Daniel Webster by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

Not many days ago I saw at breakfast the notablest of all your notabilities, Daniel Webster. He is a magnificent specimen. You might say to all the world, “This is our Yankee-Englishman; such links we make in Yankeeland!” As a logic fencer, advocate or Parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back him at first sight against all the extant world. The tanned complexion; the amorphous, craglike face; the dull black eyes under the precipice of brows, like dull anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown; the mastiff mouth accurately closed; I have not traced so much of silent Berserker rage that I remember of in any other man. “I guess I should not like to be your nigger!”

—Carlyle to Emerson

Those were splendid days, tinged with no trace of blue, when I attended the district school, wearing trousers buttoned to a calico waist. I had ambitions then–I was sure that some day I could spell down the school, propound a problem in fractions that would puzzle the teacher, and play checkers in a way that would cause my name to be known throughout the entire township.

In the midst of these pleasant emotions, a cloud appeared upon the horizon of my happiness. What was it? A Friday Afternoon, that’s all.

A new teacher had been engaged–a woman, actually a young woman. It was prophesied that she could not keep order a single day, for the term before, the big boys had once arisen and put out of the building the man who taught them. Then there was a boy who occasionally brought a dog to school; and when the bell rang, the dog followed the boy into the room and lay under the desk pounding his tail on the floor; and everybody tittered and giggled until the boy had been coaxed into taking the dog home, for if merely left in the entry he howled and whined in a way that made study impossible. But one day the boy was not to be coaxed, and the teacher grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck, and flung him through a window so forcibly that he never came back. And now a woman was to teach the school: she was only a little woman and yet the boys obeyed her, and I had come to think that a woman could teach school nearly as well as a man, when the awful announcement was made that thereafter every week we were to have a Friday Afternoon. There were to be no lessons; everybody was to speak a piece, and then there was to be a spelling-match–and that was all. But heavens! it was enough.

Monday began very blue and gloomy, and the density increased as the week passed. My mother had drilled me well in my lines, and my big sister was lavish in her praise, but the awful ordeal of standing up before the whole school was yet to come.

Thursday night I slept but little, and all Friday morning I was in a burning fever. At noon I could not eat my lunch, but I tried to, manfully, and as I munched on the tasteless morsels, salt tears rained on the johnnycake I held in my hand. And even when the girls brought in big bunches of wild flowers and cornstalks, and began to decorate the platform, things appeared no brighter.

Finally, the teacher went to the door and rang the bell: nobody seemed to play, and as the scholars took their seats, some, very pale, tried to smile, and others whispered, “Have you got your piece?” Still others kept their lips working, repeating lines that struggled hard to flee.

Names were called, but I did not see who went up, neither did I hear what was said. At last, my name was called: it came like a clap of thunder–as a great surprise, a shock. I clutched the desk, struggled to my feet, passed down the aisle, the sound of my shoes echoing through the silence like the strokes of a maul. The blood seemed ready to burst from my eyes, ears and nose.

I reached the platform, missed my footing, stumbled, and nearly fell. I heard the giggling that followed, and knew that a red-haired boy, who had just spoken, and was therefore unnecessarily jubilant, had laughed aloud.

I was angry. I shut my fists so that the nails cut my flesh, and glaring straight at his red head shot my bolt: “I know not how others may feel, but sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my heart and my hand to this vote. It is my living sentiment and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment. Independence now, and independence forever.”

That was all of the piece. I gave the whole thing in a mouthful, and started for my seat, got halfway there and remembered I had forgotten to bow, turned, went back to the platform, bowed with a jerk, started again for my seat, and hearing some one laugh, ran.

Reaching the seat, I burst into tears.

The teacher came over, patted my head, kissed my cheek, and told me I had done first-rate, and after hearing several others speak I calmed down and quite agreed with her.

* * * * *

It was Daniel Webster who caused the Friday Afternoon to become an institution in the schools of America. His early struggles were dwelt upon and rehearsed by parents and pedagogues until every boy was looked upon as a possible Demosthenes holding senates in thrall.

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If physical imperfections were noticeable, the fond mother would explain that Demosthenes was a sickly, ill-formed youth, who only overcame a lisp by orating to the sea with his mouth full of pebbles; and every one knew that Webster was educated only because he was too weak to work. Oratory was in the air; elocution was rampant; and to declaim in orotund, and gesticulate in curves, was regarded as the chief end of man. One-tenth of the time in all public schools was given over to speaking, and on Saturday evenings the schoolhouse was sacred to the Debating Society.

