Reference > Cambridge History > Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I > Webster > Webster not a Writer
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVI. Webster.

§ 1. Webster not a Writer.


WE may take it for granted that Webster knew well how large a place he would fill in the history of his time. He was singularly free from small vanities and petty conceit but he was too great a man not to be conscious of his own intellectual power or of the part which he had played in his day and generation. His feeling about himself comes out in the famous passage of the Seventh of March speech when he asked: “What States are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be?” A remarkable question that last one! With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, who in our history could have solemnly put it forth in a public speech without being laughed at and ridiculed? Yet Webster uttered the words in a speech in the Senate, and a political opponent said that the tone of that question made him shudder as if some dire calamity were at hand. Laughter and ridicule fled before this naked assertion of a personality, and men not only shrank from the visions which it conjured up but accepted it as very solemn and entirely natural. The power of the orator was one reason, no doubt, for the impression, but the greatness of the man himself was the controlling cause.   1
  Yet despite this just sense of his place in the history of his time and of his own greatness, Webster would have been profoundly surprised to find himself included as a marked figure in the history of our literature. 1  Except for a fragment of an autobiography and some private letters he never wrote anything in the literary sense. In his day public men did not turn to the newspaper or the magazine for an opportunity to express their views upon public questions. The age of pamphlets, so much used by the framers of the Constitution and the founders of our government, had passed away. That of the magazine and the review had not arrived. Men in public life trusted to their speeches in Parliament or Congress or before the people, almost as in the days of Fox and Pitt, to make their arguments and opinions known, and they would have thought any other course hardly consistent with their dignity. Moreover, Webster did not give his leisure, as many statesmen have done, to writing memoirs or history or to the discussion in book form of some question which interested him. The reason was simple. When Webster was not in office or when he had an interval between the sessions of Congress, he gave his time to the practice of his profession, and great cases before the courts absorbed all his energy. 2    2

Note 1. There are used here, with modifications, two or three passages from an address delivered by the writer at the unveiling of the Webster monument in Washington, 14 January, 1900.

Ever since 1800 Webster had been the exponent of a doctrine of nationalism which now made him the chief defender of the idea of union. His debate with Hayne of South Carolina in 1830, commonly called “The Great Debate,” is a classic statement of the doctrine and the idea. For twenty years Webster was the voice of New England. He failed of election as President, but he had a notable, if brief, career as secretary of state under Harrison and Tyler, 1841–43, during which he concluded with Great Britain the important Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Once more in the Senate after 1845, Webster opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. As the struggle over slavery grew more violent he turned to the side of Clay and in the famous “Seventh of March Speech” defended Clay’s Compromise Bill, with the result that he was bitterly denounced in the North as a renegade. The same year he became secretary of state again. He died under a kind of cloud, 24 October, 1852, but there can be little doubt that he, more than any other one man, contributed to the growth of that sentiment of union which sustained the national idea during the Civil War.—THE EDITORS. [ back ]

Note 2. Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury [now Franklin], New Hampshire, 18 January, 1782, of pioneer stock. A frail child, and therefore spared the hard work of his father’s farm, he was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy and to Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1801. He taught school as a make-shift, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1805. He practised first at Boscawen and then at Portsmouth, where he rapidly rose to prominence both as lawyer and public speaker. In 1813 he was sent to the House of Representatives as a Federalist member from Massachusetts, and thus came in close contact with Clay, then speaker, and Calhoun. Within a year Webster was a marked man in Congress. After four years, during which he struck many heavy blows at the administration, he resumed the practice of law. The great cases which he argued—the Dartmouth College Case, M’Culloch v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, Ogden v. Saunders—brought him into the first rank of American lawyers by the time he was forty. Meanwhile his reputation as the greatest American orator was built up by his oration at Plymouth in 1820, the Bunker Hill oration of 1825, and the speech in which he commemorated Adams and Jefferson in 1826. He returned to the House of Representatives in 1823 and in 1827 entered the Senate, in which he served till 1841. [ back ]

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