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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
But it was on March 7, 1850, that Daniel Webster probably saved the Union and ruined himself by rising to greatness. The aftermath of the Mexican War had had the usual effect of war’s aftermath—it had driven the more emotional elements of the population into raving insanity. It is at such times that formerly gentle souls turn into vipers, and formerly shrewd fellows take to a braying that drowns the voice of reason. As far as the United States is concerned certainly, and perhaps as regards other nations as well, the loss of blood and treasure that attends the actual conflict has never been as permanently injurious to the nation as the loss of common sense and common decency that follows the cessation of hostilities.
The Mexican affair had ended in 1848, and by 1850 mass hysteria had reached its height. In Congress John C. Calhoun, for the South, and William H. Seward, for the North, were no longer arguing, they were merely screeching; and each was attended by a rabble of noise-makers whose din all but obliterated calm counsel. It was plain, all too appallingly plain, that any small spark might set off an explosion that would destroy the Union.
Then old Henry Clay, already mortally ill, summoned the last of his strength to devise the nine measures known as the Compromise of 1850 and, dying on his feet, prevented the death of his country. His success was not immediate. Since it was a genuine compromise, it was furiously attacked by both Calhoun and Seward, and its fate wavered in the balance week after week and month after month. So evenly matched were the contestants that eventually it became plain that all depended upon Webster, who had so far said nothing.
On March 7 at last he rose to speak, “… not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American … I speak today for the preservation of the Union. ‘Hear me for my cause.’ ” They heard. They heeded. The squabbling continued for months, but eventually the compromise was adopted and the Civil War was postponed for ten years.
But Webster’s reward was such denunciation from his own people as few American statesmen have had to endure. John Greenleaf Whittier, that singularly bloodthirsty Quaker, promptly consigned him to the tomb without waiting for an attending physician’s certificate:
from those great eyes The soul has fled: When faith is lost, when honor dies. The man is dead!
and less melodious calumniators poured cruder vituperation on him wherever two or three lunatics were gathered together.
Yet every measurement known to statistics shows clearly that from 1820 on the South had been steadily losing and the North steadily gaining in relative strength. Nevertheless, when war did break in 1861, it took every ounce of Northern strength to win through four years of the bloodiest fighting in modern times. Few Americans stop to realize that, in proportion to the numbers engaged, the American Civil War was several times as deadly as either World War I or World War II. If it had come ten years earlier the border states would almost certainly have gone with the South, and the outcome can hardly be doubted.
Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 saved this Union; and Daniel Webster saved the compromise.
But it was not by logic that he did it. Logically, he was a Massachusetts man, a Northern man, but emotionally he was an American; and the emotional appeal, not the logic, carried the compromise. More than that, it carried Daniel Webster into the hearts of an emotional people, and there he abides. We do not believe, we cannot believe, that knowledge, logic, might, or the Devil himself can prevail against a man who loves anything strongly enough to invite ruin in its defense.
This characteristic of human nature is the great weakness of democracy, as has been vociferously proclaimed by every logician from Plato down. Alcibiades played upon it; so did Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and all the demagogues between. But under favorable circumstances it is also the great strength of democracy, as Webster, Lincoln, and the second Roosevelt instinctively recognized. It is the factor that transforms government from a science into an art, maddening the scientists, including—perhaps one should say especially—the social scientists, and inspiring poets and other irresponsible characters.
The obvious fact that democracy is—apparently incurably—emotional rather than logical is the despair of men who have subjected their minds to rigorous intellectual discipline, and who are therefore convinced that intellectual discipline is the only conceivable approach to truth. Thus when they perceive that the great heroes of democracy seem to bear more family likeness to Roscius, the actor, than to Aristotle, the philosopher, they tend to despair of democracy. Webster is a case in point. He was certainly a great constitutional lawyer, which is to say, a logician; but he became immortal only when he abandoned his logic and appealed to the emotions as frankly as Cleon of Athens ever did. The legal precedents he set—as, for example, his arguments for the bank, for and then against free trade, and on municipal and international law—have been largely superseded or abandoned, but the moods he established have endured for more than a hundred years. Superficially, this suggests that demagoguery casts its works in bronze, while statecraft carves in butter, which is a patent absurdity.