Then came the Lyceum, and the orators of the land made pilgrimages, stopping one day in a place, putting themselves on exhibition, and giving the people a taste of their quality at fifty cents per head. Recently, there has been a relapse of the oratorical fever. Every city from Leadville to Boston has its College of Oratory, or School of Expression, wherein a newly discovered “Natural Method” is divulged for a consideration. Some of these “Colleges” have done much good; one in particular I know, that fosters a fine spirit of sympathy, and a trace of mysticism that is well in these hurrying, scurrying days.

But all combined have never produced an orator; no, dearie, they never have, and never can. You might as well have a school for poets, or a college for saints, or give medals for proficiency in the gentle art of wooing, as to expect to make an orator by telling how.

Once upon a day, Sir Walter Besant was to give a lecture upon “The Art of the Novelist.” He had just adjusted his necktie for the last time, slipped a lozenge into his mouth, and was about to appear upon the platform, when he felt a tug at the tail of his dress-coat. On looking around, he saw the anxious face of his friend, James Payn. “For God’s sake, Walter,” whispered Payn, “you are not going to explain to ’em how you do it, are you?” But Walter did not explain how to write fiction, because he could not, and Payn’s quizzing question happily relieved the lecture of the bumptiousness it might otherwise have contained.

The first culture for which a people reach out is oratory. The Indian is an orator with “the natural method”; he takes the stump on small provocation, and under the spell of the faces that look up to him, is often moved to strange eloquence. I have heard negro preachers who could neither read nor write, move vast congregations to profoundest emotion by the magic of their words and presence. And further, they proved to me that the ability to read and write is a cheap accomplishment, and that a man can be a very strong character, and not know how to do either.

For the most part, people who live in cities are not moved by oratory; they are unsocial, unimaginative, unemotional. They see so much and hear so much that they cease to be impressed. When they come together in assemblages they are so apathetic that they fail to generate magnetism–there is no common soul to which the speaker can address himself. They are so cold that the orator never welds them into a mass. He may amuse them, but in a single hour to change the opinions of a lifetime is no longer possible in America. There are so many people, and so much business to transact, that emotional life plays only upon the surface–in it there is no depth. To possess depth you must commune with the Silences. No more do you find men and women coming for fifty miles, in wagons, to hear speakers discuss political issues; no more do you find campmeetings where the preacher strikes conviction home until thousands are on their knees crying to God for mercy.

Intelligence has increased; spirituality has declined, and as a people the warm emotions of our hearts are gone forever.

Oratory is a rustic product. The great orators have always been country-bred, and their appeal has been made to rural people. Those who live in a big place think they are bigger on that account. They acquire glibness of speech and polish of manner; but they purchase these things at a price. They lack the power to weigh mighty questions, the courage to formulate them, and the sturdy vitality to stand up and declare them in the face of opposition. Revolutions are fought by farmers and rail-splitters; these are the embattled men who fire the shots heard ’round the world.

When Daniel Webster’s father took up his residence in New Hampshire, his log cabin was the most northern one of the Colonies. Between him and Montreal lay an unbroken forest inhabited only by prowling Indians. Ebenezer Webster’s long rifle had sent cold lead into many a redskin; and the same rifle had done good service in fighting the British. Once, its owner stood guard before Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh, and Washington came out and said, “Captain Webster, I can trust you!”

Ebenezer Webster would leave his home to carry a bag of corn on his back through the woods to the mill ten miles away to have it ground into meal, and his wife would be left alone with the children. On such occasions, Indians who never saw settlers’ cabins without having an itch to burn them, used sometimes to call, and the housewife would have to parley with these savages, “impressing them concerning the rights of property.”

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So here was born Daniel Webster, in Seventeen Hundred Eighty-two, the second child of his mother. His father was then forty-three, and had already raised one brood, but his mother was only in her twenties. It seems that biting poverty and sore deprivation are about as good prenatal influences as a soul can well ask, provided there abides with the mother a noble discontent and a brave unrest.

However, it came near being overdone in Daniel Webster’s case, for the Mrs. Gamp who presided at his birth declared he could not live, and if he did, would “allus be a no-‘count.”

But he made a brave fight for breath, and his crossness and peevishness through the first years of his life were proof of vitality. He must have been a queer toddler when he wore dresses, with his immense head and deep-set black eyes and serious ways.

Being sickly, he was allowed to rule, and the big girls, his half-sisters, humored him, and his mother did the same. They taught him his letters when he was only a baby, and he himself said that he could not remember a time when he could not read the Bible.

