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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 698

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This is the grave of Daniel Webster.

Born in Salisbury, New Hampshire in 1782, Webster grew up in a farming family. But he was rather sickly and took to books. This led to him achieving a higher education, attending Andover Academy and then Dartmouth. He was already developing into a political figure. He ran the school newspaper and honed his oratory skills, including being chosen to be the big July 4 speaker in Andover, New Hampshire in 1800, where he espoused strong Federalist principles.

Webster somewhat reluctantly chose becoming a lawyer as his future. He initially only chose it as a way to avoid the poverty of his childhood, but then became one of the most important lawyers in American history. He was admitted to the bar in Boston in 1805 and then set up a practice in New Hampshire. He became the leading lawyer in Portsmouth after starting a practice there in 1806. He also became a leading Federalist. He wrote an anonymous pamphlet attacking Jefferson’s Embargo, probably the single greatest disaster in the history of American foreign policy. He lambasted the War of 1812, like many New Englanders, but also spoke out against the secessionist rhetoric rising in that region over it. He also was the lead writer of the Rockingham Memorial, which was New England’s harsh response to Madison’s war. This made Webster prime political material and he was elected to the House in 1812.

Webster’s first run in electoral politics wasn’t that notable. He was a moderate Federalist in a Congress controlled by the Democratic-Republicans. He also wanted to make money. So he stepped down after two terms and moved to Boston to become a lawyer in a more lucrative market. Over the next decade, he became perhaps the nation’s most prominent lawyer. Even while in Congress, he was practicing and he argued his first case before the Supreme Court in 1814. While in Boston, he became the go-to lawyer for Supreme Court cases that built up the nation’s burgeoning corporate and financial sectors. In Darmouth College v. Woodward and Gibbons v. Ogden and McCulloch v. Maryland, Webster’s arguments played a critical role and he won each case. John Marshall’s decision in McCulloch basically just repeated Webster’s argument. Now a huge political and legal star, his friends asked him to return to electoral politics and he agreed, winning another House seat in 1822.

This time in Congress, Webster was a dominant force. He immediately was granted the head of the Judiciary Committee. He gave speech after speech on the House floor, making him perhaps the body’s leading orator. He reluctantly supported John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in 1824, although he and Adams hated each other, because he felt Jackson so supremely unqualified for the presidency. Webster then became a proponent of Henry Clay’s American System and fought hard for centralized economic development for the rest of his long career.

In 1827, the Massachusetts legislature chose Webster to move to the Senate. Hayne rose to legendary status in 1830, when he tore about South Carolina’s Robert Hayne (and truly John C. Calhoun) in the Senate debate over nullification. His Second Reply to Hayne, where he famously said that the people, not the states, held the power in the nation and that the Constitution had supremacy over the states, was reprinted and sent across the nation. Clay and Webster then were rivals for the head of the National Republicans which then morphed into the Whig Party. Clay won out for the 1832 nomination against Jackson and Webster supported him but of course Jackson won.

In 1836, the Whigs threw whatever they could at the Democratic Party and rather than come up with one candidate, ran four different sectional candidates to try and throw the election to the Congress by denying Martin Van Buren a majority of the Electoral College. Webster was one of the four. But the ploy did not work. Webster only won Massachusetts while Van Buren won states he needed to win such as Rhode Island and Connecticut and thus won the election. When Van Buren’s presidency almost immediately tanked with the Panic of 1837, Webster led the condemnation, blaming it largely correctly on the economic policies of Democrats, particularly destroying the Bank of the United States and issuing the Specie Circular, which required payments to the government to be in gold and silver.

Webster decided against running for the 1840 Whig nomination. He was strongly considered to be the VP for William Henry Harrison, but that, unfortunately, went to John Tyler instead in order to combine the anti-Jacksonian forces. When Harrison won, Webster was named Secretary of State. But of course the old man declined to wear a coat in the rain on his inauguration day and he died a month later, to be replaced by the radical Calhounite Tyler in the Oval Office. Most of the Cabinet resigned pretty quickly, but Webster wanted to transform American foreign policy and he was pretty successful. He settled the boundary of Maine and Canada through the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which helped reduce the long-standing tensions between the British and Americans. But by 1843, with Tyler anathema for the Whigs, the pressure on Webster to resign was overwhelming, as the president wanted to bring in John C. Calhoun to make slavery the national policy of the United States. The Whigs were pretty mad at Webster for staying with Tyler for so long, but he rebuilt his relationships with them and was a big supporter of Clay’s candidacy in 1844, though he lost too.

Webster returned to the Senate in 1845. Webster was not a strong anti-slavery voice. He was primarily interested in economic development and had gotten along with Tyler for awhile so he wasn’t an abolitionist by any means. He did personally dislike slavery, but did not see that government should do anything about it in the territories. So he wasn’t as outraged by the Mexican War as, say, Charles Sumner. But he did vote against the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, even if he was favorable to the expansion of American territory. Webster’s waffling on slavery undermined his effort to become the Whig presidential candidate in 1848. The highly divided party finally settled on the war hero Zachary Taylor. Webster was highly skeptical of Taylor and did very little to promote his candidacy. When Clay worked out the Compromise of 1850, he got Webster’s support for it before announcing it publicly. That certainly did help get it passed. But Webster giving speeches attacking both the North and South for stirring up slavery discontent infuriated abolitionists and they turned on Webster with a vengeance. As Theodore Parker said, “No living man has done so much to debauch the conscience of the nation.”

When Taylor died and Millard Fillmore rose to the presidency. Fillmore fired everyone in the Cabinet and asked Webster to return to State. This was before the Compromise of 1850 had passed and as the de factor leader of Fillmore’s Cabinet, he sent a message to Congress asking it to settle the question of the territories and that helped push it over the finish line. Webster continuing wooing the South by campaigning to aggressively enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Disgust over this is what led to the coalition in Massachusetts to replace Webster in the Senate with Charles Sumner. Webster organized Perry’s trip to Japan and secured the release of the Hungarian freedom hero Lajos Kossuth from the Ottomans. He also fought against the filibustering expeditions into Cuba and Mexico by southern extremists who wanted to raise hell and bring those places into America’s slave empire.

Webster wanted to run for president again in 1852, hoping to finally get the nomination. But there were a bunch of problems. First, he was a drunk and was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. Second, lots of people hated him, especially the rising anti-slavery wing of the party. He feared that if he didn’t run, his enemy William Seward would instead. But a deeply divided party that was barely holding on tried to get back on track by nominating Winfield Scott. It did not work, as Franklin Pierce blew him out. And then Webster finished the job on himself with one last bottle. He died before the election, in October 1852. He was 70 years old.

Daniel Webster is buried in Winslow Cemetery, Marshfield, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other senators from Webster’s era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Hart Benton is in St. Louis and Robert Hayne is in Charleston. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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