Mr. Clay's next misstep was one of precipitation. General Jackson, after a three years' war upon the Bank, was alarmed at the outcry of its friends, and sincerely desired to make peace with it. We know, from the avowals of the men who stood nearest his person at the time, that he not only wished to keep the Bank question out of the Presidential campaign of 1832, but that he was willing to consent, on very easy conditions, to a recharter. It was Mr. Clay's commanding influence that induced the directors of the Bank to press for a recharter in 1832, and force the President to retraction or a veto. So ignorant was this able and high-minded man of human nature and of the American people, that he supposed a popular enthusiasm could be kindled in behalf of a bank! Such was the infatuation of some of his friends, that they went to the expense of circulating copies of the veto message gratis, for the purpose of lessening the vote for its author! Mr. Clay was ludicrously deceived as to his strength with the masses of the people,—the dumb masses,—those who have no eloquent orators, no leading newspapers, no brilliant pamphleteers, to speak for them, but who assert themselves with decisive effect on election day.
It was another capital error in Mr. Clay, as the leader of a party, to run at all against General Jackson. He should have hoarded his prestige for 1836, when the magical name of Jackson would no longer captivate the ignorant voter. Mr. Clay's defeat in 1832, so unexpected, so overwhelming, lamed him for life as a candidate for the Presidency. He lost faith in his star. In 1836, when there was a chance of success,—just a chance,—he would not suffer his name to appear in the canvass. The vote of the opposition was divided among three candidates,—General Harrison, Hugh L. White, and Daniel Webster; and Mr. Van Buren, of course, had an easy victory. Fortunately for his own happiness, Mr. Clay's desire for the Presidency diminished as his chances of reaching it diminished. That desire had never been morbid, it now became exceedingly moderate; nor do we believe that, after his crushing defeat of 1832, he ever had much expectation of winning the prize. He knew too well the arts by which success is assured, to believe that an honorable man could be elected to the Presidency by honorable means only.
Three other attempts were made to raise him to the highest office, and it was always Andrew Jackson who struck him down. In 1840, he was set aside by his party, and General Harrison nominated in his stead. This was Jackson's doing; for it was the great defeat of 1832 which had robbed Clay of prestige, and it was General Jackson's uniform success that suggested the selection of a military candidate. Again, in 1844, when the Texas issue was presented to the people, it was by the adroit use of General Jackson's name that the question of annexation was precipitated upon the country. In 1848, a military man was again nominated, to the exclusion of Henry Clay.
Mr. Clay used to boast of his consistency, averring that he had never changed his opinion upon a public question but once. We think he was much too consistent. A notable example of an excessive consistency was his adhering to the project of a United States Bank, when there was scarcely a possibility of establishing one, and his too steadfast opposition to the harmless expedient of the Sub-treasury. The Sub-treasury system has now been in operation for a quarter of a century. Call it a bungling and antiquated system, if you will; it has nevertheless answered its purpose. The public money is taken out of politics. If the few millions lying idle in the "Strong Box" do no good, they at least do no harm; and we have no overshadowing national bank to compete with private capital, and to furnish, every few years; a theme for demagogues. Mr. Clay saw in the Sub-treasury the ruin of the Republic. In his great speech of 1838, in opposition to it, he uttered, in his most solemn and impressive manner, the following words:—
"Mr. President, a great, novel, and untried measure is perseveringly urged upon the acceptance of Congress. That it is pregnant with tremendous consequences, for good or evil, is undeniable, and admitted by all. We firmly believe that it will be fatal to the best interests of this country, and ultimately subversive of its liberties."
No one acquainted with Mr. Clay, and no man, himself sincere, who reads this eloquent and most labored speech, can doubt Mr. Clay's sincerity. Observe the awful solemnity of his first sentences:—
"I have seen some public service, passed through many troubled times, and often addressed public assemblies, in this Capitol and elsewhere; but never before have I risen in a deliberative body under more oppressed feelings, or with a deeper sense of awful responsibility. Never before have I risen to express my opinions upon any public measure fraught with such tremendous consequences to the welfare and prosperity of the country, and so perilous to the liberties of the people, as I solemnly believe the bill under consideration will be. If you knew, sir, what sleepless hours reflection upon it has cost me, if you knew with what fervor and sincerity I have implored Divine assistance to strengthen and sustain me in my opposition to it, I should have credit with you, at least, for the sincerity of my convictions, if I shall be so unfortunate as not to have your concurrence as to the dangerous character of the measure. And I have thanked my God that he has prolonged my life until the present time, to enable me to exert myself, in the service of my country, against a project far transcending in pernicious tendency any that I have ever had occasion to consider. I thank him for the health I am permitted to enjoy; I thank him for the soft and sweet repose which I experienced last night; I thank him for the bright and glorious sun which shines upon us this day."
And what was the question at issue? It was whether Nicholas Biddle should have the custody of the public money at Philadelphia, and use the average balance in discounting notes; or whether Mr. Cisco should keep it at New York in an exceedingly strong vault, and not use any of it in discounting notes.
As the leader of a national party Mr. Clay failed utterly; for he was neither bad enough to succeed by foul means, nor skilful enough to succeed by fair means. But in his character of patriot, orator, or statesman, he had some brilliant successes in his later years. When Jackson was ready to concede all to the Nullifiers, and that suddenly, to the total ruin of the protected manufacturers, it was Clay's tact, parliamentary experience, and personal power that interposed the compromise tariff, which reduced duties gradually instead of suddenly. The Compromise of 1850, also, which postponed the Rebellion ten years, was chiefly his work. That Compromise was the best then attainable; and we think that the country owes gratitude to the man who deferred the Rebellion to a time when the United States was strong enough to subdue it.
Posterity, however, will read the speeches of Mr. Clay upon the various slavery questions agitated from 1835 to 1850 with mingled feelings of admiration and regret. A man compelled to live in the midst of slavery must hate it and actively oppose it, or else be, in some degree, corrupted by it. As Thomas Jefferson came at length to acquiesce in slavery, and live contentedly with it, so did Henry Clay lose some of his early horror of the system, and accept it as a necessity. True, he never lapsed into the imbecility of pretending to think slavery right or best, but he saw no way of escaping from it; and when asked his opinion as to the final solution of the problem, he could only throw it upon Providence. Providence, he said, would remove the evil in its own good time, and nothing remained for men but to cease the agitation of the subject. His first efforts, as his last, were directed to the silencing of both parties, but most especially the Abolitionists, whose character and aims he misconceived. With John C. Calhoun sitting near him in the Senate-chamber, and with fire-eaters swarming at the other end of the Capitol, he could, as late as 1843, cast the whole blame of the slavery excitement upon the few individuals at the North who were beginning to discern the ulterior designs of the Nullifiers. Among his letters of 1843 there is one addressed to a friend who was about to write a pamphlet against the Abolitionists. Mr. Clay gave him an outline of what he thought the pamphlet ought to be.
"The great aim and object of your tract should be to arouse the laboring classes in the Free States against abolition. Depict the consequences to them of immediate abolition. The slaves, being free, would be dispersed throughout the Union; they would enter into competition with the free laborer, with the American, the Irish, the German; reduce his wages; be confounded with him, and affect his moral and social standing. And as the ultras go for both abolition and amalgamation, show that their object is to unite in marriage the laboring white man and the laboring black man, and to reduce the white laboring man to the despised and degraded condition of the black man.
"I would show their opposition to colonization. Show its humane, religious, and patriotic aims; that they are to separate those whom God has separated. Why do the Abolitionists oppose colonization? To keep and amalgamate together the two races, in violation of God's will, and to keep the blacks here, that they may interfere with, degrade, and debase the laboring whites. Show that the British nation is co-operating with the Abolitionists, for the purpose of dissolving the Union, etc."
This is so very absurd, that, if we did not know it to express Mr. Clay's habitual feeling at that time, we should be compelled to see in it, not Henry Clay, but the candidate for the Presidency.
He really thought so in 1843. He was perfectly convinced that the white race and the black could not exist together on equal terms. One of his last acts was to propose emancipation in Kentucky; but it was an essential feature of his plan to transport the emancipated blacks to Africa. When we look over Mr. Clay's letters and speeches of those years, we meet with so much that is short-sighted and grossly erroneous, that we are obliged to confess that this man, gifted as he was, and dear as his memory is to us, shared the judicial blindness of his order. Its baseness and arrogance he did not share. His head was often wrong, but his heart was generally right. It atones for all his mere errors of abstract opinion, that he was never admitted to the confidence of the Nullifiers, and that he uniformly voted against the measures inspired by them. He was against the untimely annexation of Texas; he opposed the rejection of the anti-slavery petitions; and he declared that no earthly power should ever induce him to consent to the addition of one acre of slave territory to the possessions of the United States.