When he grew older he did not have to bring in wood and do the chores–he was not strong enough, they said. Little Dan was of a like belief, and encouraged the idea on every occasion. He roamed the woods, fished, hunted, and read every scrap of print that came his way.

Being able to read any kind of print, and not being strong enough to work, it very early was decided that he should have an education. It is rather a humbling confession to make, but our worthy forefathers chiefly prized an education for the fact that it caused the fortunate possessor to be exempt from manual labor.

When Daniel was fourteen, a member of Congress came to see Ebenezer Webster, to secure his influence at election. As the great man rode away, Ebenezer said to his son: “Daniel, look there! he is educated and gets six dollars a day in Congress for doing nothing; while I toil on this rocky hillside and hardly see six dollars in a year. Daniel, get an education!”

“I’ll do it,” said Daniel, and throwing his arms around his father’s neck, burst into tears.

The village of Salisbury, where Webster was born, is fifteen miles north of Concord. You leave the train at Boscowan, and there is a rickety old stage, with a loquacious driver, that will take you to Salisbury, five miles, for twenty-five cents. The country is one vast outcrop of granite; and one can not but be filled with admiration, mingled with pity, for the dwellers thereabouts who call these piles of rock “farms.”

As we wound slowly around the hills, the church-spire of the village came in sight; and soon we entered the one street of this sleepy, forgotten place. I shook hands with the old stage-driver as he let me down in front of the tavern; and as I went in search of the landlord, I thought of the remark of the Chicago woman who, in riding from Warwick over to Stratford, said, “Goodness me! why should a man like Shakespeare ever take it in his head to live so far off!”

Salisbury has four hundred people. You can rent a house there for fifty dollars a year, or should you prefer not to keep house, but board, you can be accommodated at the tavern for three dollars a week. There are various abandoned farms round about, and they are abandoned so thoroughly that even Kate Sanborn would not have the courage to their adoption try.

The landlord of the hotel told me that were it not for the “Harvest Dance,” the dance on the Fourth of July, and the party at Christmas, he could not keep the house open at all. Of course, all the inhabitants know that Webster was born at Salisbury, but there is not so much local pride in the matter as there is at East Aurora over the fact that one of her former citizens is a performer in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

The number of old men in one of these New England villages impresses folks from the West as being curious. There are a full dozen men at Salisbury between seventy-five and ninety, and all have positive ideas as to just why Daniel Webster missed the Presidency. I found opinion curiously divided as to Webster’s ability; but all seemed to argue that when he left New Hampshire and became a citizen of Massachusetts, he made a fatal mistake.

* * * * *

The sacrifices that the mother and the father of Daniel Webster made, in order that he might go to school, were very great. Every one in the family had to do without things, that this one might thrive. The boy accepted it all, quite as a matter of course, for from babyhood he had been protected and petted. At the last we must admit that the man who towers above his fellows is the one who has the power to make others work for him; a great success is not possible in any other way.

Throughout his life Webster utilized the labor of others, and took it in a high and imperious manner, as though it were his due. No doubt the way in which his family lavished their gifts upon him fixed in his mind that immoral slant of disregard for his financial obligations which clung to him all through life.

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There is a story told of his going to a county fair with his brother Ezekiel, which shows the characters of these brothers better than a chapter. The father had given each lad a dollar to spend. When the boys got home Daniel was in gay spirits and Ezekiel was depressed. “Well, Dan,” said the father, “did you spend your money?”

“Of course I did,” replied Daniel.

“And, Zeke, what did you do with your dollar?”

“Loaned it to Dan,” replied Ezekiel.

But there was a fine bond of affection between these two. Ezekiel was two years older and, unfortunately for himself, was strong and well. He was very early set to work, and I can not find that the thought of giving him an education ever occurred to his parents, until after Daniel had graduated at Dartmouth, and Dan and Zeke themselves then forced the issue.

In stature they were the same size: both were tall, finely formed, and in youth slender. As they grew older they grew stouter, and the personal presence of each was very imposing. Ezekiel was of light complexion and ruddy; Daniel was very dark and sallow. I have met several men who knew them both, and the best opinion is that Ezekiel was the stronger of the two, mentally and morally.

Daniel was not a student, while Ezekiel was; and as a counselor Ezekiel was the safer man. Up to the very week of Ezekiel’s death Daniel advised with him on all his important affairs. When Ezekiel fell dead in the courtroom at Concord and the news was carried to his brother, it was a blow that affected him more than the loss of wife or child. His friend and counselor, the one man in life upon whom he leaned, was gone, and over his own great, craglike face came that look of sorrow which death only removed. But care and grief became this giant, as they do all who are great enough to bear them.

