The man most likely to

Daniel Webster
June 5, 1998

Any list of American politicians who might have, but did not, become president, ought to find room for Daniel Webster. Forty years' prominence in Washington, participation in innumerable leading court cases, unique recognition as the commemorative orator of national events, should have combined to secure him the office for which, to within a year of his death, he was still hoping. As it is, his life furnishes ample material for this massive biography, even if it failed to deliver a comparable array of political achievements.

Robert Remini does not attempt to diminish or explain away the faults and failures of his subject. As the biographer of Andrew Jackson and of Henry Clay he commands an unrivalled authority in recounting the development of national politics between the Napoleonic and civil wars. Credibility is soon established. An author who has examined the interior of a Senate desk to determine whether Webster carved his own name there and concludes that it is improbable, and who has checked the lists of books he borrowed from the Library of Congress, is unlikely to have committed any sins of omission. All the more impressive, therefore, that the very different views of Webster's qualities held by his contemporaries are fully considered. Political judgements were divided: there were those, for many years probably a majority, who from the time of his oration on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence thought and spoke of him as "the Godlike Daniel". It would prove an appellation too exalted for universal acceptance. Those who, for whatever reasons, withheld approval, preferred to dub him "Black Dan". Their number would increase with time and a transformation of the country's political and economic systems.

Webster possessed one supreme talent, that which made him the nation's orator. His delivery in 1821 of the bicentennial oration commemorating the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock established a role and gained a recognition that would, in this respect, outstrip all competition during the next 30 years. It was an achievement that was not arrived at effortlessly: throughout his life the study, use and implications of the American past proved as absorbing to him as they were relevant to a legal career that increasingly turned on advancing interpretations of the Constitution. His political standing stemmed from speeches, hours in length, delivered to huge crowds, his appearances in the Supreme Court, and dramatic debates in the Senate. Politics, despite this personal prominence, took less of his time. It is clear that Webster's total dominance of Whig, indeed state, politics in Massachusetts did not extend elsewhere: even his native New Hampshire provided but spasmodic and partial support.

This would not have mattered unduly if his personal ambitions had taken note of these curbs. But, certainly by 1825, Webster's ascendancy as public orator - confirmed by his Bunker Hill address of that year - was giving rise to a belief that he could best be ensconced in the White House. While this was not unreasonable as a possible destination, political circumstances, personal defects and, somewhat surprisingly, institutional negligence, came together to create what would prove insuperable obstacles.

Webster was unfortunate in the time of his birth: too late to achieve power as a Federalist, too early to secure admission to any truly national party. That apart, he attracted little support, and rarely sought it, outside New England. If, at one level, this increased his general appeal as he enacted the drama of the nation's history or engaged in applications of the Constitution to current disputes, at another it left him without any broad backing in national matters of political conflict. Not that those questions commanded his sustained interest. A grand oration, delivered in the Senate or in Faneuil Hall, was his preferred medium. The details of political negotiation were not to his taste. Once he descended from the rostrum the magic engendered by his voice, his tone, his manner could all too quickly depart.

Webster's personal life emphasised these contrasts. His income as a lawyer was substantial but perpetually overshadowed by expenditures, both on his extensive and much-loved farm at Marshfield, on the Atlantic seaboard near Plymouth, and on numerous totally speculative and usually disastrous western land ventures. Lesser men would have faced bankruptcy: Webster was too distinguished a figure to suffer that fate. His usefulness to the commercial and industrial interests of the north-east was such as to fend off disaster, even if he never displayed any inclination to change his financial ways. This situation did not subsist unnoticed. His national reputation was diminished by a clearly sectional economic commitment and a moral disapproval, sustained by his reading of the Constitution, of any further spread of slavery. For these differing reasons both western and southern states came to view Webster with more suspicion than pride.

A political career of 40 years proved too long to sustain public belief in Webster's integrity. He spent too much, drank too much, was too obviously beholden to the wealthy and indifferent to the poor. Capitalism he understood, however ineffectively he practised it, but popular demands simply passed him by. He could electrify audiences - the larger the better - but not, as he grew older, win and hold their trust as voters. On this point a common judgement joined with the long-sustained view of John Quincy Adams as the former president contemplated "...the gigantic intellect, the envious temper, the ravenous ambition, and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster".

Remini, without seeking to criticise or exculpate, offers a magisterial account that reveals the strengths and weaknesses, contributions and limitations, of a singularly gifted individual. Should he have become president? That such a man can be declared unfit for the office seems out of the question.

Yet, by the highest standards, should they apply to such an unpredictable process, Webster would have been found wanting. Until one thinks of the speeches he was not called upon to give and with which, in his prime, he would have proved himself a worthy successor to the Founding Fathers.

Peter Marshall is emeritus professor of imperial history, King's College, London.

Daniel Webster: The Man and his Time

Author - Robert Remini
ISBN - 0 393 04552 8
Publisher - Norton
Price - £29.95
Pages - 796

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