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Great Man Eloquent
To an emotional people, it is not the senator, not the corporation lawyer, not the secretary of state, but the poet’s Daniel Webster who still lives
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
Like every first-rate American who goes into politics, he wished to be President of the United States, and like most first-rate men he suffered the mortification of seeing second-raters chosen in his stead. During his time in Washington, Webster saw ten individuals occupying the White House and knew in his heart that he was superior to eight of them. No doubt he thought he was superior to the other two, Madison and Jackson, but history disallows that claim.
The second most brilliant period of American politics was beginning when Webster entered Congress, and he was, in popular estimation, one third of it. That was, of course, the same kind of exaggeration that gives the most brilliant period one half to Jefferson and the other half to Hamilton, although they were merely the two brightest stars in a galaxy. In the second period, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun outshone all other members of Congress, but not by much. Benton, Hayne, John Quincy Adams, Van Kuren, Marcy, and John Randolph were no dim lights, and outside of Congress stood the gigantic figures of Andrew Jackson and John Marshall.
Of the illustrious trio, Webster was the latest arrival and, on technicalities, the least successful. All of them made Cabinet rank, but Calhoun was Vice President for seven years and Clay was three times a candidate for President, twice as the nominee of a major party. Thus it may fairly he said that both came doser to the White House than Webster did, although none reached it.
Without doubt Webster was refused even a nomination because his affiliations made him politically unavailable. He was the recognized spokesman of Big Business, and even al that early date party leaders were sure that nomination of such a candidate would be party suicide. It was not regarded as scandalous for a member of Congress to continue to serve his rich clients even—indeed especially—before government agencies, but it was regarded as a political handicap, and Webster’s party was never strong enough to assume that handicap. Curiously enough, this favorite advocate of astute businessmen had so little “money sense” that in spite of an income that was. for the time, a huge one. he was perpetually in debt and therefore never able to break away from subservience to wealth.
But there is another aspect of this man that is even more curious. The spokesman of Big Business, the great corporation lawyer, is a familiar figure. There is always at least one in Congress, frequently half a dozen in the Administration, and they are conspicuous, often dominant, figures, so we know the type or think we do; and the common opinion is that the agent of Big Business, whatever his merits, is decidedly a cold fish, emphatically not the kind of material out of which popular heroes are made. Is it imaginable that a poet could have woven a folk tale around Thomas C. Platt or Nelson W. Aldrich or Elihu Root or Andrew Mellon? But Webster was legendary even before his death, and since that event the legend has grown until it overshadows that of Henry Clay, much the more popular figure while he lived.
The inescapable inference is that there was a link between the ordinary American and this extraordinary individual, some quality that enables the common man to feel a kinship with Webster that he never feels with any cold fish. The easy assumption is that his faults endeared him to the sinful majority, and no doubt they did to some extent.
Dan Webster stoke his boilers with brown jugs of apple cider, And when he made a speech he yanked the spigot open wider. Sing ho! those spirited debates, benefit of all restrictions, When statesmen carried on their hip the strength of their convictions,
is evidence that his fondness for the bottle passed into the legend, and his amorous adventures, probably apocryphal, have been the theme of innumerable smoking-room stories. But these things the people regard with indulgence, not with approval; and somewhere in the American mind there is a deep and powerful approval of Daniel Webster, and a proprietary pride.
Yet when one examines any of his specific activities it seems far away and long ago, frequently without much logical significance even at the time. The celebrated Reply to Hayne, for example, was not a reply to Hayne at all. It was the evocation of a mood, not the refutation of an argument, a histrionic, not a logical triumph. “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” had nothing whatever to do with the points that Hayne had raised, but it stirred up a tremendous emotional reaction against the idea of disunion. Logic frequently eludes the grasp of the masses, but they understand feeling instantly; and they understood Webster. His heart was in the right place.
At least four of his exploits have affected and still affect the destinies of every man and woman in the United States, and each of them was of the same order —the establishment of a mood rather than the defense of a thesis. These were the Dartmouth College case, the case of McCulloch v. Maryland , the negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and the Compromise of 1850.
Examined in the cold light of reason all of these are without significance as of the year 1957; but in the warm glow of emotion it is apparent that each of them grips us today with an unbreakable hold. None was the work of Daniel Webster alone, but he was an operative forte in all four, and he remains an operative force to this day.