His return to Congress was at once signalized by a great speech, which, although of no practical or immediate moment, deserves careful attention from the light which it throws on the workings of his mind and the development of his opinions in regard to his country. The House had been in session but a few days when Mr. Webster offered a resolution in favor of providing by law for the expenses incident to the appointment of a commissioner to Greece, should the President deem such an appointment expedient. The Greeks were then in the throes of revolution, and the sympathy for the heirs of so much glory in their struggle for freedom was strong among the American people. When Mr. Webster rose on January 19, 1824, to move the adoption of the resolution which he had laid upon the table of the House, the chamber was crowded and the galleries were filled by a large and fashionable audience attracted by the reputation of the orator and the interest felt in his subject. His hearers were disappointed if they expected a great rhetorical display, for which the nature of the subject and the classic memories clustering about it offered such strong temptations. Mr. Webster did not rise for that purpose, nor to make capital by an appeal to a temporary popular interest. His speech was for a wholly different purpose. It was the first expression of that grand conception of the American Union which had vaguely excited his youthful enthusiasm. This conception had now come to be part of his intellectual being, and then and always stirred his imagination and his affections to their inmost depths. It embodied the principle from which he never swerved, and led to all that he represents and to all that his influence means in our history.
As the first expression of his conception of the destiny of the United States as a great and united nation, Mr. Webster was, naturally, "more fond of this child" than of any other of his intellectual family. The speech itself was a noble one, but it was an eloquent essay rather than a great example of the oratory of debate. This description can in no other case be applied to Mr. Webster's parliamentary efforts, but in this instance it is correct, because the occasion justified such a form. Mr. Webster's purpose was to show that, though the true policy of the United States absolutely debarred them from taking any part in the affairs of Europe, yet they had an important duty to perform in exercising their proper influence on the public opinion of the world. Europe was then struggling with the monstrous principles of the "Holy Alliance." Those principles Mr. Webster reviewed historically. He showed their pernicious tendency, their hostility to all modern theories of government, and their especial opposition to the principles of American liberty. If the doctrines of the Congress of Laybach were right and could be made to prevail, then those of America were wrong and the systems of popular government adopted in the United States were doomed. Against such infamous principles it behooved the people of the United States to raise their voice. Mr. Webster sketched the history of Greece, and made a fine appeal to Americans to give an expression of their sympathy to a people struggling for freedom. He proclaimed, so that all men might hear, the true duty of the United States toward the oppressed of any land, and the responsibility which they held to exert their influence upon the opinions of mankind. The national destiny of his country in regard to other nations was his theme; to give to the glittering declaration of Canning, that he would "call in the new world to redress the balance of the old," a deep and real significance was his object.
The speech touched Mr. Clay to the quick. He supported Mr. Webster's resolution with all the ardor of his generous nature, and supplemented it by another against the interference of Spain in South America. A stormy debate followed, vivified by the flings and taunts of John Randolph, but the unwillingness to take action was so great that Mr. Webster did not press his resolution to a vote. He had at the outset looked for a practical result from his resolution, and had desired the appointment of Mr. Everett as commissioner, a plan in which he had been encouraged by Mr. Calhoun, who had given him to understand that the Executive regarded the Greek mission with favor. Before he delivered his speech he became aware that Calhoun had misled him, that Mr. Adams, the Secretary of State, considered Everett too much of a partisan, and that the administration was wholly averse to any action in the premises. This destroyed all hope of a practical result, and made an adverse vote certain. The only course was to avoid a decision and trust to what he said for an effect on public opinion. The real purpose of the speech, however, was achieved. Mr. Webster had exposed and denounced the Holy Alliance as hostile to the liberties of mankind, and had declared the unalterable enmity of the United States to its reactionary doctrines. The speech was widely read, not only wherever English was spoken, but it was translated into all the languages of Europe, and was circulated throughout South America. It increased Mr. Webster's fame at home and laid the foundation of his reputation abroad. Above all, it stamped him as a statesman of a broad and national cast of mind.
He now settled down to hard and continuous labor at the routine business of the House, and it was not until the end of March that he had occasion to make another elaborate and important speech. At that time Mr. Clay took up the bill for laying certain protective duties and advocated it strenuously as part of a general and steady policy which he then christened with the name of "the American system." Against this bill, known as the tariff of 1824, Mr. Webster made, as Mr. Adams wrote in his diary at the time, "an able and powerful speech," which can be more properly considered when we come to his change of position on this question a few years later.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the affairs of the national courts were his particular care. Western expansion demanded an increased number of judges for the circuits, but, unfortunately, decisions in certain recent cases had offended the sensibilities of Virginia and Kentucky, and there was a renewal of the old Jeffersonian efforts to limit the authority of the Supreme Court. Instead of being able to improve, he was obliged to defend the court, and this he did successfully, defeating all attempts to curtail its power by alterations of the act of 1789. These duties and that of investigating the charges brought by Ninian Edwards against Mr. Crawford, the Secretary of the Treasury, made the session an unusually laborious one, and detained Mr. Webster in Washington until midsummer.
The short session of the next winter was of course marked by the excitement attendant upon the settlement of the presidential election which resulted in the choice of Mr. John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives. The intense agitation in political circles did not, however, prevent Mr. Webster from delivering one very important speech, nor from carrying through successfully one of the most important and practically useful measures of his legislative career. The speech was delivered in the debate on the bill for continuing the national Cumberland road. Mr. Webster had already, many years before, defined his position on the constitutional question involved in internal improvements. He now, in response to Mr. McDuffie of South Carolina, who denounced the measure as partial and sectional, not merely defended the principle of internal improvements, but declared that it was a policy to be pursued only with the purest national feeling. It was not the business of Congress, he said, to legislate for this State or that, or to balance local interests, and because they helped one region to help another, but to act for the benefit of all the States united, and in making improvements to be guided only by their necessity. He showed that these roads would open up the West to settlement, and incidentally defended the policy of selling the public lands at a low price as an encouragement to emigration, telling his Southern friends very plainly that they could not expect to coerce the course of population in favor of their own section. The whole speech was conceived in the broadest and wisest spirit, and marks another step in the development of Mr. Webster as a national statesman. It increased his reputation, and brought to him a great accession of popularity in the West.
The measure which he carried through was the famous "Crimes Act," perhaps the best monument that there is of his legislative and constructive ability. The criminal law of the United States had scarcely been touched since the days of the first Congress, and was very defective and unsatisfactory. Mr. Webster's first task, in which he received most essential and valuable though unacknowledged assistance from Judge Story, was to codify and digest the whole body of criminal law. This done, the hardly less difficult undertaking followed of carrying the measure through Congress. In the latter, Mr. Webster, by his skill in debate and familiarity with his subject, and by his influence in the House, was perfectly successful. That he and Judge Story did their work well in perfecting the bill is shown by the admirable manner in which the Act stood the test of time and experience.
When the new Congress came together in 1825, Mr. Webster at once turned his attention to the improvement of the Judiciary, which he had been obliged to postpone in order to ward off the attacks upon the court. After much deliberation and thought, aided by Judge Story, and having made some concessions to his committee, he brought in a bill increasing the Supreme Court judges to ten, making ten instead of seven circuits, and providing that six judges should constitute a quorum for the transaction of business. Although not a party question, the measure excited much opposition, and was more than a month in passing through the House. Mr. Webster supported it at every stage with great ability, and his two most important speeches, which are in their way models for the treatment of such a subject, are preserved in his works. The bill was carried by his great strength in debate and by height of forcible argument. But in the Senate, where it was deprived of the guardianship of its author, it hung along in uncertainty, and was finally lost through the apathy or opposition of those very Western members for whose benefit it had been devised. Mr. Webster took its ultimate defeat very coolly. The Eastern States did not require it, and were perfectly contented with the existing arrangements, and he was entirely satisfied with the assurance that the best lawyers and wisest men approved the principles of the bill. The time and thought which he had expended were not wasted so far as he was personally concerned, for they served to enhance his influence and reputation both as a lawyer and statesman.