It is proof positive of a man's essential soundness, if he improves as he grows old. Henry Clay's last years were his best; he ripened to the very end. His friends remarked the moderation of his later opinions, and his charity for those who had injured him most. During the last ten years of his life no one ever heard him utter a harsh judgment of an opponent. Domestic afflictions, frequent and severe, had chastened his heart; his six affectionate and happy daughters were dead; one son was a hopeless lunatic in an asylum; another was not what such a father had a right to expect; and, at length, his favorite and most promising son, Henry, in the year 1847, fell at the battle of Buena Vista. It was just after this last crushing loss, and probably in consequence of it, that he was baptized and confirmed a member of the Episcopal Church.
When, in 1849, he reappeared in the Senate, to assist, if possible, in removing the slavery question from politics, he was an infirm and serious, but not sad, old man of seventy-two. He never lost his cheerfulness or his faith, but he felt deeply for his distracted country. During that memorable session of Congress he spoke seventy times. Often extremely sick and feeble, scarcely able, with the assistance of a friend's arm, to climb the steps of the Capitol, he was never absent on the days when the Compromise was to be debated. It appears to be well attested, that his last great speech on the Compromise was the immediate cause of his death. On the morning on which he began his speech, he was accompanied by a clerical friend, to whom he said, on reaching the long flight of steps leading to the Capitol, "Will you lend me your arm, my friend? for I find myself quite weak and exhausted this morning." Every few steps he was obliged to stop and take breath. "Had you not better defer your speech?" asked the clergyman. "My dear friend," said the dying orator, "I consider our country in danger; and if I can be the means, in any measure, of averting that danger, my health or life is of little consequence." When he rose to speak, it was but too evident that he was unfit for the task he had undertaken. But, as he kindled with his subject, his cough left him, and his bent form resumed all its wonted erectness and majesty. He may, in the prime of his strength, have spoken with more energy, but never with so much pathos and grandeur. His speech lasted two days, and, though he lived two years longer, he never recovered from the effects of the effort. Toward the close of the second day, his friends repeatedly proposed an adjournment; but he would not desist until he had given complete utterance to his feelings. He said afterwards that he was not sure, if he gave way to an adjournment, that he should ever be able to resume.
In the course of this long debate, Mr. Clay said some things to which the late war has given a new interest. He knew, at last, what the fire-eaters meant. He perceived now that it was not the few abhorred Abolitionists of the Northern States from whom danger to the Union was to be apprehended. On one occasion allusion was made to a South Carolina hot-head, who had publicly proposed to raise the flag of disunion. Thunders of applause broke from the galleries when Mr. Clay retorted by saying, that, if Mr. Rhett had really made that proposition, and should follow it up by corresponding acts, he would be a TRAITOR; "and," added Mr. Clay, "I hope he will meet a traitor's fate." When the chairman had succeeded in restoring silence, Mr. Clay made that celebrated declaration which was so frequently quoted in 1861:
"If Kentucky to-morrow should unfurl the banner of resistance unjustly, I will never fight under that banner. I owe a paramount allegiance to the whole Union,—a subordinate one to my own State."
He said also:
"If any one State, or a portion of the people of any State, choose to place themselves in military array against the government of the Union, I am for trying the strength of the government. I am for ascertaining whether we have a government or not."
"The Senator speaks of Virginia being my country. This UNION, sir, is my country; the thirty States are my country; Kentucky is my country, and Virginia no more than any State in the Union."
And yet again:
"There are those who think that the Union must be preserved by an exclusive reliance upon love and reason. That is not my opinion. I have some confidence in this instrumentality; but, depend upon it that no human government can exist without the power of applying force, and the actual application of it in extreme cases."
Who can estimate the influence of these clear and emphatic utterances ten years after? The crowded galleries, the numberless newspaper reports, the quickly succeeding death of the great orator,—all aided to give them currency and effect. We shall never know how many wavering minds they aided to decide in 1861. Not that Mr. Clay really believed the conflict would occur: he was mercifully permitted to die in the conviction that the Compromise of 1850 had removed all immediate danger, and greatly lessened that of the future. Far indeed was he from foreseeing that the ambition of a man born in New England, calling himself a disciple of Andrew Jackson, would, within five years, destroy all compromises, and render all future compromise impossible, by procuring the repeal of the first,—the Missouri Compromise of 1821.
Henry Clay was formed by nature to please, to move, and to impress his countrymen. Never was there a more captivating presence. We remember hearing Horace Greeley say that, if a man only saw Henry Clay's back, he would know that it was the back of a distinguished man. How his presence filled a drawing-room! With what an easy sway he held captive ten acres of mass-meeting! And, in the Senate, how skilfully he showed himself respectfully conscious of the galleries, without appearing to address them! Take him for all in all, we must regard him as the first of American orators; but posterity will not assign him that rank, because posterity will not hear that matchless voice, will not see those large gestures, those striking attitudes, that grand manner, which gave to second-rate composition first-rate effect. He could not have been a great statesman, if he had been ever so greatly endowed. While slavery existed no statesmanship was possible, except that which was temporary and temporizing. The thorn, we repeat, was in the flesh; and the doctors were all pledged to try and cure the patient without extracting it. They could do nothing but dress the wound, put on this salve and that, give the sufferer a little respite from anguish, and, after a brief interval, repeat the operation. Of all these physicians Henry Clay was the most skilful and effective. He both handled the sore place with consummate dexterity, and kept up the constitution of the patient by stimulants, which enabled him, at last, to live through the appalling operation which removed the cause of his agony.
Henry Clay was a man of honor and a gentleman. He kept his word. He was true to his friends, his party, and his convictions. He paid his debts and his son's debts. The instinct of solvency was very strong in him. He had a religion, of which the main component parts were self-respect and love of country. These were supremely authoritative with him; he would not do anything which he felt to be beneath Henry Clay, or which he thought would be injurious to the United States. Five times a candidate for the Presidency, no man can say that he ever purchased support by the promise of an office, or by any other engagement savoring of dishonor. Great talents and a great understanding are seldom bestowed on the same individual. Mr. Clay's usefulness as a statesman was limited by his talent as an orator. He relied too much on his oratory; he was never such a student as a man intrusted with public business ought to be. Hence he originated nothing and established nothing. His speeches will long be interesting as the relics of a magnificent and dazzling personality, and for the light they cast upon the history of parties; but they add scarcely anything to the intellectual property of the nation. Of American orators he was the first whose speeches were ever collected in a volume. Millions read them with admiration in his lifetime; but already they have sunk to the level of the works "without which no gentleman's library is complete,"—works which every one possesses and no one reads.
Henry Clay, regarded as a subject for biography, is still untouched. Campaign Lives of him can be collected by the score; and the Rev. Calvin Colton wrote three volumes purporting to be the Life of Henry Clay. Mr. Colton was a very honest gentleman, and not wanting in ability; but writing, as he did, in Mr. Clay's own house, he became, as it were, enchanted by his subject. He was enamored of Mr. Clay to such a degree that his pen ran into eulogy by an impulse which was irresistible, and which he never attempted to resist. In point of arrangement, too, his work is chaos come again. A proper biography of Mr. Clay would be one of the most entertaining and instructive of works. It would embrace the ever-memorable rise and first triumphs of the Democratic party; the wild and picturesque life of the early settlers of Kentucky; the war of 1812; Congress from 1806 to 1852; the fury and corruption of Jackson's reign; and the three great compromises which postponed the Rebellion. All the leading men and all the striking events of our history would contribute something to the interest and value of the work. Why go to antiquity or to the Old World for subjects, when such a subject as this remains unwritten?
[Footnote 1: Mill's Principles of Political Economy, Book V. Ch. X. sec. 1.]
[Footnote 2: Daniel Webster once said of him in conversation: "Mr. Clay is a great man; beyond all question a true patriot. He has done much for his country. He ought long ago to have been elected President. I think, however, he was never a man of books, a hard student; but he has displayed remarkable genius. I never could imagine him sitting comfortably in his library, and reading quietly out of the great books of the past. He has been too fond of the world to enjoy anything like that. He has been too fond of excitement,—he has lived upon it; he has been too fond of company, not enough alone; and has had few resources within himself. Now a man who cannot, to some extent, depend upon himself for happiness, is to my mind one of the unfortunate. But Clay is a great man; and if he ever had animosities against me, I forgive him and forget them."
These words were uttered at Marshfield when the news reached there that Mr. Clay was dying.]
[Footnote 3: This is the correct spelling of the name, as we learn from a living relative of the unfortunate man. It has been hitherto spelled Ambrister.]
