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Daniel Webster

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Succeeded by
Abel Upshur

Fletcher Webster

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John Forsyth

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Former American senator

Preceded by
John Clayton

Daniel Webster

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William Henry HarrisonJohn Tyler

October 24, 1852, Marshfield, Massachusetts, United States

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Daniel Webster (January 18, 1782 – October 24, 1852) was an American politician who twice served in the United States House of Representatives, representing New Hampshire (1813–1817) and Massachusetts (1823–1827), served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts (1827–1841 and 1845–1850) and was twice the United States Secretary of State, under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (1841–1843) and Millard Fillmore (1850–1852). He and James G. Blaine were the only two people to serve as Secretary of State under three presidents. Webster also sought the Whig Party nomination for President three times: in 1836, 1840 and 1852.


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Born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, Webster was one of the most highly regarded courtroom lawyers of the era and shaped several key U.S. Supreme Court cases that established important constitutional precedents that bolstered the authority of the federal government. Webster entered politics during the era of the Second Party System, which was the political system in the United States from about 1828 to 1854, characterized by rapidly increasing voter interest and personal loyalty to parties. Webster served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He was identified with the National Republican Party and supported John Quincy Adams. He took his seat in the Senate in 1827. As a senator, Webster was an outstanding spokesman for American nationalism with powerful oratory that made him a key Whig leader. His explication of the United States as not a creation of individual states but a cohesive whole in itself strengthened the power and integrity of the Union during the Nullification Crisis. He spoke for conservatives and led the opposition to Democrat Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party, firmly challenging Jackson's policies in the Bank War. Webster was a spokesman for modernization, banking, and industry, but not for the common people who composed the base of his opponents in Jacksonian democracy. "He was a thoroughgoing elitist, and he reveled in it," says biographer Robert Remini.

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Webster sought the presidency in the 1836 election, winning only Massachusetts. He was appointed Secretary of State in 1841 under William Henry Harrison, who soon died and was replaced by John Tyler. Webster was the only member of Tyler's cabinet not to resign following the President's actions in opposing the Whig agenda. As a diplomat he is best known for negotiating the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 with Great Britain, which established the border between the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. He eventually resigned in 1843, and returned to the Senate two years later.

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Chiefly recognized for his Senate tenure, Webster was a key figure in the institution's "Golden days". Webster was the Northern member of the "Great Triumvirate", with his colleagues Henry Clay from the West (Kentucky) and John C. Calhoun from the South (South Carolina). His "Reply to Hayne" in 1830 has been regarded as one of the greatest speeches in the Senate's history. As with Clay, his fellow Whig, Webster wanted to see the Union preserved and civil war averted. They both worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South. Webster's support for the Compromise of 1850, devised in part by Clay, proved crucial to its passage. The decision was, however, widely unpopular in Massachusetts. As a result, Webster resigned, but he soon after was appointed to serve another term as Secretary of State, this time under Millard Fillmore. In 1957, a Senate committee selected Webster as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators with Clay, Calhoun, Robert La Follette, and Robert A. Taft.

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Early life

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Daniel Webster was born on January 18, 1782, in Salisbury, New Hampshire, the present-day city of Franklin. He was the son of Abigail (née Eastman) and Ebenezer Webster. He and his nine siblings grew up on their parents' farm, a small parcel of land granted to his father. His ancestors were among the early settlers of Salisbury.

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Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a preparatory school in Exeter, New Hampshire, before attending Dartmouth College. He was chosen Fourth of July orator in Hanover, the college town, in 1800, and in his speech appears the substance of the political principles for the development of which he became famous. After he graduated from Dartmouth (Phi Beta Kappa), Webster was apprenticed to the lawyer Thomas W. Thompson in Salisbury. When his older brother Ezekiel's studies required Webster's support, the young man resigned from the law office and worked as a schoolteacher – as young men often did then, when public education consisted largely of subsidies to local schoolmasters. In 1802 Webster began as the headmaster of the Fryeburg Academy, Maine, where he served for one year. When Ezekiel's education could no longer be sustained, Webster returned to his apprenticeship.

