senator and Secretary of State. Famed for his ability as an orator, Webster was one of the most important figures in the Second Party System from the 1820s to the 1850s. Like Henry Clay, his passionate patriotic devotion to preserving the Union lent him a predisposition to finding compromises between the northern and southern factions of the country.
Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire. He was the son of Ebenezer and Abigail Webster (née Eastman) and raised on his parents’ farm (a small parcel of land granted to Ebenezer in recognition of his service in the French and Indian War). His parents were poor, but dedicated to his education and thus not only hired private tutors to teach him but also sent him to the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
His time at the Exeter Academy was short (he left after 9 months) and traumatic. As a child Daniel had a deep fear of public speaking and was unable to conquer his fear sufficiently to deliver the required public "declamations" that were a feature of the education system at the time. Indeed, despite his later success as an orator, he is recorded as having been so petrified at school that he simply refused to stand up, and returned to his room in shame and in tears. The reason for his short stay at the academy is unknown, but seems likely to be simply the inability of his parents to meet the fees.
From Exeter he went to Dartmouth College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1801. Here he laid to rest his terror of public speaking and began using his phenomenal memory and skill at speech writing. He became a member of the "United Fraternity" literary society, where he practiced the art of public speaking. So successful was he that shortly after his graduation the town of Hanover invited him to deliver their Independence Day oration. On graduating from Dartmouth he took a legal apprenticeship (firstly under Thomas W. Thompson and then Christopher Gore) and then in 1805 he opened his first legal practice in Boscawen, New Hampshire. In 1807 his father took over the Boscawen firm when Webster opened a new practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In 1808 he married his first wife, Grace Fletcher, who died in 1828. With her he had one son, Charles.
From this point on his reputation as a lawyer grew quickly and he also became a Federalist party leader. In 1812 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on the strength of his opposition to the War of 1812. He served two terms in the House before leaving Congress in 1816 and moving to Marshfield, Massachusetts (40 miles south of Boston near Plymouth, Massachusetts).
In 1816, Webster was asked to help in a legal matter by representing Dartmouth College. In the wake of the Jeffersonian Republicans’ success in the New Hampshire elections (they gained the governorship and a majority in the state legislature) the state decided to declare Dartmouth a public institution. They altered the constitution and the size of the College’s trustee body and then added a further board of overseers, which they put into the hands of the state senate. In essence they seized control of a private body without consultation or any offer of compensation. Webster assisted his friend Jeremiah Smith in fighting the action all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he personally argued the case. The peroration of his speech was both emotional and well-reasoned. Due in large part to Webster’s efforts, the court decided five to one in Dartmouth’s favor.
In 1822, Webster returned to U.S. Congress from Boston, and in 1827 he was elected to the Senate from the state of Massachusetts. Shortly after that, in 1828, his first wife, Grace, died. He later married Caroline LeRoy.
After the demise of the Federalist party he joined the National Republican party. Here he chose to ally himself with Henry Clay, endorsing federal aid for projects to build roads in the West (see Internal improvements). In 1828, in response to the changing economic landscape in Massachusetts (there was a shift towards the manufacturing sector), he backed the high-tariff bill. This angered Southern leaders and brought Webster into dispute with South Carolina’s Robert Young Hayne, who argued that his state had the right to overturn this particular piece of legislation. Webster, however, was successful in defending his stance in a Senate debate of 1830, culminating in his second reply to Hayne in which he uttered the famous phrase, "liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable". It is possibly one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the U.S. Senate.
In 1833 he joined forces with President Andrew Jackson to defeat South Carolina’s continued attempts at nullifying the tariff. At the same time, Webster and his fellow Whigs battled Jackson over other matters, most notably what they saw as Jackson’s attack on the National Bank. In 1836 Webster was one of three Whig party candidates to run for the office of President, but he only managed to gain the support of Massachusetts. This was the first of several unsuccessful attempts at gaining the presidency.
President William Henry Harrison appointed Webster to the prestigious post of Secretary of State in 1841, a post he retained under President John Tyler after the untimely death of Harrison only a month after his inauguration. In September 1841, an internal division amongst the Whigs over the question of the National Bank caused all the Whigs, barring Webster, who was in Europe at the time, to resign from Tyler’s cabinet.
In 1842, he was the architect of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved the Caroline Affair, established the definitive Eastern border between the United States and Canada (Maine and New Brunswick), and sealed the final peace between the United States and Britain. But despite this great success, he succumbed to Whig pressure in May 1842 and finally left the cabinet.
Webster stealing Henry Clay’s thunder – cartoon reproduced in a 1921 history of the United States; the reference is to Webster’s part in slavery debates held around 1850In 1845 he was re-elected to the Senate where he opposed both the annexation of Texas and the resulting war with Mexico. However, the country was becoming more polarized on the issue of the expansion of slavery and, despite opposing such expansion, Webster found himself faced with the prospect of the breakup of the Union. On March 7, 1850, in one of his most memorable speeches before the Senate, he supported the Compromise of 1850, thereby repulsing Southern threats of secession while urging Northern support for a stronger law for the recovery of fugitive slaves. In July 1850, Webster was once again named Secretary of State, under President Millard Fillmore, and he supervised the strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. This made him massively unpopular with the anti-slavery lobby but his action helped delay southern secession.
Daniel Webster died on October 24, 1852 at his home in Marshfield as a result of a brain hemorrhage after he fell from his horse and took a crushing blow to the head.
After his death, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
Last Sunday I was at Plymouth on the beach….I supposed Webster must have passed, as indeed he had died at three in the morning. The sea, the rocks, the woods, gave no sign that America and the world had lost the completest man. Nature had not in our days, or not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece. He brought the strength of a savage into the height of culture. He was a man in equilibrio; a man within and without, the strong and perfect body of the first ages, with the civility and thought of the last.
The USS Daniel Webster (SSBN-626), Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, and Webster, New York are named for the statesman.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart’s character is amazed to find out he will be sitting in the same seat that Daniel Webster sat in.
Some property owned by Webster was used to build the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Webster has been immortalized in the popular short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster".
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