It was two years after his brother’s death that he made the speech which is his masterpiece. And while the applause was ringing in his ears he turned to Judge Story and said, “Oh, if Zeke were only here!” Who is there who can not sympathize with that groan? We work for others; and to win the applause of senates or nations, and not be able to know that Some One is glad, takes all the sweetness out of victory.

“When I sing well, I want you to meet me in the wings of the stage, and taking me in your aims, kiss my cheek, and whisper it was all right.” When Patti wrote this to her lover she voiced the universal need of a some one who understands, to share the triumph of good work well done. The nostalgia of life never seems so bitter as after moments of success; then comes creeping in the thought that he who would have gloried in this–knowing all the years of struggle and deprivations that made it possible–is sleeping his long sleep.

In that speech of January Twenty-sixth, Eighteen Hundred Thirty, Webster reached high-water mark. On that performance, more than any other, rests his fame. He was forty-eight years old then. All the years of his career he had been getting ready for that address. It was on the one theme that he loved; on the theme he had studied most; on the only theme upon which he ever spoke well–the greatness, the grandeur and the possibilities of America. He spoke for four hours, and in his works the speech occupies seventy close pages. He was at the zenith of his physical and intellectual power, and that is as good a place as any to stop and view the man.

On account of his proud carriage, and the fine poise of his massive head, he gave the impression of being a very large man; but he was just five feet ten, and weighed a little less than two hundred. His manner was grave, deliberate and dignified; and his sturdy face, furrowed with lines of sorrow, made a profound impression upon all before he had spoken a word. He had arrived at an age when the hot desire to succeed had passed. For no man can attain the highest success until he has reached a point where he does not care for it. In oratory the personal desire for victory must be obliterated or the hearer will never award the palm.

Hayne was a very bright and able speaker. He had argued the right of a State to dissent from, or nullify, a law passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, making such law inoperative within its borders. His claim was that the framers of the Constitution did not expect or intend that a law could be passed that was binding on a State when the people of that State did not wish it so. Mr. Hayne had the best end of the argument, and the opinion is now general among jurists that his logic was right and just, and that those who thought otherwise were wrong. New England had practically nullified United States law in Eighteen Hundred Twelve, the Hartford Convention of Eighteen Hundred Fourteen had declared the right; Josiah Quincy had advocated the privilege of any State to nullify an obnoxious law, quite as a matter of course.

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The framers of the Constitution had merely said that we “had better” hang together, not that we “must.” But with the years had come a feeling that the Nation’s life was unsafe if any State should pull away.

Once, on the plains of Colorado, I was with a party when there was danger of an attack from Indians. Two of the party wished to go back; but the leader drew his revolver and threatened to shoot the first man who tried to seek safety. “We must hang together or hang separately.” Logically, each man had the right to secede, and go off on his own account, but expediency made a law and we declared that any man who tried to leave did so at his peril.

To Webster was given the task of putting a new construction on the Constitution, and to make of the Constitution a Law instead of a mere compact. Webster’s speech was not an argument; it was a plea. And so mightily did he point out the dangers of separation; review the splendid past; and prophesy the greatness of the future–a future that could only be ours through absolute union and loyalty to the good of the whole–that he won his cause.

After that speech, if Calhoun had allowed South Carolina to nullify a United States law, President Jackson would have made good his threat and hanged both him and Hayne on one tree, and the people would have approved the act. But Webster did not get the case quashed: he got only a postponement. In Eighteen Hundred Sixty, South Carolina moved the case again; she opened the argument in another way this time, and a million lives were required, and millions upon millions in treasure expended to put a construction on the Constitution that the framers did not intend; but which was necessary in order that the Nation might exist.

In the battle of Bull Run, almost the first battle of the war, fell Colonel Fletcher Webster, the only surviving son of Daniel Webster, and with him died the name and race.

* * * * *

The cunning of Webster’s intellect was not creative. In his argument there is little ingenuity; but he had the power of taking an old truth and presenting it in a way that moved men to tears. When aroused, all he knew was within his reach; he had the faculty of getting all his goods in the front window. And he himself confessed that he often pushed out a masked battery, when behind there was not a single gun.

Under the spell of the orator an audience becomes of one mind: the dullest intellect is more alert than usual and the most discerning a little less so. Cheap wit will then often pass for brilliancy, and platitude for wisdom. We roar over the jokes we have known since childhood, and cry “Hear, hear!” when the great man with upraised hands and fire in his glance declares that twice two is four.