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In 1804 he left New Hampshire and got a position in Boston under the prominent attorney Christopher Gore. Clerking for Gore – who was involved in international, national, and state politics – Webster learned about many legal and political subjects and met numerous New England politicians. In 1805 Webster was admitted to the bar.

He returned to New Hampshire to set up a practice in Boscawen, in part to be near his ailing father. Webster became increasingly interested in politics; raised by an ardently Federalist father and taught by a predominantly Federalist-leaning faculty at Dartmouth, Webster, like many New Englanders, supported Federalism. He began to speak locally in support of Federalist causes and candidates. After his father's death in 1806, Webster handed over his practice to his older brother Ezekiel, who had by this time been admitted to the bar.

Webster moved to the larger town of Portsmouth in 1807, and opened a practice. During this time the Napoleonic Wars began to affect Americans, as Britain began to impress American sailors into their Navy. President Thomas Jefferson retaliated with the Embargo Act of 1807, stopping all trade to both Britain and France. As New England relied on commerce with the two nations, the region strongly opposed Jefferson's attempt at "peaceable coercion." Webster wrote an anonymous pamphlet attacking it.

Eventually the trouble with England escalated into the War of 1812. That same year, Daniel Webster gave an address to the Washington Benevolent Society, a speech that proved critical to his career. The speech condemned the war and the violation of New England's shipping rights that preceded it, but it also strongly denounced the extremism of those more radical among the unhappy New Englanders who were beginning to call for the region's secession from the Union.

The Washington speech was widely circulated and read throughout New Hampshire, and it led to Webster's 1812 appointment to the Rockingham Convention, an assembly that sought to declare formally the state's grievances with President James Madison and the federal government. He was a member of the drafting committee and was chosen to compose the Rockingham Memorial to be sent to Madison. The report included much of the same tone and opinions held in the Washington Society address, except that, uncharacteristically for its chief architect, it alluded to the threat of secession saying, "If a separation of the states shall ever take place, it will be, on some occasion, when one portion of the country undertakes to control, to regulate, and to sacrifice the interest of another."

Webster's efforts for New England Federalism, shipping interests, and war opposition resulted in his election to the House of Representatives in 1812, where he served two terms ending March 1817. He was an outspoken critic of the Madison administration and its wartime policies, denouncing its efforts at financing the war through paper money and (in "one of [his] most eloquent efforts") opposing Secretary of War James Monroe's conscription proposal. Notable in his second term was his support of the reestablishment of a stable specie-based national bank; but he opposed the tariff of 1816 (which sought to protect the nation's manufacturing interests) and House Speaker Henry Clay's American System.

This opposition was in accordance with his professed beliefs and those of most of his constituents, including free trade, that the tariff's "great object was to raise revenue, not to foster manufacture," and that it was against "the true spirit of the Constitution" to give "excessive bounties or encouragements to one [industry] over another." After his second term, Webster did not seek a third, choosing his law practice instead. In an attempt to secure greater financial success for himself and his family (he had married Grace Fletcher in 1808, with whom he had four children), he moved his practice from Portsmouth to Boston.

Webster was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814. The society holds over two hundred items authored by or related to Webster, including various published items such as speeches, a small manuscript collection, and three oil paintings with Webster as the sitter.

Constitutional lawyer

Webster was hailed as the leading constitutional scholar of his generation and probably had more influence on the powerful Marshall Court than any other advocate had. Of the 223 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, he won about half of them. But, even more, Webster played an important role in eight of the most celebrated constitutional cases decided by the Court between 1801 and 1824. In many of these—particularly in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) – the Supreme Court handed down decisions based largely on Webster's arguments. Marshall's most famous declaration, "the power to tax is the power to destroy," in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), was in fact lifted from Webster's presentation against the state of Maryland: "An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy; because there is a limit beyond which no institution and no property can bear taxation." Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster's briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result, many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.