Of words spoken in recent times, few have touched so many hearts as those uttered by Sir Walter Scott on his deathbed. There has seldom been so much of mere enjoyment crowded into the compass of one lifetime as there was into his. Even his work—all of his best work—was only more elaborate and keenly relished play; for story-telling, the occupation of his maturity, had first been the delight of his childhood, and remained always his favorite recreation. Triumph rewarded his early efforts, and admiration followed him to the grave. Into no human face could this man look, nor into any crowd of faces, which did not return his glance with a gaze of admiring love. He lived precisely where and how it was happiest for him to live; and he had above most men of his time that disposition of mind which makes the best of bad fortune and the most of good. But when his work and his play were all done, and he came calmly to review his life, and the life of man on earth, this was the sum of his reflections, this was what he had to say to the man to whom he had confided his daughter's happiness:
"Lockhart, I may have but a minute to speak to you. My dear, be a good man,—be virtuous,—be religious,—be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here."
So do we all feel in view of the open coffin, much as we may differ as to what it is to be good, virtuous, and religious. Was this man, who lies dead here before us, faithful to his trust? Was he sincere, pure, just, and benevolent? Did he help civilization, or was he an obstacle in its way? Did he ripen and improve to the end, or did he degenerate and go astray? These are the questions which are silently considered when we look upon the still countenance of death, and especially when the departed was a person who influenced his generation long and powerfully. Usually it is only the last of these questions which mortals can answer with any certainty; but from the answer to that one we infer the answers to all the others. As it is only the wise who learn, so it is only the good who improve. When we see a man gaining upon his faults as he advances in life, when we find him more self-contained and cheerful, more learned and inquisitive, more just and considerate, more single-eyed and noble in his aims, at fifty than he was at forty, and at seventy than he was at fifty, we have the best reason perceptible by human eyes for concluding that he has been governed by right principles and good feelings. We have a right to pronounce such a person good, and he is justified in believing us.
The three men most distinguished in public life during the last forty years in the United States were Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. Henry Clay improved as he grew old. He was a venerable, serene, and virtuous old man. The impetuosity, restlessness, ambition, and love of display, and the detrimental habits of his earlier years, gave place to tranquillity, temperance, moderation, and a patriotism without the alloy of personal objects. Disappointment had chastened, not soured him. Public life enlarged, not narrowed him. The city of Washington purified, not corrupted him. He came there a gambler, a drinker, a profuse consumer of tobacco, and a turner of night into day. He overcame the worst of those habits very early in his residence at the capital. He came to Washington to exhibit his talents, he remained there to serve his country; nor of his country did he ever think the less, or serve her less zealously, because she denied him the honor he coveted for thirty years. We cannot say this of Calhoun. He degenerated frightfully during the last twenty years of his life. His energy degenerated into intensity, and his patriotism narrowed into sectionalism. He became unteachable, incapable of considering an opinion opposite to his own, or even a fact that did not favor it. Exempt by his bodily constitution from all temptation to physical excesses, his body was worn out by the intense, unhealthy working of his mind. False opinions falsely held and intolerantly maintained were the debauchery that sharpened the lines of his face, and converted his voice into a bark. Peace, health, and growth early became impossible to him, for there was a canker in the heart of the man. His once not dishonorable desire of the Presidency became at last an infuriate lust after it, which his natural sincerity compelled him to reveal even while wrathfully denying it. He considered that he had been defrauded of the prize, and he had some reason for thinking so. Some men avenge their wrongs by the pistol, others by invective; but the only weapons which this man could wield were abstract propositions. From the hills of South Carolina he hurled paradoxes at General Jackson, and appealed from the dicta of Mrs. Eaton's drawing-room to a hair-splitting theory of States' Rights. Fifteen hundred thousand armed men have since sprung up from those harmless-looking dragon's teeth, so recklessly sown in the hot Southern soil.
Of the three men whom we have named, Daniel Webster was incomparably the most richly endowed by nature. In his lifetime it was impossible to judge him aright. His presence usually overwhelmed criticism; his intimacy always fascinated it. It so happened, that he grew to his full stature and attained his utmost development in a community where human nature appears to be undergoing a process of diminution,—where people are smaller-boned, less muscular, more nervous, and more susceptible than their ancestors. He possessed, in consequence, an enormous physical magnetism, as we term it, over his fellow-citizens, apart from the natural influence of his talents and understanding. Fidgety men were quieted in his presence, women were spellbound by it, and the busy, anxious public contemplated his majestic calm with a feeling of relief, as well as admiration. Large numbers of people in New England, for many years, reposed upon Daniel Webster. He represented to them the majesty and the strength of the government of the United States. He gave them a sense of safety. Amid the flighty politics of the time and the loud insincerities of Washington, there seemed one solid thing in America, so long as he sat in an arm-chair of the Senate-chamber. When he appeared in State Street, slowly pacing, with an arm behind him, business was brought to an absolute stand-still. As the whisper passed along, the windows filled with clerks, pen in mouth, peering out to catch a glimpse of the man whom they had seen fifty times before; while the bankers and merchants hastened forth to give him salutation, or exchange a passing word, happy if they could but catch his eye. At home, and in a good mood, he was reputed to be as entertaining a man as New England ever held,—a gambolling, jocund leviathan out on the sea-shore, and in the library overflowing with every kind of knowledge that can be acquired without fatigue, and received without preparation. Mere celebrity, too, is dazzling to some minds. While, therefore, this imposing person lived among us, he was blindly worshipped by many, blindly hated by some, calmly considered by very few. To this hour he is a great influence in the United States. Perhaps, with the abundant material now accessible, it is not too soon to attempt to ascertain how far he was worthy of the estimation in which his fellow-citizens held him, and what place he ought to hold in the esteem of posterity. At least, it can never be unpleasing to Americans to recur to the most interesting specimen of our kind that has lived in America since Franklin.
He could not have been born in a better place, nor of better stock, nor at a better time, nor reared in circumstances more favorable to harmonious development. He grew up in the Switzerland of America. From a hill on his father's New Hampshire farm, he could see most of the noted summits of New England. Granite-topped Kearsarge stood out in bold relief near by; Mount Washington and its attendant peaks, not yet named, bounded the northern horizon like a low, silvery cloud; and the principal heights of the Green Mountains, rising near the Connecticut River, were clearly visible. The Merrimack, most serviceable of rivers, begins its course a mile or two off, formed by the union of two mountain torrents. Among those hills, high up, sometimes near the summits, lakes are found, broad, deep, and still; and down the sides run innumerable rills, which form those noisy brooks that rush along the bottom of the hills, where now the roads wind along, shaded by the mountain, and enlivened by the music of the waters. Among these hills there are, here and there, expanses of level country large enough for a farm, with the addition of some fields upon the easier acclivities and woodlands higher up. There was one field of a hundred acres upon Captain Webster's mountain farm so level that a lamb could be seen on any part of it from the windows of the house. Every tourist knows that region now,—that wide, billowy expanse of dark mountains and vivid green fields, dotted with white farm-houses, and streaked with silvery streams. It was rougher, seventy years ago, secluded, hardly accessible, the streams unbridged, the roads of primitive formation; but the worst of the rough work had been done there, and the production of superior human beings had become possible, before the Webster boys were born.
Daniel Webster's father was the strong man of his neighborhood; the very model of a republican citizen and hero,—stalwart, handsome, brave, and gentle. Ebenezer Webster inherited no worldly advantages. Sprung from a line of New Hampshire farmers, he was apprenticed, in his thirteenth year, to another New Hampshire farmer; and when he had served his time, he enlisted as a private soldier in the old French war, and came back from the campaigns about Lake George a captain. He never went to school. Like so many other New England boys, he learned what is essential for the carrying on of business in the chimney-corner, by the light of the fire. He possessed one beautiful accomplishment: he was a grand reader. Unlettered as he was, he greatly enjoyed the more lofty compositions of poets and orators; and his large, sonorous voice enabled him to read them with fine effect. His sons read in his manner, even to his rustic pronunciation of some words. Daniel's calm, clear-cut rendering of certain noted passages—favorites in his early home—was all his father's. There is a pleasing tradition in the neighborhood, of the teamsters who came to Ebenezer Webster's mill saying to one another, when they had discharged their load and tied their horses, "Come, let us go in, and hear little Dan read a psalm." The French war ended, Captain Webster, in compensation for his services, received a grant of land in the mountain wilderness at the head of the Merrimack, where, as miller and farmer, he lived and reared his family. The Revolutionary War summoned this noble yeoman to arms once more. He led forth his neighbors to the strife, and fought at their head, with his old rank of captain, at White Plains and at Bennington, and served valiantly through the war. From that time to the end of his life, though much trusted and employed by his fellow-citizens as legislator, magistrate, and judge, he lived but for one object,—the education and advancement of his children. All men were poor then in New Hampshire, compared with the condition of their descendants. Judge Webster was a poor, and even embarrassed man, to the day of his death. The hardships he had endured as soldier and pioneer made him, as he said, an old man before his time. Rheumatism bent his form, once so erect and vigorous. Black care subdued his spirits, once so joyous and elastic. Such were the fathers of fair New England.