This session brought with it also occasions for debate other than those which were offered by measures of purely legislative and practical interest. The administration of Mr. Adams marks the close of the "era of good feeling," as it was called, and sowed the germs of those divisions which were soon to result in new and definite party combinations. Mr. Adams and Mr. Clay represented the conservative and General Jackson and his friends the radical or democratic elements in the now all-embracing Republican party. It was inevitable that Mr. Webster should sympathize with the former, and it was equally inevitable that in doing so he should become the leader of the administration forces in the House, where "his great and commanding influence," to quote the words of an opponent, made him a host himself. The desire of Mr. Adams to send representatives to the Panama Congress, a scheme which lay very near his heart and to which Mr. Clay was equally attached, encountered a bitter and factious resistance in the Senate, sufficient to deprive the measure of any real utility by delaying its passage. In the House a resolution was introduced declaring simply that it was expedient to appropriate money to defray the expenses of the proposed mission. The opposition at once undertook by amendments to instruct the ministers, and generally to go beyond the powers of the House. The real ground of the attack was slavery, threatened, as was supposed, by the attitude of the South American republics—a fact which no one understood or cared to recognize. Mr. Webster stood forth as the champion of the Executive. In an elaborate speech of great ability he denounced the unconstitutional attempt to interfere with the prerogative of the President, and discussed with much effect the treaty-making power assailed on another famous occasion, many years before, by the South, and defended at that time also by the eloquence of a representative of Massachusetts. Mr. Webster showed the nature of the Panama Congress, defended its objects and the policy of the administration, and made a full and fine exposition of the intent of the "Monroe doctrine." The speech was an important and effective one. It exhibited in an exceptional way Mr. Webster's capacity for discussing large questions of public and constitutional law and foreign policy, and was of essential service to the cause which he espoused. It was imbued, too, with that sentiment of national unity which occupied a larger space in his thoughts with each succeeding year, until it finally pervaded his whole career as a public man.
At the second session of the same Congress, after a vain effort to confer upon the country the benefit of a national bankrupt law, Mr. Webster was again called upon to defend the Executive in a much more heated conflict than that aroused by the Panama resolution. Georgia was engaged in oppressing and robbing the Creek Indians, in open contempt of the treaties and obligations of the United States. Mr. Adams sent in a message reciting the facts and hinting pretty plainly that he intended to carry out the laws by force unless Georgia desisted. The message was received with great wrath by the Southern members. They objected to any reference to a committee, and Mr. Forsyth of Georgia declared the whole business to be "base and infamous," while a gentleman from Mississippi announced that Georgia would act as she pleased. Mr. Webster, having said that she would do so at her peril, was savagely attacked as the organ of the administration, daring to menace and insult a sovereign State. This stirred Mr. Webster, although slow to anger, to a determination to carry through the reference at all hazards. He said:—
"He would tell the gentleman from Georgia that if there were rights of the Indians which the United States were bound to protect, that there were those in the House and in the country who would take their part. If we have bound ourselves by any treaty to do certain things, we must fulfil such obligation. High words will not terrify us, loud declamation will not deter us from the discharge of that duty. In my own course in this matter I shall not be dictated to by any State or the representative of any State on this floor. I shall not be frightened from my purpose nor will I suffer harsh language to produce any reaction on my mind. I will examine with great and equal care all the rights of both parties.... I have made these few remarks to give the gentleman from Georgia to understand that it was not by bold denunciation nor by bold assumption that the members of this House are to be influenced in the decision of high public concerns."
When Mr. Webster was thoroughly roused and indignant there was a darkness in his face and a gleam of dusky light in his deep-set eyes which were not altogether pleasant to contemplate. How well Mr. Forsyth and his friends bore the words and look of Mr. Webster we have no means of knowing, but the message was referred to a select committee without a division. The interest to us in all this is the spirit in which Mr. Webster spoke. He loved the Union as intensely then as at any period of his life, but he was still far distant from the frame of mind which induced him to think that his devotion to the Union would be best expressed and the cause of the Union best served by mildness toward the South and rebuke to the North. He believed in 1826 that dignified courage and firm language were the surest means of keeping the peace. He was quite right then, and he would have been always right if he had adhered to the plain words and determined manner to which he treated Mr. Forsyth and his friends.
This session was crowded with work of varying importance, but the close of Mr. Webster's career in the lower House was near at hand. The failing health of Mr. E.H. Mills made it certain that Massachusetts would soon have a vacant seat in the Senate, and every one turned to Mr. Webster as the person above all others entitled to this high office. He himself was by no means so quick in determining to accept the position. He would not even think of it until the impossibility of Mr. Mills's return was assured, and then he had to meet the opposition of the administration and all its friends, who regarded with alarm the prospect of losing such a tower of strength in the House. Mr. Webster, indeed, felt that he could render the best service in the lower branch, and urged the senatorship upon Governor Lincoln, who was elected, but declined. After this there seemed to be no escape from a manifest destiny. Despite the opposition of his friends in Washington, and his own reluctance, he finally accepted the office of United States senator, which was conferred upon him by the Legislature of Massachusetts in June, 1827.
In tracing the labors of Mr. Webster during three years spent in the lower House, no allusion has been made to the purely political side of his career at this time, nor to his relations with the public men of the day. The period was important, generally speaking, because it showed the first signs of the development of new parties, and to Mr. Webster in particular, because it brought him gradually toward the political and party position which he was to occupy during the rest of his life. When he took his seat in Congress, in the autumn of 1823, the intrigues for the presidential succession were at their height. Mr. Webster was then strongly inclined to Mr. Calhoun, as was suspected at the time of that gentleman's visit to Boston. He soon became convinced, however, that Mr. Calhoun's chances of success were slight, and his good opinion of the distinguished South Carolinian seems also to have declined. It was out of the question for a man of Mr. Webster's temperament and habits of thought, to think for a moment of supporting Jackson, a candidate on the ground of military glory and unreflecting popular enthusiasm. Mr. Adams, as the representative of New England, and as a conservative and trained statesman, was the natural and proper candidate to receive the aid of Mr. Webster. But here party feelings and traditions stepped in. The Federalists of New England had hated Mr. Adams with the peculiar bitterness which always grows out of domestic quarrels, whether in public or private life; and although the old strife had sunk a little out of sight, it had never been healed. The Federalist leaders in Massachusetts still disliked and distrusted Mr. Adams with an intensity none the less real because it was concealed. In the nature of things Mr. Webster now occupied a position of political independence; but he had been a steady party man when his party was in existence, and he was still a party man so far as the old Federalist feelings retained vitality and force. He had, moreover, but a slight personal acquaintance with Mr. Adams and no very cordial feeling toward him. This disposed of three presidential candidates. The fourth was Mr. Clay, and it is not very clear why Mr. Webster refused an alliance in this quarter. Mr. Clay had treated him with consideration, they were personal friends, their opinions were not dissimilar and were becoming constantly more alike. Possibly there was an instinctive feeling of rivalry on this very account. At all events, Mr. Webster would not support Clay. Only one candidate remained: Mr. Crawford, the representative of all that was extreme among the Republicans, and, in a party sense, most odious to the Federalists. But it was a time when personal factions flourished rankly in the absence of broad differences of principle. Mr. Crawford was bidding furiously for support in every and any quarter, and to Mr. Crawford, accordingly, Mr. Webster began to look as a possible leader for himself and his friends. Just how far Mr. Webster went in this direction cannot be readily or surely determined, although we get some light on the subject from an attack made on Mr. Crawford just at this time. Ninian Edwards, recently senator from Illinois, had a quarrel with Mr. Crawford, and sent in a memorial to Congress containing charges against the Secretary of the Treasury which were designed to break him down as a candidate for the presidency. Of the merits of this quarrel it is not very easy to judge, even if it were important. The character of Edwards was none of the best, and Mr. Crawford had unquestionably made a highly unscrupulous use, politically, of his position. The members of the administration, although with no great love for Edwards, who had been appointed Minister to Mexico, were distinctly hostile to Mr. Crawford, and refused to attend a dinner from which Edwards had been expressly excluded. Mr. Webster's part in the affair came from his being on the committee charged with the investigation of the Edwards memorial. Mr. Adams, who was of course excited by the presidential contest, disposed to regard his rivals with extreme disfavor, and especially and justly suspicious of Mr. Crawford, speaks of Mr. Webster's conduct in the matter with the utmost bitterness. He refers to it again and again as an attempt to screen Crawford and break down Edwards, and denounces Mr. Webster as false, insidious, and treacherous. Much of this may be credited to the heated animosities of the moment, but there can be no doubt that Mr. Webster took the matter into his own hands in the committee, and made every effort to protect Mr. Crawford, in whose favor he also spoke in the House. It is likewise certain that there was an attempt to bring about an alliance between Crawford and the Federalists of the North and East. The effort was abortive, and even before the conclusion of the Edwards business Mr. Webster avowed that he should take but little part in the election, and that his only purpose was to secure the best terms possible for the Federalists, and obtain recognition for them from the next administration. At that time he wished Mr. Mason to be attorney-general, and had already turned his thoughts toward the English mission for himself.