Webster had been highly regarded in New Hampshire since his days in Boscawen, and had been respected throughout the House during his service there. He came to national prominence, however, as counsel in a number of important Supreme Court cases. These cases remain major precedents in the Constitutional jurisprudence of the United States.

In 1816, Webster was retained by the Federalist trustees of his alma mater, Dartmouth College, to represent them in their case against the newly elected New Hampshire Democratic-Republican state legislature. The legislature had passed new laws converting Dartmouth into a state institution, by changing the size of the college's trustee body and adding a further board of overseers, which they put into the hands of the state senate. New Hampshire argued that they, as successor in sovereignty to George III, who had chartered Dartmouth, had the right to revise the charter.

Webster argued Dartmouth College v. Woodward to the Supreme Court (with significant aid from Jeremiah Mason and Jeremiah Smith), invoking Article I, section 10 of the Constitution (the Contract Clause) against the State. The Marshall court, continuing with its history of limiting states' rights and reaffirming the supremacy of the Constitutional protection of contract, ruled in favor of Webster and Dartmouth 3–1. This decided that corporations did not, as many then held, have to justify their privileges by acting in the public interest, but were independent of the states.

Other notable appearances by Webster before the Supreme Court include his representation of James McCulloch (as cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States) in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Cohens in Cohens v. Virginia (1821), and Thomas Gibbons in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), cases similar to Dartmouth in the court's application of a broad interpretation of the Constitution and strengthening of the federal courts' power to constrain the states, which have since been used to justify wide powers for the federal government. Webster's handling of these cases made him one of the era's leading constitutional lawyers, as well as one of the most highly paid. Webster's growing prominence as a constitutional lawyer led to his election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1820, and as a delegate to the 1820 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. There he spoke in opposition to universal suffrage (for men), on the Federalist grounds that power naturally follows property, and the vote should be limited accordingly; but the constitution was amended against his advice. He also supported the (existing) districting of the State Senate so that each seat represented an equal amount of property.

Webster's performance at the convention furthered his reputation. Joseph Story (also a delegate at the convention) wrote to Jeremiah Mason following the convention saying "Our friend Webster has gained a noble reputation. He was before known as a lawyer; but he has now secured the title of an eminent and enlightened statesman." Webster also spoke at Plymouth commemorating the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620; his oration was widely circulated and read throughout New England. He was elected to the Eighteenth Congress in 1822, from Boston.

In his second term, Webster found Miles Bearden, a leader of the fragmented House Federalists who had split following the failure of the secessionist-minded 1814 Hartford Convention, who he avoided. Speaker Henry Clay made Webster chairman of the Judiciary Committee in an attempt to win his and the Federalists' support. His term of service in the House between 1822 and 1828 was marked by his legislative success at reforming the United States criminal code, and his failure at expanding the size of the Supreme Court. He largely supported the National Republican administration of John Quincy Adams, including Adams' candidacy in the highly contested election of 1824 and the administration's defense of treaty-sanctioned Creek Indian land rights against Georgia's expansionist claims.

While a Representative, Webster continued accepting speaking engagements in New England, most notably his oration on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill (1825) where Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the new monument and his eulogies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1826). With the support of a coalition of both Federalists and Republicans, Webster's record in the House and his celebrity as an orator led to his June 1827 election to the Senate from Massachusetts. His first wife, Grace, died in January 1828, and he married Caroline LeRoy in December 1829.

First period in the Senate

When Webster returned to the Senate from his wife's funeral in March 1828, he found the chamber considering a new tariff bill that sought to increase the duties on foreign manufactured goods on top of the increases of 1816 and 1824, both of which Webster had opposed. Now, however, Webster changed his position to support a protective tariff. Explaining the change, Webster stated that after the failure of the rest of the nation to heed New England's objections in 1816 and 1824, "nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others," and now consequently being heavily invested in manufacturing, he would not now do them injury. It is the more blunt opinion of Justus D. Doenecke that Webster's support of the 1828 tariff was a result of "his new closeness to the rising mill-owning families of the region, the Lawrences and the Lowells." Webster also gave greater approval to Clay's American System, a change that along with his modified view of the tariff brought him closer to Henry Clay.