This strong-minded, uncultured man was a Puritan and a Federalist,—a catholic, tolerant, and genial Puritan, an intolerant and almost bigoted Federalist. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton were the civilians highest in his esteem; the good Jefferson he dreaded and abhorred. The French Revolution was mere blackness and horror to him; and when it assumed the form of Napoleon Bonaparte, his heart sided passionately with England in her struggle to extirpate it. His boys were in the fullest sympathy with him in all his opinions and feelings. They, too, were tolerant and untheological Puritans; they, too, were most strenuous Federalists; and neither of them ever recovered from their father's influence, nor advanced much beyond him in their fundamental beliefs. Readers have, doubtless, remarked, in Mr. Webster's oration upon Adams and Jefferson, how the stress of the eulogy falls upon Adams, while cold and scant justice is meted out to the greatest and wisest of our statesmen. It was Ebenezer Webster who spoke that day, with the more melodious voice of his son. There is a tradition in New Hampshire that Judge Webster fell sick on a journey in a town of Republican politics, and besought the doctor to help him speedily on his way home, saying that he was born a Federalist, had lived a Federalist, and could not die in peace in any but a Federalist town.
Among the ten children of this sturdy patriot and partisan, eight were ordinary mortals, and two most extraordinary,—Ezekiel, born in 1780, and Daniel, born in 1782,—the youngest of his boys. Some of the elder children were even less than ordinary. Elderly residents of the neighborhood speak of one half-brother of Daniel and Ezekiel as penurious and narrow; and the letters of others of the family indicate very plain, good, commonplace people. But these two, the sons of their father's prime, inherited all his grandeur of form and beauty of countenance, his taste for high literature, along with a certain energy of mind that came to them, by some unknown law of nature, from their father's mother. From her Daniel derived his jet-black hair and eyes, and his complexion of burnt gunpowder; though all the rest of the children except one were remarkable for fairness of complexion, and had sandy hair. Ezekiel, who was considered the handsomest man in the United States, had a skin of singular fairness, and light hair. He is vividly remembered in New Hampshire for his marvellous beauty of form and face, his courtly and winning manners, the weight and majesty of his presence. He was a signal refutation of Dr. Holmes's theory, that grand manners and high breeding are the result of several generations of culture. Until he was nineteen, this peerless gentleman worked on a rough mountain farm on the outskirts of civilization, as his ancestors had for a hundred and fifty years before him; but he was refined to the tips of his finger-nails and to the buttons of his coat. Like his more famous brother, he had an artist's eye for the becoming in costume, and a keen sense for all the proprieties and decorums both of public and private life. Limited in his view by the narrowness of his provincial sphere, as well as by inherited prejudices, he was a better man and citizen than his brother, without a touch of his genius. Nor was that half-brother of Daniel, who had the black hair and eyes and gunpowder skin, at all like Daniel, or equal to him in mental power.
There is nothing in our literature more pleasing than the glimpses it affords of the early life of these two brothers;—Ezekiel, robust, steady-going, persevering, self-denying; Daniel, careless of work, eager for play, often sick, always slender and weakly, and regarded rather as a burden upon the family than a help to it. His feebleness early habituated him to being a recipient of aid and favor, and it decided his destiny. It has been the custom in New England, from the earliest time, to bring up one son of a prosperous family to a profession, and the one selected was usually the boy who seemed least capable of earning a livelihood by manual labor. Ebenezer Webster, heavily burdened with responsibility all his life long, had most ardently desired to give his elder sons a better education than he had himself enjoyed, but could not. When Daniel was a boy, his large family was beginning to lift his load a little; the country was filling up; his farm was more productive, and he felt somewhat more at his ease. His sickly youngest son, because he was sickly, and only for that reason, he chose from his numerous brood to send to an academy, designing to make a schoolmaster of him. We have no reason to believe that any of the family saw anything extraordinary in the boy. Except that he read aloud unusually well, he had given no sign of particular talent, unless it might be that he excelled in catching trout, shooting squirrels, and fighting cocks. His mother, observing his love of play and his equal love of books, said he "would come to something or nothing, she could not tell which"; but his father, noticing his power over the sympathies of others, and comparing him with his bashful brother, used to remark, that he had fears for Ezekiel, but that Daniel would assuredly make his way in the world. It is certain that the lad himself was totally unconscious of possessing extraordinary talents, and indulged no early dream of greatness. He tells us himself, that he loved but two things in his youth,—play and reading. The rude schools which he trudged two or three miles in the winter every day to attend, taught him scarcely anything. His father's saw-mill, he used to say, was the real school of his youth. When he had set the saw and turned on the water, there would be fifteen minutes of tranquillity before the log again required his attention, during which he sat and absorbed knowledge.
"We had so few books," he records in the exquisite fragment of autobiography he has left us, "that to read them once or twice was nothing. We thought they were all to be got by heart."
How touching the story, so well known, of the mighty struggle and long self-sacrifice it cost this family to get the youth through college! The whole expense did not average one hundred and fifty dollars a year; but it seemed to the boy so vast and unattainable a good, that, when his father announced his purpose to attempt it, he was completely overcome; his head was dizzy; his tongue was paralyzed; he could only press his father's hands and shed tears. Slender indeed was his preparation for Dartmouth. From the day when he took his first Latin lesson to that on which he entered college was thirteen months. He could translate Cicero's orations with some ease, and make out with difficulty and labor the easiest sentences of the Greek Reader, and that was the whole of what was called his "preparation" for college. In June, 1797, he did not know the Greek alphabet; in August of the same year he was admitted to the Freshman Class of Dartmouth on engaging to supply his deficiencies by extra study.
Neither at college nor at any time could Daniel Webster be properly called a student, and well he knew it. Many a time he has laughed, in his jovial, rollicking manner, at the preposterous reputation for learning a man can get by bringing out a fragment of curious knowledge at the right moment at college. He was an absorbent of knowledge, never a student. The Latin of Cicero and Virgil was congenial and easy to him, and he learned more of it than the required portion. But even in Latin, he tells us, he was excelled by some of his own class; and "his attainments were not such," he adds, "as told for much in the recitation-room." Greek he never enjoyed: his curiosity was never awakened on the edge of that boundless contiguity of interesting knowledge, and he only learned enough Greek to escape censure. He said, forty years after, in an after-dinner speech:
"When I was at school I felt exceedingly obliged to Homer's messengers for the exact literal fidelity with which they delivered their messages. The seven or eight lines of good Homeric Greek in which they had received the commands of Agamemnon or Achilles they recited to whomsoever the message was to be carried; and as they repeated them verbatim, sometimes twice or thrice, it saved me the trouble of learning so much Greek."
It was not at "school" that he had this experience, but at Dartmouth College. For mathematics, too, he had not the slightest taste. He humorously wrote to a fellow-student, soon after leaving college, that "all that he knew about conterminous arches or evanescent subtenses might be collected on the pupil of a gnat's eye without making him wink." At college, in fact, he was simply an omnivorous reader, studying only so much as to pass muster in the recitation-room. Every indication we possess of his college life, as well as his own repeated assertions, confirms the conclusion that Nature had formed him to use the products of other men's toil, not to add to the common fund. Those who are conversant with college life know very well what it means when a youth does not take to Greek, and has an aversion to mathematics. Such a youth may have immense talent, and give splendid expression to the sentiments of his countrymen, but he is not likely to be one of the priceless few of the human race who discover truth or advance opinion. It is the energetic, the originating minds that are susceptible to the allurements of difficulty.
On the other hand, Daniel Webster had such qualities as made every one feel that he was the first man in the College. Tall, gaunt, and sallow, with an incomparable forehead, and those cavernous and brilliant eyes of his, he had much of the large and tranquil presence which was so important an element of his power over others at all periods of his life. His letters of this time, as well as the recollections of his fellow-students, show him the easy, humorous, rather indolent and strictly correct "good-fellow," whom professors and companions equally relished. He browsed much in the College library, and had the habit of bringing to bear upon the lesson of the hour the information gathered in his miscellaneous reading,—a practice that much enlivens the monotony of recitation. The half-dozen youths of his particular set, it appears, plumed themselves upon resembling the early Christians in having all things in common. The first to rise in the morning—and he must have been an early riser indeed who was up before Daniel Webster—"dressed himself in the best which the united apartments afforded"; the next made the best selection from what remained; and the last was happy if he found rags enough to justify his appearance in the chapel. The relator of this pleasant reminiscence adds, that he was once the possessor of an eminently respectable beaver hat, a costly article of resplendent lustre. It was missing one day, could not be found, and was given up for lost. Several weeks after "friend Dan" returned from a distant town, where he had been teaching school, wearing the lost beaver, and relieving its proprietor from the necessity of covering his head with a battered and long-discarded hat of felt. How like the Daniel Webster of later years, who never could acquire the sense of meum and tuum, supposed to be the basis of civilization!