Oratory is hypnotism practised on a large scale. Through oratory ideas are acquired by induction.

Webster was a lawyer; and he was not above resorting to any trick or device that could move the emotions or passions of judge and jury to a prejudice favorable to his side. This was very clearly brought out when he undertook to break the will of Stephen Girard.

Girard was a freethinker, and in leaving money to found a college devised that no preacher or priest should have anything to do with its management. The question at issue was, “Is a bequest for founding a college a charitable bequest?” If so, then the will must stand. But if the bequest were merely a scheme to deprive the legal heirs of their rights–diverting the funds from them for whimsical and personal reasons–then the will should be broken. Mr. Webster made the plea that there was only one kind of charity, namely, Christian charity. Girard was not a Christian, for he had publicly affronted the Christian religion by providing that no minister should teach in his school. Mr. Webster spoke for three hours with many fine bursts of tearful eloquence in support of the Christian faith, reviewing its triumphs and denouncing its foes.

The argument was carried outside of the realm of law into the domain of passion and prejudice.

The court took time for the tumult to subside, and then very quietly decided against Webster, sustaining the will. The college building was erected and stands today, the finest specimen of purely Greek architecture in America; and the good that Girard College has done and is now doing is the priceless heritage of our entire country.

One of Webster’s first greatest speeches was before the United States Supreme Court in the Dartmouth College case. Here he defended the cause of education with that grave and wonderful weight of argument of which he was master. In the Girard College case, eighteen years after, he reversed his logic, and touched with rare skill on the dangers of a too-liberal education.

No man now is quite so daring as to claim that Webster was a Christian. Neither was he a freethinker. He inherited his religious views from his parents, and never considered them enough to change. He simply viewed religion as a part of the fabric of government, giving sturdiness and safety to established order. His own spiritual acreage was left absolutely untilled. His services were for sale; and so plastic were his convictions that once having espoused a cause he was sure it was right. Doubtless it is self-interest, as Herbert Spencer says, that makes the world go round. And thus does sincerity of belief resolve itself into which side will pay most. This question being settled, reasons are as plentiful as blackberries, and are supplied in quantities proportionate in size to the retainer.

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John Randolph once touched the quick by saying, “If Daniel Webster was employed on a case and he had partially lost faith in it, his belief in his client’s rights could always be refreshed and his zeal renewed by a check.”

Webster had every possible qualification that is required to make the great orator. All those who heard him speak, when telling of it, begin by relating how he looked. He worked the dignity and impressiveness of his Jovelike presence to its furthest limit, and when once thoroughly awake was in possession of his entire armament.

No other American has been able to speak with a like degree of effectiveness; and his name deserves to rank, and will rank, with the names of Burke, Chatham, Sheridan and Pitt. The case has been tried, the verdict is in and recorded on the pages of history. There can be no retrial, for Webster is dead, and his power died thirty years before his form was laid to rest at Marshfield by the side of his children and the wife of his youth.

Oratory is the lowest of the sublime arts. The extent of its influence will ever be a vexed question. Its result depends on the mood and temperament of the hearer. But there are men who are not ripe for treason and conspiracy, to whom even music makes small appeal. Yet music can be recorded, entrusted to an interpreter yet unborn, and lodge its appeal with posterity. Literature never dies: it dedicates itself to Time. For the printed page is reproduced ten thousand times ten thousand times, and besides, lives as did the Homeric poems, passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. Were every book containing Shakespeare’s plays burned this night, tomorrow they could be rewritten by those who know their every word.

With the passing years the painter’s colors fade; time rots his canvas; the marble is dragged from its pedestal and exists in fragments from which we resurrect a nation’s life; but oratory dies on the air and exists only as a memory in the minds of those who can not translate, and then as hearsay. So much for the art itself; but the influence of that art is another thing.

He who influences the beliefs and opinions of men influences all other men that live after. For influence, like matter, can not be destroyed.

In many ways, Webster lacked the inward steadfastness that his face and frame betokened; but on one theme he was sound to the inmost core. He believed in America’s greatness and the grandeur of America’s mission. Into the minds of countless men he infused his own splendid patriotism. From his first speech at Hanover when eighteen years old, to his last when nearly seventy, he fired the hearts of men with the love of native land. And how much the growing greatness of our country is due to the magic of his words and the eloquence of his inspired presence no man can compute.

The passion of Webster’s life is well mirrored in that burning passage:

“When mine eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union: on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent: on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood. Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the Republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, or a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as ‘What is all this worth?’ nor those other words of delusion and folly, ‘Liberty first and Union afterwards’; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.’”

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