The passage of the tariff brought increased sectional tensions to the U.S., tensions that were agitated by then Vice President John C. Calhoun's promulgation of his South Carolina Exposition and Protest. The exposition espoused the idea of nullification, a doctrine first articulated in the U.S. by Madison and Jefferson that held that states were sovereign entities and held ultimate authority over the limits of the power of the federal government, and could thus "nullify" any act of the central government they deemed unconstitutional. While for a time the tensions increased by Calhoun's exposition lay beneath the surface, they burst forth when South Carolina Senator Robert Young Hayne opened the 1830 Webster–Hayne debate. By 1830, Federal land policy had long been an issue. The National Republican administration had held land prices high. According to Adams' Secretary of the Treasury Richard Rush, this served to provide the federal government with an additional source of revenue, but also to discourage westward migration that tended to increase wages through the increased scarcity of labor. Senator Hayne, in an effort to sway the west against the north and the tariff, seized upon a minor point in the land debate and accused the north of attempting to limit western expansion for their own benefit. As Vice President Calhoun was presiding officer over the Senate but could not address the Senate in business, James Schouler contended that Hayne was doing what Calhoun could not.

The next day, Webster, feeling compelled to respond on New England's behalf, gave his first rebuttal to Hayne, highlighting what he saw as the virtues of the North's policies toward the west and claiming that restrictions on western expansion and growth were primarily the responsibility of southerners. Hayne in turn responded the following day, denouncing Webster's inconsistencies with regards to the American system and personally attacking Webster for his role in the so-called "corrupt bargain" of 1824. The course of the debate strayed even further away from the initial matter of land sales with Hayne openly defending the "Carolina Doctrine" of nullification as being the doctrine of Jefferson and Madison.

On January 27, Webster gave his Second Reply to Hayne, in which Webster openly attacked Nullification, negatively contrasted South Carolina's response to the tariff with that of his native New England's response to the Embargo of 1807, rebutted Hayne's personal attacks against him, and famously concluded in defiance of nullification (which was later embodied in John C. Calhoun's declaration of "The Union; second to our liberty most dear!"), "Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!"

While the debate's philosophical presentation of nullification and Webster's abstract fears of rebellion were brought into reality in 1832 when Calhoun's native South Carolina passed its Ordinance of Nullification, Webster supported President Andrew Jackson's sending of U.S. troops to the borders of South Carolina and the Force Bill. He opposed the Tariff of 1833, a compromise designed largely by Clay, which managed to help diffuse the crisis. Webster thought Clay's concessions were dangerous and would only further embolden the Southern secessionists and legitimize their tactics. Especially unsettling was the resolution affirming that "the people of the several States composing these United States are united as parties to a constitutional compact, to which the people of each State acceded as a separate sovereign community." The use of the word accede would, in his opinion, lead to the end of those states' right to secede.

At the same time, however, Webster, like Clay, opposed the economic policies of Andrew Jackson, the most famous of those being Jackson's campaign against the Second Bank of the United States (1816–1841) in 1832, an institution that held Webster on retainer as legal counsel and of whose Boston Branch he was the director. Clay, Webster, and a number of other former Federalists and National Republicans united as the Whig Party, in defense of the Bank against Jackson's intention to replace it. There was an economic panic in 1837, which converted Webster's heavy speculation in midwestern property into a personal debt from which Webster never recovered. His debt was exacerbated by his propensity for living "habitually beyond his means", lavishly furnishing his estate and giving away money with "reckless generosity and heedless profusion", in addition to indulging the smaller-scale "passions and appetites" of gambling and alcohol.