To this waiting policy he adhered, but when the popular election was over, and the final decision had been thrown into the House of Representatives, more definite action became necessary. From the questions which he put to his brother and others as to the course which he ought to pursue in the election by the House, it is obvious that he was far from anxious to secure the choice of Mr. Adams, and was weighing carefully other contingencies. The feeling of New England could not, however, be mistaken. Public opinion there demanded that the members of the House should stand by the New England candidate to the last. To this sentiment Mr. Webster submitted, and soon afterwards took occasion to have an interview with Mr. Adams in order to make the best terms possible for the Federalists, and obtain for them suitable recognition. Mr. Adams assured Mr. Webster that he did not intend to proscribe any section or any party, and added that although he could not give the Federalists representation in the cabinet, he should give them one of the important appointments. Mr. Webster was entirely satisfied with this promise and with all that was said by Mr. Adams, who, as everybody knows, was soon after elected by the House on the first ballot.
Mr. Adams on his side saw plainly the necessity of conciliating Mr. Webster, whose great ability and influence he thoroughly understood. He told Mr. Clay that he had a high opinion of Mr. Webster, and wished to win his support; and the savage tone displayed in regard to the Edwards affair now disappears from the Diary. Mr. Adams, however, although he knew, as he says, that "Webster was panting for the English mission," and hinted that the wish might be gratified hereafter, was not ready to go so far at the moment, and at the same time he sought to dissuade Mr. Webster from being a candidate for the speakership, for which in truth the latter had no inclination. Their relations, indeed, soon grew very pleasant. Mr. Webster naturally became the leader of the administration forces in the House, while the President on his side sought Mr. Webster's advice, admired his oration on Adams and Jefferson, dined at his house, and lived on terms of friendship and confidence with him. It is to be feared, however, that all this was merely on the surface. Mr. Adams at the bottom of his heart never, in reality, relaxed in his belief that Mr. Webster was morally unsound. Mr. Webster, on the other hand, whose Federalist opposition to Mr. Adams had only been temporarily allayed, was not long in coming to the conclusion that his services, if appreciated, were not properly recognized by the administration. There was a good deal of justice in this view. The English mission never came, no help was to be obtained for Mr. Mason's election as senator from New Hampshire, the speakership was to be refused in order to promote harmony and strength in the House. To all this Mr. Webster submitted, and fought the battles of the administration in debate as no one else could have done. Nevertheless, all men like recognition, and Mr. Webster would have preferred something more solid than words and confidence or the triumph of a common cause. When the Massachusetts senatorship was in question Mr. Adams urged the election of Governor Lincoln, and objected on the most flattering grounds to Mr. Webster's withdrawal from the House. It is not a too violent conjecture to suppose that Mr. Webster's final acceptance of a seat in the Senate was due in large measure to a feeling that he had sacrificed enough for the administration. There can be no doubt that coolness grew between the President and the Senator, and that the appointment to England, if still desired, never was made, so that when the next election came on Mr. Webster was inactive, and, despite his hostility to Jackson, viewed the overthrow of Mr. Adams with a good deal of indifference and some satisfaction. It is none the less true, however, that during these years when the first foundations of the future Whig party were laid, Mr. Webster formed the political affiliations which were to last through life. He inevitably found himself associated with Clay and Adams, and opposed to Jackson, Benton, and Van Buren, while at the same time he and Calhoun were fast drifting apart. He had no specially cordial feeling to his new associates; but they were at the head of the conservative elements of the country, they were nationalists in policy, and they favored the views which were most affected in New England. As a conservative and nationalist by nature and education, and as the great New England leader, Mr. Webster could not avoid becoming the parliamentary chief of Mr. Adams's administration, and thus paved the way for leadership in the Whig party of the future.
In narrating the history of these years, I have confined myself to Mr. Webster's public services and political course. But it was a period in his career which was crowded with work and achievement, bringing fresh fame and increased reputation, and also with domestic events both of joy and sorrow. Mr. Webster steadily pursued the practice of the law, and was constantly engaged in the Supreme Court. To these years belong many of his great arguments, and also the prosecution of the Spanish claims, a task at once laborious and profitable. In the summer of 1824 Mr. Webster first saw Marshfield, his future home, and in the autumn of the same year he visited Monticello, where he had a long interview with Mr. Jefferson, of whom he has left a most interesting description. During the winter he formed the acquaintance and lived much in the society of some well-known Englishmen then travelling in this country. This party consisted of the Earl of Derby, then Mr. Stanley, Lord Wharncliffe, then Mr. Stuart Wortley; Lord Taunton, then Mr. Labouchere, and Mr. Denison, afterwards Speaker of the House of Commons. With Mr. Denison this acquaintance was the foundation of a lasting and intimate friendship maintained by correspondence. In June, 1825, came the splendid oration at Bunker Hill, and then a visit to Niagara, which, of course, appealed strongly to Mr. Webster. His account of it, however, although indicative of a deep mental impression, shows that his power of describing nature fell far short of his wonderful talent for picturing human passions and action. The next vacation brought the eulogy on Adams and Jefferson, when perhaps Mr. Webster may be considered to have been in his highest physical and intellectual perfection. Such at least was the opinion of Mr. Ticknor, who says:—
"He was in the perfection of manly beauty and strength; his form filled out to its finest proportions, and his bearing, as he stood before the vast multitude, that of absolute dignity and power. His manner of speaking was deliberate and commanding. I never heard him when his manner was so grand and appropriate; ... when he ended the minds of men were wrought up to an uncontrollable excitement, and then followed three tremendous cheers, inappropriate indeed, but as inevitable as any other great movement of nature."
He had held the vast audience mute for over two hours, as John Quincy Adams said in his diary, and finally their excited feelings found vent in cheers. He spoke greatly because he felt greatly. His emotions, his imagination, his entire oratorical temperament were then full of quick sensibility. When he finished writing the imaginary speech of John Adams in the quiet of his library and the silence of the morning hour, his eyes were wet with tears.
