Great Man Eloquent

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For more than a hundred years everybody has been writing about Daniel Webster and some have written well, but it can be plausibly argued that only one has written truthfully. There are twelve formal lives of Webster listed in the Dictionary of American Biography , and this takes no account of shorter studies by historians, philosophers, journalists, orators, and every known brand of politician. Few Americans have been more assiduously studied’ over so long a period.

But if effective history is such knowledge of the past as modifies contemporary thought and action, then one must agree with William A. Dunning that truth in history is not necessarily what happened, but what men believe happened, for it is on their beliefs that they act. What the vast majority of Americans believe about Daniel Webster is only slightly related to the mass of documentary evidence that scholarship has turned up: but it is not on that account to be dismissed as untrue. Fact and truth are related, but they are not identical, which accounts for our ability to weld “sophist” and “moron” into one word—the eternal sophomore who may acquire massive factual knowledge, but whom truth eludes.

The pedestrian writers who have dealt with Webster, even Gamaliel Bradford the Younger, even Samuel Hopkins Adams, have been hamstrung by their reliance on demonstrable fact as the key to essential truth. Not until the man had been almost a century dead did one who was no pedestrian, but a rider on Pegasus, have the boldness to repudiate fact altogether and present Webster not as he was prior to 1852, but as he is now.

There was indeed a senator named Webster who represented Massachusetts, but he is dead. There was a fabulously successful corporation lawyer, but he too is dead, and who cares? There was a man, curiously compounded of wisdom and folly, who suffered adulation for his folly and denunciation for his wisdom, who tried to understand this world and failed, as we all do, and who. as we all must, eventually died.

There never was, in visible, tangible flesh, a man who performed the feats attributed to the hero of Stephen Vincent Benét’s allegory, The Devil and Daniel Webster . The story asserts that this advocate, as counsel for the defense in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone , won a verdict and, incidentally, his own salvation from a jury composed of the twelve greatest villains in American history, because the advocate’s fiery patriotism burned away his client’s and his own offenses. Nevertheless, in the eyes of posterity this fictional pleader has been the living Webster rather than the subject of the twelve biographies.

For the poet Benét did not create this figure any more than the poet Homer created the figure of Achilles. Like Homer,

’E’d ’eard sing by land and sea; An’ what ’e thought ’e might require, ’E went an’ took—

to distill it in the alembic of poetic art and produce the Immortal. He gathered up the pre-existing legends and traditions, stripped oft their crudity and added grace and dignity to a figure that the folk imagination had limned before Benét was born. But in so doing he revealed the potency of Daniel Webster in the modern world more precisely than any !actual historian has revealed it.

The potency does not rest upon the statutes Webster drew, the contracts he negotiated, nor the politics he played. It is based upon his success as the establisher of moods, and that kind of success is never attested by documents. On the contrary, the documentary evidence frequently seems to contradict it, which is so much the worse for the documentary evidence. It is just this failure of the letter to capture the spirit that is the ruin of biographers and historians and the opportunity of poets. Talking of Daniel Webster conveys little that is of importance today; it was when Benét began to sing that the still surviving power and glory appeared.

The industrious pedestrians have uncovered the facts down to astonishingly small details. A New Hampshire farmer, wise beyond most of his generation, spared one of his many children the hard labor of the fields because the boy was physically sickly, although mentally precocious. Instead, the boy was sent to the best teachers available and eventually to Dartmouth College. He justified this indulgence twice, first by helping one of his brothers through college, and later by abandoning a promising professional career to care for his parents in their declining years. But the lofty intelligence, like the Scriptural city set upon a hill, could not be hid; at 31 the man was in the House of Representatives from New Hampshire. This was in 1813, just before the final wreck of the Federalist party in the Hartford Convention at the beginning of 1815. With his party shot from under him, the young man repaired to Boston in 1816 and in ten years had pushed his income from legal practice to $15,000 a year—in purchasing power the equivalent of $50,000 to $75,000 today. He went to the Senate in 1827, became secretary of state in 1841, returned to the Senate in 1845, became secretary of state again in 1850, and died in 1852.