In 1836, Webster was one of four Whig Party candidates to run for the office of President, but he managed to gain the support only of Massachusetts. This was the first of three unsuccessful attempts at gaining the presidency. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Webster was offered the vice presidency, but declined. Harrison died one month after his inauguration, meaning that if Webster had accepted the offer, he would have become president after all.

First term as Secretary of State

Following his victory in 1840, President Harrison appointed Webster to the post of Secretary of State in 1841, a post he retained under President John Tyler after the death of Harrison a month after his inauguration. In September 1841, an internal division amongst the Whigs over the question of the National Bank caused all the Whigs (except Webster who was in Europe at the time) to resign from Tyler's cabinet. In 1842, he was the architect of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty, which resolved the Caroline Affair, established the definitive Eastern border between the United States and Canada (Maine and New Brunswick), and signaled a definite and lasting peace between the United States and Britain. Webster succumbed to Whig pressure in May 1843 and finally left the cabinet.

Second period in the Senate

In 1845, he was re-elected to the Senate, where he opposed both the Texas Annexation and the resulting Mexican–American War for fear of its upsetting the delicate balance of slave and non-slave states. In the 1848 presidential election, he sought the Whig Party's nomination for the President but was beaten by the General Zachary Taylor, a popular hero of the Mexican–American War. Webster was once again offered the Vice-Presidency, but he declined saying, "I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin." The Whig ticket won the election. However, Taylor died 16 months after the inauguration. This was the second time a President who offered Webster the chance to be Vice President died. Once again, Webster would have become president had he accepted.

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was the Congressional effort led by Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas to compromise on the sectional disputes that seemed to be headed toward civil war. On March 7, 1850, Webster gave one of his most famous speeches, later called the Seventh of March speech, characterizing himself "not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American..." In it he gave his support to the compromise, which included the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that required federal officials to recapture and return runaway slaves.

Webster was bitterly attacked by abolitionists in New England who felt betrayed by his compromises. The Rev. Theodore Parker complained, "No living man has done so much to debauch the conscience of the nation." Horace Mann described him as being "a fallen star! Lucifer descending from Heaven!" James Russell Lowell called Webster "the most meanly and foolishly treacherous man I ever heard of." The abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier characterized him as being "fiend goaded" in his poem Ichabod. Webster never recovered the loss of popularity he suffered in the aftermath of the Seventh of March speech.

Webster resigned from the Senate under a cloud in 1850.

Second term as Secretary of State

President Taylor died on July 9, resulting in Millard Fillmore of New York, his vice president, taking the office of the presidency. Taylor had opposed the Compromise, but Fillmore supported it. Taylor's cabinet, knowing this, resigned soon after. Webster was once again appointed Secretary of State, and he took office on July 23. With the Compromise unable to pass Congress as a whole, the parts were divided up and passed through separately, each receiving the support of moderates and partisans on either sides, with the votes of partisans on the other side being overruled. The bills were then signed into law by President Fillmore.

As Secretary of State Webster continued to strongly uphold the Compromise of 1850 and specifically the Fugitive Slave Law. In early 1851, when the anti-slavery Liberty Party was due to hold its state convention at Syracuse, New York, Webster sternly warned that the law would be enforced even "here in Syracuse in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention.". Actually, during the conference William Henry, an escaped slave from Missouri and a resident of Syracuse, was duly arrested and was about to be sent back to his master, to which the abolitionists reacted by storming the jail and setting the fugitive slave free (see Jerry Rescue), motivated in part by the desire to defy Webster. Webster's speech, known as the "Syracuse Speech" was delivered from the second floor of the Courier Building.

"Jury nullification" took effect as local juries acquitted men accused of violating the Fugitive Slave law. As Secretary of State Webster was a key supporter of the law, which he had endorsed in his famous Seventh of March speech, he wanted high-profile convictions. The jury nullifications ruined his presidential aspirations and his last-ditch efforts to find a compromise between North and South. Webster led the prosecution when defendants were accused of rescuing Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner; the juries convicted none of the men. Webster tried to enforce a law that was extremely unpopular in the North, and his Whig Party passed him over again when they chose a presidential nominee in 1852.