A year passed by after this splendid display of eloquence, and then the second congressional period, which had been so full of work and intellectual activity and well-earned distinction, closed, and he entered upon that broader field which opened to him in the Senate of the United States, where his greatest triumphs were still to be achieved.
THE TARIFF OF 1828 AND THE REPLY TO HAYNE.
The new dignity conferred on Mr. Webster by the people of Massachusetts had hardly been assumed when he was called upon to encounter a trial which must have made all his honors seem poor indeed. He had scarcely taken his seat when he was obliged to return to New York, where failing health had arrested Mrs. Webster's journey to the capital, and where, after much suffering, she died, January 21, 1828. The blow fell with terrible severity upon her husband. He had many sorrows to bear during his life, but this surpassed all others. His wife was the love of his youth, the mother of his children, a lovely woman whose strong but gentle influence for good was now lost to him irreparably. In his last days his thoughts reverted to her, and as he followed her body to the grave, on foot in the wet and cold, and leading his children by the hand, it must indeed have seemed as if the wine of life had been drunk and only the lees remained. He was excessively pale, and to those who looked upon him seemed crushed and heart-broken.
The only relief was to return to his work and to the excitement of public affairs; but the cloud hung over him long after he was once more in his place in the Senate. Death had made a wound in his life which time healed but of which the scar remained. Whatever were Mr. Webster's faults, his affection for those nearest to him, and especially for the wife of his youth, was deep and strong.
"The very first day of Mr. Webster's arrival and taking his seat in the Senate," Judge Story writes to Mr. Ticknor, "there was a process bill on its third reading, filled, as he thought, with inconvenient and mischievous provisions. He made, in a modest undertone, some inquiries, and, upon an answer being given, he expressed in a few words his doubts and fears. Immediately Mr. Tazewell from Virginia broke out upon him in a speech of two hours. Mr. Webster then moved an adjournment, and on the next day delivered a most masterly speech in reply, expounding the whole operation of the intended act in the clearest manner, so that a recommitment was carried almost without an effort. It was a triumph of the most gratifying nature, and taught his opponents the danger of provoking a trial of his strength, even when he was overwhelmed by calamity. In the labors of the court he has found it difficult to work himself up to high efforts; but occasionally he comes out with all his powers, and when he does, it is sure to attract a brilliant audience."
It would be impossible to give a better picture than that presented by Judge Story of Mr. Webster's appearance and conduct in the month immediately following the death of his wife. We can see how his talents, excited by the conflicts of the Senate and the court, struggled, sometimes successfully, sometimes in vain, with the sense of loss and sorrow which oppressed him.
He did not again come prominently forward in the Senate until the end of April, when he roused himself to prevent injustice. The bill for the relief of the surviving officers of the Revolution seemed on the point of being lost. The object of the measure appealed to Mr. Webster's love for the past, to his imagination, and his patriotism. He entered into the debate, delivered the fine and dignified speech which is preserved in his works, and saved the bill.
A fortnight after this he made his famous speech on the tariff of 1828, a bill making extensive changes in the rates of duties imposed in 1816 and 1824. This speech marks an important change in Mr. Webster's views and in his course as a statesman. He now gave up his position as the ablest opponent in the country of the protective policy, and went over to the support of the tariff and the "American system" of Mr. Clay. This change, in every way of great importance, subjected Mr. Webster to severe criticism both then and subsequently. It is, therefore, necessary to examine briefly his previous utterances on this question in order to reach a correct understanding of his motives in taking this important step and to appreciate his reasons for the adoption of a policy with which, after the year 1828, he was so closely identified.
When Mr. Webster first entered Congress he was a thorough-going Federalist. But the Federalists of New England differed from their great chief, Alexander Hamilton, on the question of a protective policy. Hamilton, in his report on manufactures, advocated with consummate ability the adoption of the principle of protection for nascent industries as an integral and essential part of a true national policy, and urged it on its own merits, without any reference to its being incident to revenue. The New England Federalists, on the other hand, coming from exclusively commercial communities, were in principle free-traders. They regarded with disfavor the doctrine that protection was a good thing in itself, and desired it, if at all, only in the most limited form and purely as an incident to raising revenue. With these opinions Mr. Webster was in full sympathy, and he took occasion when Mr. Calhoun, in 1814, spoke in favor of the existing double duties as a protective measure, and also in favor of manufactures, during the debate on the repeal of the embargo, to define his position on this important question. A few brief extracts will show his views, which were expressed very clearly and with his wonted ability and force.
"I consider," he said, "the imposition of double duties as a mere financial measure. Its great object was to raise revenue, not to foster manufactures.... I do not say the double duties ought to be continued. I think they ought not. But what I particularly object to is the holding out of delusive expectations to those concerned in manufactures.... In respect to manufactures it is necessary to speak with some precision. I am not, generally speaking, their enemy. I am their friend; but I am not for rearing them or any other interest in hot-beds. I would not legislate precipitately, even in favor of them; above all, I would not profess intentions in relation to them which I did not purpose to execute. I feel no desire to push capital into extensive manufactures faster than the general progress of our wealth and population propels it.
"I am not in haste to see Sheffields and Birminghams in America. Until the population of the country shall be greater in proportion to its extent, such establishments would be impracticable if attempted, and if practicable they would be unwise."
He then pointed out the inferiority and the perils of manufactures as an occupation in comparison with agriculture, and concluded as follows:—
"I am not anxious to accelerate the approach of the period when the great mass of American labor shall not find its employment in the field; when the young men of the country shall be obliged to shut their eyes upon external nature, upon the heavens and the earth, and immerse themselves in close and unwholesome workshops; when they shall be obliged to shut their ears to the bleatings of their own flocks upon their own hills, and to the voice of the lark that cheers them at the plough, that they may open them in dust and smoke and steam to the perpetual whirl of spools and spindles, and the grating of rasps and saws. I have made these remarks, sir, not because I perceive any immediate danger of carrying our manufactures to an extensive height, but for the purpose of guarding and limiting my opinions, and of checking, perhaps, a little the high-wrought hopes of some who seem to look to our present infant establishments for 'more than their nature or their state can bear.'
"It is the true policy of government to suffer the different pursuits of society to take their own course, and not to give excessive bounties or encouragements to one over another. This, also, is the true spirit of the Constitution. It has not, in my opinion, conferred on the government the power of changing the occupations of the people of different States and sections, and of forcing them into other employments. It cannot prohibit commerce any more than agriculture, nor manufactures any more than commerce. It owes protection to all."
The sentences in italics constitute a pretty strong and explicit statement of the laissez faire doctrine, and it will be observed that the tone of all the extracts is favorable to free trade and hostile to protection and even to manufactures in a marked degree. We see, also, that Mr. Webster, with his usual penetration and justice of perception, saw very clearly that uniformity and steadiness of policy were more essential than even the policy itself, and in his opinion were most likely to be attained by refraining from protection as much as possible.
When the tariff of 1816 was under discussion Mr. Webster made no elaborate speech against it, probably feeling that it was hopeless to attempt to defeat the measure as a whole, but he devoted himself with almost complete success to the task of reducing the proposed duties and to securing modifications of various portions of the bill.
In 1820, when the tariff recommended at the previous session was about to come before Congress, Mr. Webster was not in public life. He attended, however, a meeting of merchants and agriculturists, held in Faneuil Hall in the summer of that year, to protest against the proposed tariff, and he spoke strongly in favor of the free trade resolutions which were then adopted. He began by saying that he was a friend to manufactures, but not to the tariff, which he considered as most injurious to the country.
"He certainly thought it might be doubted whether Congress would not be acting somewhat against the spirit and intention of the Constitution in exercising a power to control essentially the pursuits and occupations of individuals in their private concerns—a power to force great and sudden changes both of occupation and property upon individuals, not as incidental to the exercise of any other power, but as a substantial and direct power."