Mr. Webster always spoke slightingly of his early oratorical efforts, and requested Mr. Everett, the editor of his works, not to search them out. He was not just to the productions of his youth, if we may judge from the Fourth-of-July oration which he delivered in 1800, when he was a Junior at Dartmouth, eighteen years of age. This glowing psalm of the republican David is perfectly characteristic, and entirely worthy of him. The times that tried men's souls,—how recent and vivid they were to the sons of Ebenezer Webster, who had led forth from the New Hampshire hills the neighbors at whose firesides Ezekiel and Daniel had listened, open-mouthed, to the thousand forgotten incidents of the war. Their professors of history were old John Bowen, who had once been a prisoner with the Indians; Robert Wise, who had sailed round the world and fought in the Revolution on both sides; George Bayly, a pioneer, who saw the first tree felled in Northern New Hampshire; women of the neighborhood, who had heard the midnight yell of savages; and, above all, their own lion-hearted father, who had warred with Frenchmen, Indians, wild nature, British troops, and French ideas. "O," wrote Daniel once, "I shall never hear such story-telling again!" It was not in the cold pages of Hildreth, nor in the brief summaries of school-books, that this imaginative, sympathetic youth had learned that part of the political history of the United States—from 1787 to 1800—which will ever be its most interesting portion. He learned it at town-meetings, in the newspapers, at his father's house, among his neighbors, on election days; he learned it as an intelligent youth, with a passionately loyal father and mother, learned the history of the late war, and is now learning the agonizing history of "reconstruction." This oration is the warm and modest expression of all that the receptive and unsceptical student had imbibed and felt during the years of his formation, who saw before him a large company of Revolutionary soldiers and a great multitude of Federalist partisans. He saluted the audience as "Countrymen, brethren, and fathers." The oration was chiefly a rapid, exulting review of the history of the young Republic, with an occasional pomposity, and a few expressions caught from the party discussions of the day. It is amusing to hear this young Federalist of 1800 speak of Napoleon Bonaparte as "the gasconading pilgrim of Egypt," and the government of France as the "supercilious, five-headed Directory," and the President of the United States as "the firm, the wise, the inflexible Adams, who with steady hand draws the disguising veil from the intrigues of foreign enemies and the plots of domestic foes." It is amusing to read, as the utterance of Daniel Webster, that "Columbia is now seated in the forum of nations, and the empires of the world are amazed at the bright effulgence of her glory." But it is interesting to observe, also, that at eighteen, not less fervently than at forty-eight, he felt the importance of the message with which he was charged to the American people,—the necessity of the Union, and the value of the Constitution as the uniting bond. The following passage has, perhaps, more in it of the Webster of 1830 than any other in the oration. The reader will notice the similarity between one part of it and the famous passage in the Bunker Hill oration, beginning "Venerable men," addressed to the survivors of the Revolution.
"Thus, friends and citizens, did the kind hand of overruling Providence conduct us, through toils, fatigues, and dangers, to independence and peace. If piety be the rational exercise of the human soul, if religion be not a chimera, and if the vestiges of heavenly assistance are clearly traced in those events which mark the annals of our nation, it becomes us on this day, in consideration of the great things which have been done for us, to render the tribute of unfeigned thanks to that God who superintends the universe, and holds aloft the scale that weighs the destinies of nations.
"The conclusion of the Revolutionary War did not accomplish the entire achievements of our countrymen. Their military character was then, indeed, sufficiently established; but the time was coming which should prove their political sagacity, their ability to govern themselves.
"No sooner was peace restored with England, (the first grand article of which was the acknowledgment of our independence,) than the old system of Confederation, dictated at first by necessity, and adopted for the purposes of the moment, was found inadequate to the government of an extensive empire. Under a full conviction of this, we then saw the people of these States engaged in a transaction which is undoubtedly the greatest approximation towards human perfection the political world ever yet witnessed, and which, perhaps, will forever stand in the history of mankind without a parallel. A great republic, composed of different States, whose interest in all respects could not be perfectly compatible, then came deliberately forward, discarded one system of government, and adopted another, without the loss of one man's blood.
"There is not a single government now existing in Europe which is not based in usurpation, and established, if established at all, by the sacrifice of thousands. But in the adoption of our present system of jurisprudence, we see the powers necessary for government voluntarily flowing from the people, their only proper origin, and directed to the public good, their only proper object.
"With peculiar propriety, we may now felicitate ourselves on that happy form of mixed government under which we live. The advantages resulting to the citizens of the Union are utterly incalculable, and the day when it was received by a majority of the States shall stand on the catalogue of American anniversaries second to none but the birthday of independence.
"In consequence of the adoption of our present system of government, and the virtuous manner in which it has been administered by a Washington and an Adams, we are this day in the enjoyment of peace, while war devastates Europe! We can now sit down beneath the shadow of the olive, while her cities blaze, her streams run purple with blood, and her fields glitter with a forest of bayonets! The citizens of America can this day throng the temples of freedom, and renew their oaths of fealty to independence; while Holland, our once sister republic, is erased from the catalogue of nations; while Venice is destroyed, Italy ravaged, and Switzerland—the once happy, the once united, the once flourishing Switzerland—lies bleeding at every pore!"
He need not have been ashamed of this speech, despite the lumbering bombast of some of its sentences. All that made him estimable as a public man is contained in it,—the sentiment of nationality, and a clear sense of the only means by which the United States can remain a nation; namely, strict fidelity to the Constitution as interpreted by the authority itself creates, and modified in the way itself appoints. We have never read the production of a youth which was more prophetic of the man than this. It was young New England that spoke through him on that occasion; and in all the best part of his life he never touched a strain which New England had not inspired, or could not reach.
His success at college giving him ascendency at home, he employed it for the benefit of his brother in a manner which few sons would have dared, and no son ought to attempt. His father, now advanced in years, infirm, "an old man before his time" through hardship and toil, much in debt, depending chiefly upon his salary of four hundred dollars a year as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and heavily taxed to maintain Daniel in college, had seen all his other sons married and settled except Ezekiel, upon whom he leaned as the staff of his declining years, and the main dependence of his wife and two maiden daughters. Nevertheless, Daniel, after a whole night of consultation with his brother, urged the old man to send Ezekiel to college also. The fond and generous father replied, that he had but little property, and it would take all that little to carry another son through college to a profession; but he lived only for his children, and, for his own part, he was willing to run the risk; but there was the mother and two unmarried sisters, to whom the risk was far more serious. If they consented, he was willing. The mother said:
"I have lived long in the world, and have been happy in my children. If Daniel and Ezekiel will promise to take care of me in my old age, I will consent to the sale of all our property at once, and they may enjoy the benefit of that which remains after our debts are paid."
Upon hearing this, all the family, we are told, were dissolved in tears, and the old man gave his assent. This seems hard,—two stout and vigorous young men willing to risk their aged parents' home and dignity for such a purpose, or for any purpose! In the early days, however, there was a singular unity of feeling and interest in a good New England family, and there were opportunities for professional men which rendered the success of two such lads as these nearly certain, if they lived to establish themselves. Nevertheless, it was too much to ask, and more than Daniel Webster would have asked if he had been properly alive to the rights of others. Ezekiel shouldered his bundle, trudged off to school, where he lived and studied at the cost of one dollar a week, worked his way to the position of the second lawyer in New Hampshire, and would early have gone to Congress but for his stanch, inflexible Federalism.
Daniel Webster, schoolmaster and law-student, was assuredly one of the most interesting of characters. Pinched by poverty, as he tells us, till his very bones ached, eking out his income by a kind of labor that he always loathed (copying deeds), his shoes letting in, not water merely, but "pebbles and stones,"—father, brother, and himself sometimes all moneyless together, all dunned at the same time, and writing to one another for aid,—he was nevertheless as jovial a young fellow as any in New England. How merry and affectionate his letters to his young friends! He writes to one, soon after leaving college:
"You will naturally inquire how I prosper in the article of cash; finely, finely! I came here in January with a horse, watch, etc., and a few rascally counters in my pocket. Was soon obliged to sell my horse, and live on the proceeds. Still straitened for cash, I sold my watch, and made a shift to get home, where my friends supplied me with another horse and another watch. My horse is sold again, and my watch goes, I expect, this week; thus you see how I lay up cash."