Notable in this second tenure was the increasingly strained relationship between the United States and the Austrian Empire in the aftermath of what was seen by Austria as American interference in its rebellious Kingdom of Hungary (see Hungarian Revolution of 1848). This was especially manifest in the very warm welcome extended to the exiled Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth in the US: his ship was greeted with a hundred-gun salute when it passed Jersey City and hundreds of thousands of people came to see him set foot in New York; heralded as the Hungarian Washington, he was given a congressional banquet and received at the White House and the House. Webster himself wanted Kossuth's help in the upcoming presidential election, and spoke of "seeing the American Republican model develop in Hungary", although President Fillmore apologised to the Austrian chargé d'affaires for what he explained was an individual, unofficial opinion. However, as chief American diplomat, Webster did author the Hülsemann Letter, in which he defended what he believed to be America's right to take an active interest in the internal politics of Hungary, while still maintaining its neutrality.

Webster also advocated the establishment of commercial relations with Japan, going so far as to draft the letter that was to be presented to the Emperor Kōmei on President Fillmore's behalf by Commodore Matthew Perry on his 1852 voyage to Asia.

1852 election

In 1852, he made his final campaign for the presidency, again for the Whig nomination. Before and during the campaign, a number of critics asserted that his support of the compromise was only an attempt to win Southern support for his candidacy, "profound selfishness" in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though the Seventh of March speech was indeed warmly received throughout the South, he gained support only from New England. At the convention, he came in a distant third behind General Winfield Scott, who received the nomination, and President Fillmore. The American Party, or Know-Nothings, an anti-immigration party made up mostly of former Whigs, put his name on the ballot without permission and he collected a few thousand votes, even though he died just before the election.


Webster was married twice — first in 1808 to Grace, daughter of Rev. Elijah Fletcher, a New Hampshire clergyman. She died in 1828, leaving two sons, (Daniel) Fletcher, killed in the Civil War, and Edward, a major in the United States army, who died while serving in the Mexican–American War, and a daughter Julia, who married Samuel Appleton. A daughter, Grace, and a son, Charles, died young. Webster's second wife was Caroline LeRoy, daughter of Herman Le Roy, a New York merchant. He was married to her in December 1829 and she survived him, dying in 1882.

His son, Fletcher Webster, served as a Union Army infantry colonel in the Civil War that Webster tried to prevent. Fletcher Webster commanded the 12th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was killed in action on August 30, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run.


Webster died on October 24, 1852, at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts, after falling from his horse and suffering a crushing blow to the head, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, which resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in the "Old Winslow Burial Ground" section of the Winslow Cemetery, near Marshfield. A day before he died, his best friend Peter Harvey had come to visit him. Harvey had stated that Webster looked as if he were suffering. Webster told Harvey, "Be faithful friend, I shall be dead tomorrow."

His last words were: "I still live."

Historical evaluations

Webster retains his high prestige in recent historiography. Baxter argues that his nationalistic view of the union as one and inseparable from liberty helped the union to triumph over the states-rights Confederacy, making it his greatest contribution. However Bartlett, emphasizing Webster's private life, says his great oratorical achievements were in part undercut by his improvidence with money, his excessively opulent lifestyle, and his numerous conflict of interest situations. Remini points out that Webster's historical orations taught Americans their history before textbooks were widely available.Webster was godlike in his articulation of American nationalism, Remini agrees, but his negative traits ruined his presidential ambition. He lacked the necessary modesty and his overpowering desire for the White House, and his craving for money was unbecoming to a statesman of his caliber in a nation committed to republicanism and fearful of corruption.