It will be observed that he objects to the constitutionality of protection as a "direct power," and in the speech of 1814, in the portion quoted in italics, he declared against any general power still more forcibly and broadly. It is an impossible piece of subtlety and refining, therefore, to argue that Mr. Webster always held consistently to his views as to the limitations of the revenue power as a source of protection, and that he put protection in 1828, and subsequently sustained it after his change of position, on new and general constitutional grounds. In the speeches of 1814 and 1820 he declared expressly against the doctrine of a general power of protection, saying, in the latter instance:—
"It would hardly be contended that Congress possessed that sort of general power by which it might declare that particular occupations should be pursued in society and that others should not. If such power belonged to any government in this country, it certainly did not belong to the general government."
Mr. Webster took the New England position that there was no general power, and having so declared in this speech of 1820, he then went on to show that protection could only come as incidental to revenue, and that, even in this way, it became unconstitutional when the incident was turned into the principle and when protection and not revenue was the object of the duties. After arguing this point, he proceeded to discuss the general expediency of protection, holding it up as a thoroughly mistaken policy, a failure in England which that country would gladly be rid of, and defending commerce as the truest and best support of the government and of general prosperity. He took up next the immediate effects of the proposed tariff, and, premising that it would confessedly cause a diminution of the revenue, said:—
"In truth, every man in the community not immediately benefited by the new duties would suffer a double loss. In the first place, by shutting out the former commodity, the price of the domestic manufacture would be raised. The consumer, therefore, must pay more for it, and insomuch as government will have lost the duty on the imported article, a tax equal to that duty must be paid to the government. The real amount, then, of this bounty on a given article will be precisely the amount of the present duty added to the amount of the proposed duty."
He then went on to show the injustice which would be done to all manufacturers of unprotected articles, and ridiculed the idea of the connection between home industries artificially developed and national independence. He concluded by assailing manufacturing as an occupation, attacking it as a means of making the rich richer and the poor poorer; of injuring business by concentrating capital in the hands of a few who obtained control of the corporations; of distributing capital less widely than commerce; of breeding up a dangerous and undesirable population; and of leading to the hurtful employment of women and children. The meeting, the resolutions, and the speech were all in the interests of commerce and free trade, and Mr. Webster's doctrines were on the most approved pattern of New England Federalism, which, professing a mild friendship for manufactures and unwillingly conceding the minimum of protection solely as an incident to revenue, was, at bottom, thoroughly hostile to both. In 1820 Mr. Webster stood forth, both politically and constitutionally, as a free-trader, moderate but at the same time decided in his opinions.
When the tariff of 1824 was brought before Congress and advocated with great zeal by Mr. Clay, who upheld it as the "American system," Mr. Webster opposed the policy in the fullest and most elaborate speech he had yet made on the subject. A distinguished American economist, Mr. Edward Atkinson, has described this speech of 1824 briefly and exactly in the following words:—
"It contains a refutation of the exploded theory of the balance of trade, of the fallacy with regard to the exportation of specie, and of the claim that the policy of protection is distinctively the American policy which can never be improved upon, and it indicates how thoroughly his judgment approved and his better nature sympathized with the movement towards enlightened and liberal commercial legislation, then already commenced in Great Britain."
This speech was in truth one of great ability, showing a remarkable capacity for questions of political economy, and opening with an admirable discussion of the currency and of finance, in regard to which Mr. Webster always held and advanced the soundest, most scientific, and most enlightened views. Now, as in 1820, he stood forth as the especial champion of commerce, which, as he said, had thriven without protection, had brought revenue to the government and wealth to the country, and would be grievously injured by the proposed tariff. He made his principal objection to the protection policy on the ground of favoritism to some interests at the expense of others when all were entitled to equal consideration. Of England he said, "Because a thing has been wrongly done, it does not follow that it can be undone; and this is the reason, as I understand it, for which exclusion, prohibition, and monopoly are suffered to remain in any degree in the English system." After examining at length the different varieties of protection, and displaying very thoroughly the state of current English opinion, he defined the position which he, in common with the Federalists of New England, then as always adhered to in the following words:—
"Protection, when carried to the point which is now recommended, that is, to entire prohibition, seems to me destructive of all commercial intercourse between nations. We are urged to adopt the system on general principles; ... I do not admit the general principle; on the contrary, I think freedom of trade the general principle, and restriction the exception."
He pointed out that the proposed protective policy involved a decline of commerce, and that steadiness and uniformity, the most essential requisites in any policy, were endangered. He then with great power dealt with the various points summarized by Mr. Atkinson, and concluded with a detailed and learned examination of the various clauses of the bill, which finally passed by a small majority and became law.
In 1828 came another tariff bill, so bad and so extreme in many respects that it was called the "bill of abominations." It originated in the agitation of the woollen manufacturers which had started the year before, and for this bill Mr. Webster spoke and voted. He changed his ground on this important question absolutely and entirely, and made no pretence of doing anything else. The speech which he made on this occasion is a celebrated one, but it is so solely on account of the startling change of position which it announced. Mr. Webster has been attacked and defended for his action at this time with great zeal, and all the constitutional and economic arguments for and against protection are continually brought forward in this connection. From the tone of the discussion, it is to be feared that many of those who are interested in the question have not taken the trouble to read what he said. The speech of 1828 is by no means equal in any way to its predecessors in the same field. It is brief and simple to the last degree. It has not a shred of constitutional argument, nor does it enter at all into a discussion of general principles. It makes but one point, and treats that point with great force as the only one to be made under the circumstances, and thereby presents the single and sufficient reason for its author's vote. A few lines from the speech give the marrow of the whole matter. Mr. Webster said:—
"New England, sir, has not been a leader in this policy. On the contrary, she held back herself and tried to hold others back from it, from the adoption of the Constitution to 1824. Up to 1824 she was accused of sinister and selfish designs, because she discountenanced the progress of this policy.... Under this angry denunciation against her the act of 1824 passed. Now the imputation is of a precisely opposite character.... Both charges, sir, are equally without the slightest foundation. The opinion of New England up to 1824 was founded in the conviction that, on the whole, it was wisest and best, both for herself and others, that manufactures should make haste slowly.... When, at the commencement of the late war, duties were doubled, we were told that we should find a mitigation of the weight of taxation in the new aid and succor which would be thus afforded to our own manufacturing labor. Like arguments were urged, and prevailed, but not by the aid of New England votes, when the tariff was afterwards arranged at the close of the war in 1816. Finally, after a winter's deliberation, the act of 1824 received the sanction of both Houses of Congress and settled the policy of the country. What, then, was New England to do?... Was she to hold out forever against the course of the government, and see herself losing on one side and yet make no effort to sustain herself on the other? No, sir. Nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others. Nothing was left to her but to consider that the government had fixed and determined its own policy; and that policy was protection.... I believe, sir, almost every man from New England who voted against the law of 1824 declared that if, notwithstanding his opposition to that law, it should still pass, there would be no alternative but to consider the course and policy of the government as then settled and fixed, and to act accordingly. The law did pass; and a vast increase of investment in manufacturing establishments was the consequence."
Opinion in New England changed for good and sufficient business reasons, and Mr. Webster changed with it. Free trade had commended itself to him as an abstract principle, and he had sustained and defended it as in the interest of commercial New England. But when the weight of interest in New England shifted from free trade to protection Mr. Webster followed it. His constituents were by no means unanimous in support of the tariff in 1828, but the majority favored it, and Mr. Webster went with the majority. At a public dinner given to him in Boston at the close of the session, he explained to the dissentient minority the reasons for his vote, which were very simple. He thought that good predominated over evil in the bill, and that the majority throughout the whole State of which he was the representative favored the tariff, and therefore he had voted in the affirmative.
