Great Man Eloquent


The Dartmouth College case established the sanctity of contract. The case revolved around an effort by the state of New Hampshire to move in and take control of a college that it had chartered, perpetually, as a private institution; which, Webster argued, was an effort by the state to repudiate its own contract, which not even a sovereign has a right to do. The court presumably was moved by the logic of the argument, but Webster’s passing remark, “She is small, but there are those who love her,” hit the country with an impact that no kind of logical exposition could achieve. The fact that this case came dangerously close to repealing the Statutes of Mortmain and delivering the future into economic bondage was something for jurisconsults to worry over; the people saw in it only the rescue of cherished and threatened institutions, and that mood has persisted through all the discomforts that immortality of corporations has brought upon us.

The case of McCulloch v. Maryland successfully asserted the right of judicial review of legislation. Logically, it is untenable, but practically it has worked, and that is enough for the common man. Possibly the hard core of that decision was John Marshall’s determination to bow his arrogant head to no man, even at the behest of the Aristotelian syllogism. That is as it may be. Hut deep in the heart of the common man is a conviction that logic is an invention of schoolmasters that bears precious little relation to life as he lives it; so if the advocate in this case departed from the accepted rules he did not thereby offend the typical American. Rather, he aroused a fraternal understanding among men more intent upon devising a workable method than upon making their reasoning conform to BARBARA or FRESISON . So even in this legalistic matter they have felt close to Daniel Webster; and the mood then established, the feeling that the Constitution must be made to work, even if it has to be bent into the shape of a pretzel, has persisted from that day to this.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty is one of the most remarkable in the history of diplomacy, not for what is contained so much as for the manner in which it was negotiated. Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, was sent over in 1842 as a special envoy to take up with Webster, then secretary of state, a number of issues in dispute between the United States and Great Britain, the most important of which was the boundary line between Maine and Canada. That line had never been properly surveyed, but simply marked out on maps supposed to be attached to the treaty, but which had somehow become detached. The matter then hinged on discovery of the right map and both parties ransacked the archives.

Through the agency of Jared Sparks, in Paris, Webster was supplied with a map said to have been marked by Benjamin Franklin and given to the French ministry—and it knocked the bottom out of the American claim. About the same time someone discovered in the British archives a map supposed to have been marked for the information of King George III—and it knocked the bottom out of the British claim. But neither negotiator suspected the existence of the other map; all either knew was that his own position was exceedingly precarious.

Thus each went into the discussions warily and with the most scrupulous regard for punctilio. When the citizens of Maine threatened to become obstreperous, Webster privately showed their leaders the Jared Sparks map, and they instantly subsided. So, since neither principal could risk being adamant, the dickering and dealing proceeded smoothly to a conclusion reasonably satisfactory to both sides.

But much more was accomplished than the boundary settlement, much that does not appear in the written records and, indeed, was never formally admitted by either side. This accomplishment was a marked softening of our diplomatic contacts with Great Britain. His lordship discovered that the American, far from being a raucous and semiliterate backwoodsman, was an urbane and gentlemanly fellow. The American, on his part, discovered that a noble lord is not necessarily arrogant and supercilious, but may be a reasonable, fair-minded character with whom it is a pleasure to do business. The discovery that each was carefully polite because he distrusted his own case came long afterward and did not destroy the mood created in 1842.

Of course this mood was reinforced by many other factors, but without doubt it was helped along by the Webster-Ashburton negotiations; and 115 years later it still persists. Before that date our contacts with the British were, as a rule, unpleasantly rough, but since then they have been the smoothest of all. Even the Anglophobes among us feel the effect and hold that while to swindle the English may be permissible and even praiseworthy, it must always be done with a certain suavity amid expressions of the utmost good will. Daniel Webster had much to do with establishing that mood and therein he touches your life and mine.