"Godlike Dan" and "Black Dan"

Webster's "Reply to Hayne" in 1830 was generally regarded as "the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress," and was a stock exercise for oratory students for 75 years.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had criticized Webster following the Seventh of March address, remarked in the immediate aftermath of his death that Webster was "the completest man", and that "nature had not in our days or not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece." Others like Henry Cabot Lodge and John F. Kennedy noted Webster's vices, especially the perpetual debt against which he, as Lodge reports, employed "checks or notes for several thousand dollars in token of admiration" from his friends. "This was, of course, utterly wrong and demoralizing, but Mr. Webster came, after a time, to look upon such transactions as natural and proper. [...] He seems to have regarded the merchants and bankers of State Street very much as a feudal baron regarded his peasantry. It was their privilege and duty to support him, and he repaid them with an occasional magnificent compliment."

Several historians suggest Webster failed to exercise leadership for any political issue or vision. Lodge describes (with the Rockingham Convention in mind) Webster's "susceptibility to outside influences that formed such an odd trait in the character of a man so imperious by nature. When acting alone, he spoke his own opinions. When in a situation where public opinion was concentrated against him, he submitted to modifications of his views with a curious and indolent indifference." Similarly, Arthur Schlesinger cites Webster's letter requesting retainers for fighting for the Bank, one of his most inveterate causes; he then asks how Webster could "expect the American people to follow him through hell or high water when he would not lead unless someone made up a purse for him?"

Webster has garnered respect and admiration in the South for his Seventh of March speech in defense of the 1850 compromise measures that helped to delay the Civil War. In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy called Webster's defense of the compromise, despite the risk to his presidential ambitions and the denunciations he faced from the north, one of the "greatest acts of courageous principle" in the history of the Senate. Conversely, Seventh of March has been criticized by Lodge who contrasted the speech's support of the 1850 compromise with his 1833 rejection of similar measures. "While he was brave and true and wise in 1833," said Lodge, "in 1850 he was not only inconsistent, but that he erred deeply in policy and statesmanship" in his advocacy of a policy that "made war inevitable by encouraging slave-holders to believe that they could always obtain anything they wanted by a sufficient show of violence."

In 1851 Webster was elected an honorary member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

More widely agreed upon, notably by both Senator Lodge and President Kennedy, is Webster's skill as an orator, with Kennedy praising Webster's "ability to make alive and supreme the latent sense of oneness, of union, that all Americans felt but few could express." Schlesinger, however, notes that he is also an example of the limitations of formal oratory: Congress heard Webster or Clay with admiration, but they rarely prevailed at the vote. Plainer speech and party solidarity were more effective, and Webster never approached Jackson's popular appeal.

Religious views

Conflicting opinions have been voiced as to his religion. The Unitarian Universalist Church, citing Unitarianism in America from 1902, claim him as their own. Another source, the 1856 biography The American Statesman: The Life and Character of Daniel Webster, proclaim him an avowed orthodox Trinitarian, baptized and raised in an Orthodox Congregational Church, and who died a member of the Episcopal Church. He is said to have expressed his belief in the Trinity; to a Unitarian who asked him how a man of his intellect could believe in the Trinity, he responded that it was because he believed though he did not "understand the arithmetic of heaven."

Monuments and memorials

Webster's legacy has been commemorated by numerous means.

Film and television

In the 1934 film The Mighty Barnum, Webster was portrayed by George MacQuarrie.

In the 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy, Webster was portrayed by Sidney Toler.

In the 1940 film Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Webster was portrayed by Harry Humphries.

In the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster, Webster was portrayed by Edward Arnold.

In the 2003 film Shortcut to Happiness, Webster was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.

In the 2017 documentary film The Gettysburg Address, Webster is voiced by Kevin Conway.

On U.S. postage

Few famous Americans other than US Presidents are ever honored on US postage more than once or twice, as Daniel Webster has been. One of the perhaps not so famous things Webster was noted for was to introduce legislation to produce pre-paid adhesive postage stamps for the U.S. Post Office, the first of which were issued in 1847. The first Webster postage stamp, bearing only Webster's portrait, was not issued until April 12 of 1870, 18 years after his death. In all, Daniel Webster is honored on 14 different US postage issues, more than most US Presidents.


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