Much fault has been found, as has been said, both at the time and since, with Mr. Webster's change of position on this question. It has been held up as a monument of inconsistency, and as indicating a total absence of deep conviction. That Mr. Webster was, in a certain sense, inconsistent is beyond doubt, but consistency is the bugbear of small minds, as well as a mark of strong characters, while its reverse is often the proof of wisdom. On the other hand, it may be fairly argued that, holding as he did that the whole thing was purely a business question to be decided according to circumstances, his course, in view of the policy adopted by the government, was at bottom perfectly consistent. As to the want of deep conviction, Mr. Webster's vote on this question proves nothing. He believed in free trade as an abstract general principle, and there is no reason to suppose that he ever abandoned his belief on this point. But he had too clear a mind ever to be run away with by the extreme vagaries of the Manchester school. He knew that there was no morality, no immutable right and wrong, in an impost or a free list. It has been the fashion to refer to Mr. Disraeli's declaration that free trade was "a mere question of expediency" as a proof of that gentleman's cynical indifference to moral principles. That the late Earl of Beaconsfield had no deep convictions on any subject may be readily admitted, but in this instance he uttered a very plain and simple truth, which all the talk in the world about free trade as the harbinger and foundation of universal peace on earth, cannot disguise.
Mr. Webster never at any time treated the question of free trade or protection as anything but one of expediency. Under the lead of Mr. Calhoun, in 1816, the South and West initiated a protective policy, and after twelve years it had become firmly established and New England had adapted herself to it. Mr. Webster, as a New England representative, resisted the protective policy at the outset as against her interests, but when she had conformed to the new conditions, he came over to its support simply on the ground of expediency. He rested the defence of his new position upon the doctrine which he had always consistently preached, that uniformity and permanency were the essential and sound conditions of any policy, whether of free trade or protection. In 1828, neither at the dinner in Boston nor in the Senate, did he enter into any discussion of general principles or constitutional theories. He merely said, in substance, You have chosen to make protection necessary to New England, and therefore I am now forced to vote for it. This was the position which he continued to hold to the end of his life. As he was called upon, year after year, to defend protection, and as New England became more and more wedded to the tariff, he elaborated his arguments on many points, but the essence of all he said afterwards is to be found in the speech of 1828. On the constitutional point he was obliged to make a more violent change. He held, of course, to his opinion that, under the revenue power, protection could be incidental only, because from that doctrine there was no escape. But he dropped the condemnation expressed in 1814 and the doubts uttered in 1820 as to the theory that it was within the direct power of Congress to enact a protective tariff, and assumed that they had this right as one of the general powers in the Constitution, or that at all events they had exercised it, and that therefore the question was henceforward to be considered as res adjudicata. The speech of 1828 marks the separation of Mr. Webster from the opinions of the old school of New England Federalism. Thereafter he stood forth as the champion of the tariff and of the "American system" of Henry Clay. Regarding protection in its true light, as a mere question of expediency, he followed the interests of New England and of the great industrial communities of the North. That he shifted his ground at the proper moment, bad as the "bill of abominations" was, and that, as a Northern statesman, he was perfectly justified in doing so, cannot be fairly questioned or criticised. It is true that his course was a sectional one, but everybody else's on this question was the same, and it could not be, it never has been, and never will be otherwise.
The tariff of 1828 was destined indirectly to have far more important results to Mr. Webster than the brief speech in which he signalized his change of position on the question of protection. Soon after the passage of the act, in May, 1828, the South Carolina delegation held a meeting to take steps to resist the operation of the tariff, but nothing definite was then accomplished. Popular meetings in South Carolina, characterized by much violent talk, followed, however, during the summer, and in the autumn the Legislature of the State put forth the famous "exposition and protest" which emanated from Mr. Calhoun, and embodied in the fullest and strongest terms the principles of "nullification." These movements were viewed with regret and with some alarm throughout the country, but they were rather lost sight of in the intense excitement of the presidential election. The accession of Jackson then came to absorb the public attention, and brought with it the sweeping removals from office which Mr. Webster strongly denounced. At the same time he was not led into the partisan absurdity of denying the President's power of removal, and held to the impregnable position of steady resistance to the evils of patronage, which could be cured only by the operation of an enlightened public sentiment. It is obvious now that, in the midst of all this agitation about other matters, Mr. Calhoun and the South Carolinians never lost sight of the conflict for which they were preparing, and that they were on the alert to bring nullification to the front in a more menacing and pronounced fashion than had yet been attempted.
The grand assault was finally made in the Senate, under the eye of the great nullifier, who then occupied the chair of the Vice-President, and came in an unexpected way. In December, 1829, Mr. Foote of Connecticut introduced a harmless resolution of inquiry respecting the sales and surveys of the Western lands. In the long-drawn debate which ensued, General Hayne of South Carolina, on January 19, 1830, made an elaborate attack on the New England States. He accused them of a desire to check the growth of the West in the interests of the protective policy, and tried to show the sympathy which should exist between the West and South, and lead them to make common cause against the tariff. Mr. Webster felt that this attack could not be left unanswered, and the next day he replied to it. This first speech on Foote's resolution has been so obscured by the greatness of the second that it is seldom referred to and but little read. Yet it is one of the most effective retorts, one of the strongest pieces of destructive criticism, ever uttered in the Senate, although its purpose was simply to repel the charge of hostility to the West on the part of New England. The accusation was in fact absurd, and but few years had elapsed since Mr. Webster and New England had been assailed by Mr. McDuffie for desiring to build up the West at the expense of the South by the policy of internal improvements. It was not difficult, therefore, to show the groundlessness of this new attack, but Mr. Webster did it with consummate art and great force, shattering Hayne's elaborate argument to pieces and treading it under foot. Mr. Webster only alluded incidentally to the tariff agitation in South Carolina, but the crushing nature of the reply inflamed and mortified Mr. Hayne, who, on the following day, insisted on Mr. Webster's presence, and spoke for the second time at great length. He made a bitter attack upon New England, upon Mr. Webster personally, and upon the character and patriotism of Massachusetts. He then made a full exposition of the doctrine of nullification, giving free expression of the views and principles entertained by his master and leader, who presided over the discussion. The debate had now drifted far from the original resolution, but its real object had been reached at last. The war upon the tariff had been begun, and the standard of nullification and of resistance to the Union and to the laws of Congress had been planted boldly in the Senate of the United States. The debate was adjourned and Mr. Hayne did not conclude till January 25. The next day Mr. Webster replied in the second speech on Foote's resolution, which is popularly known as the "Reply to Hayne."
This great speech marks the highest point attained by Mr. Webster as a public man. He never surpassed it, he never equalled it afterwards. It was his zenith intellectually, politically, and as an orator. His fame grew and extended in the years which followed, he won ample distinction in other fields, he made many other splendid speeches, but he never went beyond the reply which he made to the Senator from South Carolina on January 26, 1830.