How like him! To another college friend, James Hervey Bingham, whom he calls, by turns, "brother Jemmy," "Jemmy Hervey," and "Bingham," he discourses thus:
"Perhaps you thought, as I did, that a dozen dollars would slide out of the pocket in a Commencement jaunt much easier than they would slide in again after you got home. That was the exact reason why I was not there.... I flatter myself that none of my friends ever thought me greatly absorbed in the sin of avarice, yet I assure you, Jem, that in these days of poverty I look upon a round dollar with a great deal of complacency. These rascal dollars are so necessary to the comfort of life, that next to a fine wife they are most essential, and their acquisition an object of prime importance. O Bingham, how blessed it would be to retire with a decent, clever bag of Rixes to a pleasant country town, and follow one's own inclination without being shackled by the duties of a profession!"
To the same friend, whom he now addresses as "dear Squire," he announces joyfully a wondrous piece of luck:
"My expenses [to Albany] were all amply paid, and on my return I put my hand in my pocket and found one hundred and twenty dear delightfuls! Is not that good luck? And these dear delightfuls were, 'pon honor, all my own; yes, every dog of them!"
To which we may add from another source, that they were straightway transferred to his father, to whom they were dear delightfuls indeed, for he was really getting to the end of his tether.
The schoolmaster lived, it appears, on the easiest terms with his pupils, some of whom were older than himself. He tells a story of falling in with one of them on his journey to school, who was mounted "on the ugliest horse I ever saw or heard of, except Sancho Panza's pacer." The schoolmaster having two good horses, the pupil mounted one of them, strapped his bag to his own forlorn animal and drove him before, where his odd gait and frequent stumblings kept them amused. At length, arriving at a deep and rapid river,
"this satire on the animal creation, as if to revenge herself on us for our sarcasms, plunged into the river, then very high by the freshet, and was wafted down the current like a bag of oats! I could hardly sit on my horse for laughter. I am apt to laugh at the vexations of my friends. The fellow, who was of my own age, and my room-mate, half checked the current by oaths as big as lobsters, and the old Rosinante, who was all the while much at her ease, floated up among the willows far below on the opposite side of the river."
At the same time he was an innocent young man. If he had any wild oats in his composition, they were not sown in the days of his youth. Expecting to pass his life as a country lawyer, having scarcely a premonition of his coming renown, we find him enjoying the simple country sports and indulging in the simple village ambitions. He tried once for the captaincy of a company of militia, and was not elected; he canvassed a whole regiment to get his brother the post of adjutant, and failed. At one time he came near abandoning the law, as too high and perilous for him, and settling down as schoolmaster and clerk of a court. The assurance of a certain six hundred dollars a year, a house, and a piece of land, with the prospect of the clerkship by and by, was so alluring to him that it required all the influence of his family and friends to make him reject the offer. Even then, in the flush and vigor of his youth, he was led. So was it always. He was never a leader, but always a follower. Nature made him very large, but so stinted him in propelling force, that it is doubtful if he had ever emerged from obscurity if his friends had not urged him on. His modesty in these innocent days is most touching to witness. After a long internal conflict, he resolved, in his twentieth year, to "make one more trial" at mastering the law.
"If I prosecute the profession, I pray God to fortify me against its temptations. To the wind I dismiss those light hopes of eminence which ambition inspired and vanity fostered. To be 'honest, to be capable, to be faithful' to my client and my conscience, I earnestly hope will be my first endeavor."
How exceedingly astonished would these affectionate young friends have been, if they could have looked forward forty years, and seen the timid law-student Secretary of State, and his ardent young comrade a clerk in his department. They seemed equals in 1802; in 1845, they had grown so far apart, that the excellent Bingham writes to Webster as to a demigod.
In these pleasant early letters of Daniel Webster there are a thousand evidences of a good heart and of virtuous habits, but not one of a superior understanding. The total absence of the sceptical spirit marks the secondary mind. For a hundred and fifty years, no young man of a truly eminent intellect has accepted his father's creeds without having first called them into question; and this must be so in periods of transition. The glorious light which has been coming upon Christendom for the last two hundred years, and which is now beginning to pervade the remotest provinces of it, never illumined the mind of Daniel Webster. Upon coming of age, he joined the Congregational Church, and was accustomed to open his school with an extempore prayer. He used the word "Deist" as a term of reproach; he deemed it "criminal" in Gibbon to write his fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, and spoke of that author as a "learned, proud, ingenious, foppish, vain, self-deceived man," who "from Protestant connections deserted to the Church of Rome, and thence to the faith of Tom Paine." And he never delivered himself from this narrowness and ignorance. In the time of his celebrity, he preferred what Sir Walter Scott called "the genteeler religion of the two," the Episcopal. In his old age, his idea of a proper sermon was incredibly narrow and provincial. He is reported to have said, late in life:—
"Many of the ministers of the present day take their text from St. Paul, and preach from the newspapers. When they do so, I prefer to enjoy my own thoughts rather than to listen. I want my pastor to come to me in the spirit of the Gospel, saying, 'You are mortal! your probation is brief; your work must be done speedily; you are immortal too. You are hastening to the bar of God; the Judge standeth before the door.' When I am thus admonished, I have no disposition to muse or to sleep."
This does not accord with what is usually observed in our churches, where sermons of the kind which Mr. Webster extolled dispose many persons to sleep, though not to muse.
In the same unquestioning manner, he imbibed his father's political prejudices. We hear this young Federalist call the Republican party "the Jacobins," just as the reactionists and tories of the present day speak of the present Republican party as "the radicals." It is amusing to hear him, in 1802, predict the speedy restoration to power of a party that was never again to taste its sweets. "Jacobinism and iniquity," he wrote in his twentieth year, "are so allied in signification, that the latter always follows the former, just as in grammar 'the accusative case follows the transitive verb.'" He speaks of a young friend as "too honest for a Democrat." As late as his twenty-second year, he was wholly unreconciled to Napoleon, and still wrote with truly English scorn of "Gallic tastes and Gallic principles." There is a fine burst in one of his letters of 1804, when he had been propelled by his brother to Boston to finish his law studies:—
"Jerome, the brother of the Emperor of the Gauls, is here; every day you may see him whisking along Cornhill, with the true French air, with his wife by his side. The lads say that they intend to prevail on American misses to receive company in future after the manner of Jerome's wife, that is, in bed. The gentlemen of Boston (i.e. we Feds) treat Monsieur with cold and distant respect. They feel, and every honest man feels, indignant at seeing this lordly grasshopper, this puppet in prince's clothes, dashing through the American cities, luxuriously rioting on the property of Dutch mechanics or Swiss peasants."
This last sentence, written when he was twenty-two years old, is the first to be found in his published letters which tells anything of the fire that was latent in him. He was of slow growth; he was forty-eight years of age before his powers had reached their full development.
When he had nearly completed his studies for the bar, he was again upon the point of abandoning the laborious career of a lawyer for a life of obscurity and ease. On this occasion, it was the clerkship of his father's court, salary fifteen hundred dollars a year, that tempted him. He jumped at the offer, which promised an immediate competency for the whole family, pinched and anxious for so many years. He had no thought but to accept it. With the letter in his hand, and triumphant joy in his face, he communicated the news to Mr. Gore, his instructor in the law; thinking of nothing, he tells us, but of "rushing to the immediate enjoyment of the proffered office." Mr. Gore, however, exhibited a provoking coolness on the subject. He said it was very civil in the judges to offer such a compliment to a brother on the bench, and, of course, a respectful letter of acknowledgment must be sent. The glowing countenance of the young man fell at these most unexpected and unwelcome words. They were, to use his own language, "a shower-bath of ice-water." The old lawyer, observing his crestfallen condition, reasoned seriously with him, and persuaded him, against his will, to continue his preparation, for the bar. At every turning-point of his life, whenever he came to a parting of the ways, one of which must be chosen and the other forsaken, he required an impulse from without to push him into the path he was to go. Except once! Once in his long public life, he seemed to venture out alone on an unfamiliar road, and lost himself. Usually, when great powers are conferred on a man, there is also given him a strong propensity to exercise them, sufficient to carry him through all difficulties to the suitable sphere. Here, on the contrary, there was a Great Eastern with only a Cunarder's engine, and it required a tug to get the great ship round to her course.
