Daniel Webster : biography
Daniel Webster (January 18, 1782October 24, 1852) was a leading American statesman and senator from Massachusetts during the period leading up to the Civil War. He first rose to regional prominence through his defense of New England shipping interests. Webster's increasingly nationalistic views, and his effectiveness as a speaker, made him one of the most famous orators and influential Whig leaders of the Second Party System. He was one of the nation's most prominent conservatives, leading opposition to Democrat Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. He was a spokesman for modernization, banking and industry, but not for the common people who composed the base of his enemies in Jacksonian Democracy. "He was a thoroughgoing elitist, and he reveled in it," says biographer Remini.Robert Vincent Remini, Daniel Webster: the man and his time (1997) p. 352 During his 40 years in national politics, Webster served in the House of Representatives for 10 years (representing New Hampshire), in the Senate for 19 years (representing Massachusetts), and was appointed the United States Secretary of State under three presidents.
Webster took part in several key U.S. Supreme Court cases which established important constitutional precedents that bolstered the authority of the federal government. As Secretary of State, he negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which established the definitive eastern border between the United States and Canada. Chiefly recognized for his Senate tenure, Webster was a key figure in the institution's "Golden days". Webster was considered the Northern member of a trio known as 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 was regarded as "the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress."Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (1947) 1:288.
As with his fellow Whig Henry Clay, 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 tried and failed three times to become President of the United States. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Webster as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators with Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Robert La Follette, and Robert Taft.
Webster retains his high prestige in recent historiography. Baxter argues that his nationalistic view of the union as one and inseparable with liberty helped the union to try up over the states-rights Confederacy, making it his greatest contribution. Maurice G. Baxter, One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union (1984) 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. Irving H. Bartlett, Daniel Webster (1978) Remini points out that Webster's historical orations taught Americans their history before textbooks were widely available.Remini, Webster, p 187 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."
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