The doctrine of nullification, which was the main point both with Hayne and Webster, was no new thing. The word was borrowed from the Kentucky resolutions of 1799, and the principle was contained in the more cautious phrases of the contemporary Virginia resolutions and of the Hartford Convention in 1814. The South Carolinian reproduction in 1830 was fuller and more elaborate than its predecessors and supported by more acute reasoning, but the principle was unchanged. Mr. Webster's argument was simple but overwhelming. He admitted fully the right of revolution. He accepted the proposition that no one was bound to obey an unconstitutional law; but the essential question was who was to say whether a law was unconstitutional or not. Each State has that authority, was the reply of the nullifiers, and if the decision is against the validity of the law it cannot be executed within the limits of the dissenting State. The vigorous sarcasm with which Mr. Webster depicted practical nullification, and showed that it was nothing more or less than revolution when actually carried out, was really the conclusive answer to the nullifying doctrine. But Mr. Calhoun and his school eagerly denied that nullification rested on the right to revolt against oppression. They argued that it was a constitutional right; that they could live within the Constitution and beyond it,—inside the house and outside it at one and the same time. They contended that, the Constitution being a compact between the States, the Federal government was the creation of the States; yet, in the same breath, they declared that the general government was a party to the contract from which it had itself emanated, in order to get rid of the difficulty of proving that, while the single dissenting State could decide against the validity of a law, the twenty or more other States, also parties to the contract, had no right to deliver an opposite judgment which should be binding as the opinion of the majority of the court. There was nothing very ingenious or very profound in the argument by which Mr. Webster demonstrated the absurdity of the doctrine which attempted to make nullification a peaceable constitutional privilege, when it could be in practice nothing else than revolution. But the manner in which he put the argument was magnificent and final. As he himself said, in this very speech of Samuel Dexter, "his statement was argument, his inference demonstration."
The weak places in his armor were historical in their nature. It was probably necessary, at all events Mr. Webster felt it to be so, to argue that the Constitution at the outset was not a compact between the States, but a national instrument, and to distinguish the cases of Virginia and Kentucky in 1799 and of New England in 1814, from that of South Carolina in 1830. The former point he touched upon lightly, the latter he discussed ably, eloquently, ingeniously, and at length. Unfortunately the facts were against him in both instances. When the Constitution was adopted by the votes of States at Philadelphia, and accepted by the votes of States in popular conventions, it is safe to say that there was not a man in the country from Washington and Hamilton on the one side, to George Clinton and George Mason on the other, who regarded the new system as anything but an experiment entered upon by the States and from which each and every State had the right peaceably to withdraw, a right which was very likely to be exercised. When the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions appeared they were not opposed on constitutional grounds, but on those of expediency and of hostility to the revolution which they were considered to embody. Hamilton, and no one knew the Constitution better than he, treated them as the beginnings of an attempt to change the government, as the germs of a conspiracy to destroy the Union. As Dr. Von Holst tersely and accurately states it, "there was no time as yet to attempt to strangle the healthy human mind in a net of logical deductions." That was the work reserved for John C. Calhoun.
What is true of 1799 is true of the New England leaders at Washington when they discussed the feasibility of secession in 1804; of the declaration in favor of secession made by Josiah Quincy in Congress a few years later; of the resistance of New England during the war of 1812, and of the right of "interposition" set forth by the Hartford Convention. In all these instances no one troubled himself about the constitutional aspect; it was a question of expediency, of moral and political right or wrong. In every case the right was simply stated, and the uniform answer was, such a step means the overthrow of the present system.
When South Carolina began her resistance to the tariff in 1830, times had changed, and with them the popular conception of the government established by the Constitution. It was now a much more serious thing to threaten the existence of the Federal government than it had been in 1799, or even in 1814. The great fabric which had been gradually built up made an overthrow of the government look very terrible; it made peaceable secession a mockery, and a withdrawal from the Union equivalent to civil war. The boldest hesitated to espouse any principle which was avowedly revolutionary, and on both sides men wished to have a constitutional defence for every doctrine which they promulgated. This was the feeling which led Mr. Calhoun to elaborate and perfect with all the ingenuity of his acute and logical mind the arguments in favor of nullification as a constitutional principle. At the same time the theory of nullification, however much elaborated, had not altered in its essence from the bald and brief statement of the Kentucky resolutions. The vast change had come on the other side of the question, in the popular idea of the Constitution. It was no longer regarded as an experiment from which the contracting parties had a right to withdraw, but as the charter of a national government. "It is a critical moment," said Mr. Bell of New Hampshire to Mr. Webster, on the morning of January 26, "and it is time, it is high time that the people of this country should know what this Constitution is." "Then," answered Mr. Webster, "by the blessing of heaven they shall learn, this day, before the sun goes down, what I understand it to be." With these words on his lips he entered the senate chamber, and when he replied to Hayne he stated what the Union and the government had come to be at that moment. He defined the character of the Union as it existed in 1830, and that definition so magnificently stated, and with such grand eloquence, went home to the hearts of the people, and put into noble words the sentiment which they felt but had not expressed. This was the significance of the reply to Hayne. It mattered not what men thought of the Constitution in 1789. The government which was then established might have degenerated into a confederation little stronger than its predecessor. But the Constitution did its work better, and converted a confederacy into a nation. Mr. Webster set forth the national conception of the Union. He expressed what many men were vaguely thinking and believing, and the principles which he made clear and definite went on broadening and deepening until, thirty years afterwards, they had a force sufficient to sustain the North and enable her to triumph in the terrible struggle which resulted in the preservation of national life. When Mr. Webster showed that practical nullification was revolution, he had answered completely the South Carolinian doctrine, for revolution is not susceptible of constitutional argument. But in the state of public opinion at that time it was necessary to discuss nullification on constitutional grounds also, and Mr. Webster did this as eloquently and ably as the nature of the case admitted. Whatever the historical defects of his position, he put weapons into the hands of every friend of the Union, and gave reasons and arguments to the doubting and timid. Yet after all is said, the meaning of Mr. Webster's speech in our history and its significance to us are, that it set forth with every attribute of eloquence the nature of the Union as it had developed under the Constitution. He took the vague popular conception and gave it life and form and character. He said, as he alone could say, the people of the United States are a nation, they are the masters of an empire, their union is indivisible, and the words which then rang out in the senate chamber have come down through long years of political conflict and of civil war, until at last they are part of the political creed of every one of his fellow-countrymen.
The reply to Hayne cannot, however, be dismissed with a consideration of its historical and political meaning or of its constitutional significance. It has a personal and literary importance of hardly less moment. There comes an occasion, a period perhaps, in the life of every man when he touches his highest point, when he does his best, or even, under a sudden inspiration and excitement, something better than his best, and to which he can never again attain. At the moment it is often impossible to detect this point, but when the man and his career have passed into history, and we can survey it all spread out before us like a map, the pinnacle of success can easily be discovered. The reply to Hayne was the zenith of Mr. Webster's life, and it is the place of all others where it is fit to pause and study him as a parliamentary orator and as a master of eloquence.
Before attempting, however, to analyze what he said, let us strive to recall for a moment the scene of his great triumph. On the morning of the memorable day, 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. The fierce attacks of the Southern leaders had angered and alarmed the people of the North. They longed with an intense longing to have these assaults met and repelled, and yet they could not believe that this apparently desperate feat could be successfully accomplished. Men of the North and of New England could be known in Washington, in those days, by their indignant but dejected looks and downcast eyes. They gathered in the senate chamber on the appointed day, quivering with anticipation, and with hope and fear struggling for the mastery in their breasts. With them were mingled those who were there from mere curiosity, and those who had come rejoicing in the confident expectation that the Northern champion would suffer failure and defeat.
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 rose. He had sat impassive and immovable during all the preceding days, while the storm of argument and invective had beaten about his head. At last his time had come; and as he rose and stood forth, drawing himself up to his full height, 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 now are. 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. With breathless attention they followed him as he proceeded. The strong masculine sentences, the sarcasm, the pathos, the reasoning, the burning appeals to love of State and country, flowed on unbroken. As his feelings warmed the fire came into his eyes; there was a glow on his swarthy cheek; his strong right arm seemed to sweep away resistlessly the whole phalanx of his opponents, and the deep and melodious cadences of his voice sounded like harmonious organ-tones as they filled the chamber with their music. 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 land-marks 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.