Admitted to the bar in his twenty-third year, he dutifully went home to his father, and opened an office in a New Hampshire village near by, resolved never again to leave the generous old man while he lived. Before leaving Boston, he wrote to his friend Bingham, "If I am not earning my bread and cheese in exactly nine days after my admission, I shall certainly be a bankrupt";—and so, indeed, it proved. With great difficulty, he "hired" eighty-five dollars as a capital to begin business with, and this great sum was immediately lost in its transit by stage. To any other young man in his situation, such a calamity would have been, for the moment, crushing; but this young man, indifferent to meum as to tuum, informs his brother that he can in no conceivable way replace the money, cannot therefore pay for the books he had bought, believes he is earning his daily bread, and as to the loss, he has "no uneasy sensations on that account." He concludes his letter with an old song, beginning,
"Fol de dol, dol de dol, di dol, I'll never make money my idol."
In the New Hampshire of 1805 there was no such thing possible as leaping at once into a lucrative practice, nor even of slowly acquiring it. A country lawyer who gained a thousand dollars a year was among the most successful, and the leader of the bar in New Hampshire could not earn two thousand. The chief employment of Daniel Webster, during the first year or two of his practice, was collecting debts due in New Hampshire to merchants in Boston. His first tin sign has been preserved to the present day, to attest by its minuteness and brevity the humble expectations of its proprietor. "D. Webster, Attorney," is the inscription it bears. The old Court-House still stands in which he conducted his first suit, before his own father as presiding judge. Old men in that part of New Hampshire were living until within these few years, who remembered well seeing this tall, gaunt, and large-eyed young lawyer rise slowly, as though scarcely able to get upon his feet, and giving to every one the impression that he would soon be obliged to sit down from mere physical weakness, and saying to his father, for the first and last time, "May it please your Honor." The sheriff of the county, who was also a Webster, used to say that he felt ashamed to see the family represented at the bar by so lean and feeble a young man. The tradition is, that he acquitted himself so well on this occasion that the sheriff was satisfied, and clients came, with their little suits and smaller fees, in considerable numbers, to the office of D. Webster, Attorney, who thenceforth in the country round went by the name of "All-eyes." His father never heard him speak again. He lived to see Daniel in successful practice, and Ezekiel a student of law, and died in 1806, prematurely old. Daniel Webster practised three years in the country, and then, resigning his business to his brother, established himself at Portsmouth, the seaport of New Hampshire, then a place of much foreign commerce. Ezekiel had had a most desperate struggle with poverty. At one time, when the family, as Daniel observed, was "heinously unprovided," we see the much-enduring "Zeke" teaching an Academy by day, an evening school for sailors, and keeping well up with his class in college besides. But these preliminary troubles were now at an end, and both the brothers took the places won by so much toil and self-sacrifice.
Those are noble old towns on the New England coast, the commerce of which Boston swallowed up forty years ago, while it left behind many a large and liberally provided old mansion, with a family in it enriched by ventures to India and China. Strangers in Portsmouth are still struck by the largeness and elegance of the residences there, and wonder how such establishments can be maintained in a place that has little "visible means of support." It was while Portsmouth was an important seaport that Daniel Webster learned and practised law there, and acquired some note as a Federalist politician.
The once celebrated Dr. Buckminster was the minister of the Congregational church at Portsmouth then. One Sunday morning in 1808, his eldest daughter sitting alone in the minister's pew, a strange gentleman was shown into it, whose appearance and demeanor strongly arrested her attention. The slenderness of his frame, the pale yellow of his complexion, and the raven blackness of his hair, seemed only to bring out into grander relief his ample forehead, and to heighten the effect of his deep-set, brilliant eyes. At this period of his life there was an air of delicacy and refinement about his face, joined to a kind of strength that women can admire, without fearing. Miss Buckminster told the family, when she went home from church, that there had been a remarkable person with her in the pew,—one that she was sure had "a marked character for good or evil." A few days after, the remarkable person came to live in the neighborhood, and was soon introduced to the minister's family as Mr. Daniel Webster, from Franklin, New Hampshire, who was about to open a law office in Portsmouth. He soon endeared himself to every person in the minister's circle, and to no one more than to the minister himself, who, among other services, taught him the art of preserving his health. The young man, like the old clergyman, was an early riser, up with the dawn in summer, and long before the dawn in winter; and both were out of doors with the sun, each at one end of a long saw, cutting wood for an appetite. The joyous, uncouth singing and shouting of the newcomer aroused the late sleepers. Then in to breakfast, where the homely, captivating humor of the young lawyer kept the table in a roar, and detained every inmate. "Never was there such an actor lost to the stage," Jeremiah Mason, his only rival at the New Hampshire bar, used to say, "as he would have made." Returning in the afternoon from court, fatigued and languid, his spirits rose again with food and rest, and the evening was another festival of conversation and reading. A few months after his settlement at Portsmouth he visited his native hills, saying nothing respecting the object of his journey; and returned with a wife,—that gentle and high-bred lady, a clergyman's daughter, who was the chief source of the happiness of his happiest years, and the mother of all his children. He improved in health, his form expanded, his mind grew, his talents ripened, his fame spread, during the nine years of his residence at this thriving and pleasant town.
At Portsmouth, too, he had precisely that external stimulus to exertion which his large and pleasure-loving nature needed. Jeremiah Mason was, literally speaking, the giant of the American bar, for he stood six feet seven inches in his stockings. Like Webster, he was the son of a valiant Revolutionary officer; like Webster, he was an hereditary Federalist; like Webster, he had a great mass of brain: but his mind was more active and acquisitive than Webster's, and his nineteen years of arduous practice at the bar had stored his memory with knowledge and given him dexterity in the use of it. Nothing shows the eminence of Webster's talents more than this, that, very early in his Portsmouth career, he should have been regarded at the bar of New Hampshire as the man to be employed against Jeremiah Mason, and his only fit antagonist. Mason was a vigilant, vigorous opponent,—sure to be well up in the law and the facts of a cause, sure to detect a flaw in the argument of opposing counsel. It was in keen encounters with this wary and learned man that Daniel Webster learned his profession; and this he always acknowledged. "If," he said once in conversation,—
"if anybody thinks I am somewhat familiar with the law on some points, and should be curious to know how it happened, tell him that Jeremiah Mason compelled me to study it. He was my master."
It is honorable, too, to both of them, that, rivals as they were, they were fast and affectionate friends, each valuing in the other the qualities in which he was surpassed by him, and each sincerely believing that the other was the first man of his time and country. "They say," in Portsmouth, that Mason did not shrink from remonstrating with his friend upon his carelessness with regard to money; but, finding the habit inveterate and the man irresistible, desisted. Webster himself says that two thousand dollars a year was all that the best practice in New Hampshire could be made to yield; and that that was inadequate to the support of his family of a wife and three little children. Two thousand dollars in Portsmouth, in 1812, was certainly equal, in purchasing power, to six thousand of the ineffectual things that now pass by the name of dollars; and upon such an income large families in a country town contrive to live, ride, and save.
He was a strenuous Federalist at Portsmouth, took a leading part in the public meetings of the party, and won great distinction as its frequent Fourth-of-July orator. All those mild and economical measures by which Mr. Jefferson sought to keep the United States from being drawn into the roaring vortex of the great wars in Europe, he opposed, and favored the policy of preparing the country for defence, not by gunboats and embargoes, but by a powerful navy of frigates and ships of the line. His Fourth-of-July orations, if we may judge of them by the fragments that have been found, show that his mind had strengthened more than it had advanced. His style wonderfully improved from eighteen to twenty-five; and he tells us himself why it did. He discovered, he says, that the value, as well as the force, of a sentence, depends chiefly upon its meaning, not its language; and that great writing is that in which much is said in few words, and those words the simplest that will answer the purpose. Having made this notable discovery, he became a great eraser of adjectives, and toiled after simplicity and directness. Mr. Everett quotes a few sentences from his Fourth-of-July oration of 1806, when he was twenty-four, which shows an amazing advance upon the effort of his eighteenth year, quoted above:—
"Nothing is plainer than this: if we will have commerce, we must protect it. This country is commercial as well as agricultural. Indissoluble bonds connect him who ploughs the land with him who ploughs the sea. Nature has placed us in a situation favorable to commercial pursuits, and no government can alter the destination. Habits confirmed by two centuries are not to be changed. An immense portion of our property is on the waves. Sixty or eighty thousand of our most useful citizens are there, and are entitled to such protection from the government as their case requires."
How different this compact directness from the tremendous fulmination of the Dartmouth junior, who said:—
"Columbia stoops not to tyrants; her spirit will never cringe to France; neither a supercilious, five-headed Directory nor the gasconading pilgrim of Egypt will ever dictate terms to sovereign America. The thunder of our cannon shall insure the performance of our treaties, and fulminate destruction on Frenchmen, till the ocean is crimsoned with blood and gorged with pirates!"