As every one knows, this speech contains much more than the argument against nullification, which has just been discussed, and exhibits all its author's intellectual gifts in the highest perfection. Mr. Hayne had touched on every conceivable subject of political importance, including slavery, which, however covered up, was really at the bottom of every Southern movement, and was certain sooner or later to come to the surface. All these various topics Mr. Webster took up, one after another, displaying a most remarkable strength of grasp and ease of treatment. He dealt with them all effectively and yet in just proportion. Throughout there are bursts of eloquence skilfully mingled with statement and argument, so that the listeners were never wearied by a strained and continuous rhetorical display; and yet, while the attention was closely held by the even flow of lucid reasoning, the emotions and passions were from time to time deeply aroused and strongly excited. In many passages of direct retort Mr. Webster used an irony which he employed always in a perfectly characteristic way. He had a strong natural sense of humor, but he never made fun or descended to trivial efforts to excite laughter against his opponent. He was not a witty man or a maker of epigrams. But he was a master in the use of a cold, dignified sarcasm, which at times, and in this instance particularly, he used freely and mercilessly. Beneath the measured sentences there is a lurking smile which saves them from being merely savage and cutting attacks, and yet brings home a keen sense of the absurdity of the opponent's position. The weapon resembled more the sword of Richard than the scimetar of Saladin, but it was none the less a keen and trenchant blade. There is probably no better instance of Mr. Webster's power of sarcasm than the famous passage in which he replied to Hayne's taunt about the "murdered coalition," which was said to have existed between Adams and Calhoun. In a totally different vein is the passage about Massachusetts, perhaps in its way as good an example as we have of Webster's power of appealing to the higher and more tender feelings of human nature. The thought is simple and even obvious, and the expression unadorned, and yet what he said had that subtle quality which stirred and still stirs the heart of every man born on the soil of the old Puritan Commonwealth.
The speech as a whole has all the qualities which made Mr. Webster a great orator, and the same traits run through his other speeches. An analysis of the reply to Hayne, therefore, gives us all the conditions necessary to forming a correct idea of Mr. Webster's eloquence, of its characteristics and its value. The Attic school of oratory subordinated form to thought to avoid the misuse of ornament, and triumphed over the more florid practice of the so-called "Asiatics." Rome gave the palm to Atticism, and modern oratory has gone still farther in the same direction, until its predominant quality has become that of making sustained appeals to the understanding. Logical vigilance and long chains of reasoning, avoided by the ancients, are the essentials of our modern oratory. Many able men have achieved success under these conditions as forcible and convincing speakers. But the grand eloquence of modern times is distinguished by the bursts of feeling, of imagery or of invective, joined with convincing argument. This combination is rare, and whenever we find a man who possesses it we may be sure that, in greater or less degree, he is one of the great masters of eloquence as we understand it. The names of those who in debate or to a jury have been in every-day practice strong and effective speakers, and also have thrilled and shaken large masses of men, readily occur to us. To this class belong Chatham and Burke, Fox, Sheridan and Erskine, Mirabeau and Vergniaud, Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster.
Mr. Webster was of course essentially modern in his oratory. He relied chiefly on the sustained appeal to the understanding, and he was a conspicuous example of the prophetic character which Christianity, and Protestantism especially, has given to modern eloquence. At the same time Mr. Webster was in some respects more classical, and resembled more closely the models of antiquity, than any of those who have been mentioned as belonging to the same high class. He was wont to pour forth the copious stream of plain, intelligible observations, and indulge in the varied appeals to feeling, memory, and interest, which Lord Brougham sets down as characteristic of ancient oratory. It has been said that while Demosthenes was a sculptor, Burke was a painter. Mr. Webster was distinctly more of the former than the latter. He rarely amplified or developed an image or a description, and in this he followed the Greek rather than the Englishman. Dr. Francis Lieber wrote: "To test Webster's oratory, which has ever been very attractive to me, I read a portion of my favorite speeches of Demosthenes, and then read, always aloud, parts of Webster; then returned to the Athenian; and Webster stood the test." Apart from the great compliment which this conveys, such a comparison is very interesting as showing the similarity between Mr. Webster and the Greek orator. Not only does the test indicate the merit of Mr. Webster's speeches, but it also proves that he resembled the Athenian, and that the likeness was more striking than the inevitable difference born of race and time. Yet there is no indication that Webster ever made a study of the ancient models or tried to form himself upon them.
The cause of the classic self-restraint in Webster was partly due to the artistic sense which made him so devoted to simplicity of diction, and partly to the cast of his mind. He had a powerful historic imagination, but not in the least the imagination of the poet, which
"Bodies forth the forms of things unknown."
He could describe with great vividness, brevity, and force what had happened in the past, what actually existed, or what the future promised. But his fancy never ran away with him or carried him captive into the regions of poetry. Imagination of this sort is readily curbed and controlled, and, if less brilliant, is safer than that defined by Shakespeare. For this reason, Mr. Webster rarely indulged in long, descriptive passages, and, while he showed the highest power in treating anything with a touch of humanity about it, he was sparing of images drawn wholly from nature, and was not peculiarly successful in depicting in words natural scenery or phenomena. The result is, that in his highest flights, while he is often grand and affecting, full of life and power, he never shows the creative imagination. But if he falls short on the poetic side, there is the counterbalancing advantage that there is never a false note nor an overwrought description which offends our taste and jars upon our sensibilities.
Mr. Webster showed his love of direct simplicity in his style even more than in his thought or the general arrangement and composition of his speeches. His sentences are, as a rule, short, and therefore pointed and intelligible, but they never become monotonous and harsh, the fault to which brevity is always liable. On the contrary, they are smooth and flowing, and there is always a sufficient variety of form. The choice of language is likewise simple. Mr. Webster was a remorseless critic of his own style, and he had an almost extreme preference for Anglo-Saxon words and a corresponding dislike of Latin derivatives. The only exception he made was in his habit of using "commence" instead of its far superior synonym "begin." His style was vigorous, clear, and direct in the highest degree, and at the same time warm and full of vitality. He displayed that rare union of strength with perfect simplicity, the qualities which made Swift the great master of pure and forcible English.
Charles Fox is credited with saying that a good speech never reads well. This opinion, taken in the sense in which it was intended, that a carefully-prepared speech, which reads like an essay, lacks the freshness and glow that should characterize the oratory of debate, is undoubtedly correct. But it is equally true that when a speech which we know to have been good in delivery is equally good in print, a higher intellectual plane is reached and a higher level of excellence is attained than is possible to either the mere essay or to the effective retort or argument, which loses its flavor with the occasion which draws it forth. Mr. Webster's speeches on the tariff, on the bank, and on like subjects, able as they are, are necessarily dry, but his speeches on nobler themes are admirable reading. This is, of course, due to the variety and ease of treatment, to their power, and to the purity of the style. At the same time, the immediate effect of what he said was immense, greater, even, than the intrinsic merit of the speech itself. There has been much discussion as to the amount of preparation which Mr. Webster made. His occasional orations were, of course, carefully written out beforehand, a practice which was entirely proper; but in his great parliamentary speeches, and often in legal arguments as well, he made but slight preparation in the ordinary sense of the term. The notes for the two speeches on Foote's resolution were jotted down on a few sheets of note-paper. The delivery of the second one, his masterpiece, was practically extemporaneous, and yet it fills seventy octavo pages and occupied four hours. He is reported to have said that his whole life had been a preparation for the reply to Hayne. Whether he said it or not, the statement is perfectly true. The thoughts on the Union and on the grandeur of American nationality had been garnered up for years, and this in a greater or less degree was true of all his finest efforts. The preparation on paper was trifling, but the mental preparation extending over weeks or days, sometimes, perhaps, over years, was elaborate to the last point. When the moment came, a night's work would put all the stored-up thoughts in order, and on the next day they would pour forth with all the power of a strong mind thoroughly saturated with its subject, and yet with the vitality of unpremeditated expression, having the fresh glow of morning upon it, and with no trace of the lamp.