The Fourth-of-July oration, which afterwards fell into some disrepute, had great importance in the earlier years of the Republic, when Revolutionary times and perils were fresh in the recollection of the people. The custom arose of assigning this duty to young men covetous of distinction, and this led in time to the flighty rhetoric which made sounding emptiness and a Fourth-of-July oration synonymous terms. The feeling that was real and spontaneous in the sons of Revolutionary soldiers was sometimes feigned or exaggerated in the young law students of the next generation, who had merely read the history of the Revolution. But with all the faults of those compositions, they were eminently serviceable to the country. We believe that to them is to be attributed a considerable part of that patriotic feeling which, after a suspended animation of several years, awoke in the spring of 1861 and asserted itself with such unexpected power, and which sustained the country during four years of a peculiarly disheartening war. How pleasant and spirit-stirring was a celebration of the Fourth of July as it was conducted in Webster's early day! We trust the old customs will be revived and improved upon, and become universal. Nor is it any objection to the practice of having an oration, that the population is too large to be reached in that way; for if only a thousand hear, a million may read. Nor ought we to object if the orator is a little more flowery and boastful than becomes an ordinary occasion. There is a time to exult; there is a time to abandon ourselves to pleasant recollections and joyous hopes. Therefore, we say, let the young men reappear upon the platform, and show what metal they are made of by giving the best utterance they can to the patriotic feelings of the people on the national anniversary. The Republic is safe so long as we celebrate that day in the spirit of 1776 and 1861.
At least we may assert that it was Mr. Webster's Fourth-of-July orations, of which he delivered five in eleven years, that first made him known to the people of New Hampshire. At that period the two political parties could not unite in the celebration of the day, and accordingly the orations of Mr. Webster had much in them that could be agreeable only to Federalists. He was an occasional speaker, too, in those years, at meetings of Federalists, where his power as an orator was sometimes exerted most effectively. No speaker could be better adapted to a New England audience, accustomed from of old to weighty, argumentative sermons, delivered with deliberate, unimpassioned earnestness. There are many indications that a speech by Daniel Webster in Portsmouth in 1810 excited as much expectation and comment as a speech by the same person in the Senate twenty years after. But he was a mere Federalist partisan,—no more. It does not appear that he had anything to offer to his countrymen beyond the stately expression of party issues; and it was as a Federalist, pure and simple, that he was elected, in 1812, a member of the House of Representatives, after a keenly contested party conflict. His majority over the Republican candidate was 2,546,—the whole number of voters being 34,648.
The Federalists, from 1801 to 1825, were useful to the country only as an Opposition,—just as the present Tory party in England can be only serviceable in its capacity of critic and holdback. The Federalists under John Adams had sinned past forgiveness; while the Republican party, strong in being right, in the ability of its chiefs, in its alliance with Southern aristocrats, and in having possession of the government, was strong also in the odium and inconsistencies of its opponents. Nothing could shake the confidence of the people in the administration of Thomas Jefferson. But the stronger a party is, the more it needs an Opposition,—as we saw last winter in Washington, when the minority was too insignificant in numbers and ability to keep the too powerful majority from doing itself such harm as might have been fatal to it but for the President's well-timed antics. Next to a sound and able majority, the great need of a free country is a vigorous, vigilant, audacious, numerous minority. Better a factious and unscrupulous minority than none at all. The Federalists, who could justly claim to have among them a very large proportion of the rich men and the educated men of the country, performed the humble but useful service of keeping an eye upon, the measures of the administration, and finding fault with every one of them. Daniel Webster, however, was wont to handle only the large topics. While Mr. Jefferson was struggling to keep the peace with Great Britain, he censured the policy as timorous, costly, and ineffectual; but when Mr. Madison declared war against that power, he deemed the act unnecessary and rash. His opposition to the war was never carried to the point of giving aid and comfort to the enemy; it was such an opposition as patriotic "War Democrats" exhibited during the late Rebellion, who thought the war might have been avoided, and ought to be conducted more vigorously, but nevertheless stood by their country without a shadow of swerving.
He could boast, too, that from his boyhood to the outbreak of the war he had advocated the building of the very ships which gave the infant nation its first taste of warlike glory. The Republicans of that time, forgetful of what Paul Jones and others of Dr. Franklin's captains had done in the war of the Revolution, supposed that, because England had a thousand ships in commission, and America only seventeen, therefore an American ship could not venture out of a harbor without being taken. We have often laughed at Colonel Benton's ludicrous confession of his own terrors on this subject.
"Political men," he says,
"believed nothing could be done at sea but to lose the few vessels which we had; that even cruising was out of the question. Of our seventeen vessels, the whole were in port but one; and it was determined to keep them there, and the one at sea with them, if it had the luck to get in. I am under no obligation to make the admission, but I am free to acknowledge that I was one of those who supposed that there was no salvation for our seventeen men-of-war but to run them as far up the creek as possible, place them under the guns of batteries, and collect camps of militia about them to keep off the British. This was the policy at the day of the declaration of the war; and I have the less concern to admit myself to have been participator in the delusion, because I claim the merit of having profited from experience,—happy if I could transmit the lesson to posterity. Two officers came to Washington,—Bainbridge and Stewart. They spoke with Mr. Madison, and urged the feasibility of cruising. One half of the whole number of the British men-of-war were under the class of frigates, consequently no more than matches for some of our seventeen; the whole of her merchant marine (many thousands) were subject to capture. Here was a rich field for cruising; and the two officers, for themselves and brothers, boldly proposed to enter it.
"Mr. Madison had seen the efficiency of cruising and privateering, even against Great Britain, and in our then infantile condition, during the war of the Revolution; and besides was a man of sense, and amenable to judgment and reason. He listened to the two experienced and valiant officers; and without consulting Congress, which perhaps would have been a fatal consultation (for multitude of counsellors is not the counsel for bold decision), reversed the policy which had been resolved upon; and, in his supreme character of constitutional commander of the army and navy, ordered every ship that could cruise to get to sea as soon as possible. This I had from Mr. Monroe."
This is a curious example of the blinding effect of partisan strife, and of the absolute need of an Opposition. It was the hereditary prejudice of the Republicans against the navy, as an "aristocratic" institution, and the hereditary love of the navy cherished by the Federalists as being something stable and British, that enlivened the debates of the war. The Federalists had their way, but failed to win a partisan advantage from the fact, through their factious opposition to the military measures of the administration. Because the first attempt at the seizure of Canada had failed through the incompetency of General Hull, which no wisdom of man could have foreseen, Daniel Webster called upon the government to discontinue all further attempts on the land, and fight the war out on the sea. "Give up your futile projects of invasion," said he in 1814.
"Extinguish the fires that blaze on your inland borders." "Unclench the iron grasp of your embargo." "With all the war of the enemy on your commerce, if you would cease to make war upon it yourselves, you would still have some commerce. That commerce would give you some revenue. Apply that revenue to the augmentation of your navy. That navy, in turn, will protect your commerce."
In war time, however, there are two powers that have to do with the course of events; and very soon the enemy, by his own great scheme of invasion, decided the policy of the United States. Every port was blockaded so effectively that a pilot-boat could not safely go out of sight of land, and a frigate was captured within sight of it. These vigilant blockaders, together with the threatening armament which finally attacked New Orleans, compelled every harbor to prepare for defence, and most effectually refuted Mr. Webster's speech. The "blaze of glory" with which the war ended at New Orleans consumed all the remaining prestige of the Federalist party, once so powerful, so respectable, and so arrogant.
A member of the anti-war party during the existence of a war occupies a position which can only cease to be insignificant by the misfortunes of his country. But when we turn from the partisan to the man, we perceive that Daniel Webster was a great presence in the House, and took rank immediately with the half-dozen ablest debaters. His self-possession was perfect at all times, and at thirty-three he was still in the spring and first lustre of his powers. His weighty and deliberate manner, the brevity, force, and point of his sentences, and the moderation of his gestures, were all in strong contrast to the flowing, loose, impassioned manner of the Southern orators, who ruled the House. It was something like coming upon a stray number of the old Edinburgh Review in a heap of novels and Ladies' Magazines. Chief-Justice Marshall, who heard his first speech, being himself a Federalist, was so much delighted to hear his own opinions expressed with such power and dignity, that he left the House, believing that this stranger from far-off New Hampshire was destined to become, as he said, "one of the very first statesmen of America, and perhaps the very first." His Washington fame gave him new eclat at home. He was re-elected, and came back to Congress in 1815, to aid the Federalists in preventing the young Republicans from being too Federal.