Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Daniel Webster

On January 8th, 1782, was born at Franklin, New Hampshire, a son to a comparatively poor farmer. No royal blood flowed through the veins of this child whereby to bring him honor, yet one day he was to rise to the foremost rank among the rulers of his country. At that early period the town of Salisbury, now Franklin, was the extreme northern settlement in New Hampshire, and the schools were of necessity in a primitive state.

Daniel Webster labored on his father’s farm during the summer, and a few months of each winter attended the district school some two miles from his home. Considering the cold, and the heavy snows which are characteristic of his native State, one can scarcely realize the amount of energy he must have utilized to enable him to enter Exeter Academy at the early age of fourteen, and one year later, Dartmouth College. He is represented as promising nothing of his future greatness at this time, but it is stated that he pursued every study with extraordinary tenacity.

He read widely, especially in history and general English literature, and thereby laid a good foundation for the splendid education which his personal energy at last brought him. As a matter of course, such a line of action must bring out what qualities might be in any man. The college societies soon sought him as a member.

While at Exeter he could hardly muster courage to speak before his class, but before he had finished his college course he had delivered addresses before the societies, which found their way into print. His diligence soon placed him at the head of his class, a position he maintained until the close of his college studies, graduating in 1801 with high honors.

Choosing law as his profession, he entered the law office of a friend and neighbor, Thomas Thompson, who afterwards became a congressman and eventually a senator. Mr. Webster remained here for some time when he left the office to become a teacher in Maine at a salary of $350 per year, which he enlarged somewhat by copying deeds. He afterwards returned to the office of Mr. Thompson where he remained until 1804, when he went to Boston and entered the office of Christopher Gove, who also distinguished himself afterwards as governor of Massachusetts.

He had previously helped his brother Ezekiel to prepare for college, and Daniel now in turn was helped to continue his law studies as Ezekiel was teaching. His opportunity to enter the office of Mr. Gove proved most fortunate, as he was thus enabled to study men, books and daily hear intelligent discussions on the topics of national interest.

In 1805 he was admitted to the bar, and established himself at Boscawen. He had been offered the clerkship of the Hillsboro County Court at a salary of $1,500 a year, which was then a large income, and he was urged to accept it by his father and other friends, but was dissuaded from so doing by Mr. Gove, who foresaw great honor in store for him at the bar. He practiced at Boscawen one year, when he was admitted to practice in the Superior Court of New Hampshire, and he established himself at Portsmouth, at that time the capital of the State. Here he rose to distinction among the most eminent counsellors. During his nine years residence in Portsmouth he gave his especial attention to constitutional law, becoming one of the soundest practitioners in the State.

He had inherited from his father the principles of the Federalist party, and, therefore, advocated them in speeches on public occasions, but did not for some years enter into politics. Mr. Webster came forward in a time when party spirit ran high, and the declaration of war in 1812, long deprecated by his party, created a demand for the best talent the country afforded. Mr. Webster now held a commanding reputation, and in 1812 he was sent to Congress. This was a most favorable time for Webster to enter Congress, as measures of the greatest importance were now to be discussed.

Henry Clay was speaker of the house, and placed this new member on a most important committee. June 10, 1813, he delivered his maiden speech on the repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees. These decrees were a scheme of Napoleon’s, avowedly directed against the commercial interests of Great Britain.

They closed all ports of France, and her allied countries against all vessels coming from England or any English colony. All commerce and correspondence was prohibited. All English merchandise was seized, and English subjects found in any country governed by France were held prisoners of war.

Great Britain retaliated by prohibiting neutral vessels from entering the ports of France under pain of confiscation; and a later order placed France and her allies, together with all countries with whom England was at war, under the same restriction.

Napoleon then issued his decree from Milan and the Tuileries declaring that any vessel that had ever been searched by English authority, or had ever paid duty to England, should be treated as a lawful prize of war.

Mr. Webster’s first speech, as before stated, was upon a resolution on the repeal of these decrees, and so ably did he define our duty as a country, in the matter, and so clearly did he show wherein both England and France had transgressed; that, being a new member, unknown outside of his own section of the Union, his lucid and eloquent appeal took the house and nation by surprise.

His subsequent speeches on the increase of the navy and the repeal of the embargo act won for him a first place among the great debaters of his day. He cultivated a friendly relation with political opponents as well as partisan friends, which soon gained for him the respect of all and he became the acknowledged leader of the Federal party. He was re-elected to Congress in 1814 by a large majority, and in the debates upon the United States bank which followed, he displayed a most remarkable mastery of the financial questions of his time. Afterward a bill which was introduced by him passed, requiring all payments to the treasury to be made in specie or its equivalent, restored the depreciated currency of the country.

His home and library was burned and after some hesitation as to whether to locate in Boston or Albany, he decided on the former whither he moved, and where he lived the remainder of his life. This change of location gave greater scope for the extension of his legal business, and his resignation from Congress increased still further his time and opportunities. During the next seven years he devoted his exclusive attention to his profession, taking a position as counsellor, above which no one has ever risen in this country, and the best class of business passed into his hands.

In 1816 the legislature of New Hampshire reorganized the corporation of Dartmouth College, changing its name to Dartmouth University, and selecting new trustees. The newly-created body took possession of the institution, and the old board brought action against the new management. The case involved the powers of the legislature over the old corporation without their consent. It was decided twice in the affirmative by the courts of the State, when it was appealed to Washington, the highest court.

Mr. Webster opened the case, delivering a most eloquent and exhaustive argument for the college. His argument was that it was a private institution supported through charity, over which the State had no control, and that the legislature could not annul except for acts in violation of its charter, which had not been shown. Chief Justice Marshal decided that the act of the legisature was unconstitutional and reversed the previous decisions. This established Mr. Webster’s reputation in the Supreme Court, and he was retained in every considerable case thereafter, being considered one of the greatest expounders of constitutional law in the Union.

He was already acknowledged to be among the greatest criminal lawyers, and at the anniversary of the landing of the pilgrim fathers he delivered the first of a series of orations which, aside from his legal and legislative achievements must have made him renowned. He was elected in 1822 to congress, being chosen from Boston, and during 1823 made his world-famous speech on the Greek revolution; a most powerful remonstrance against what has passed into history as “The holy alliance,” and he also opposed an extravagant increase of the tariff. He also reported and carried through the house a complete revision of the criminal law of the United States, being chairman of the judiciary committee. In 1827 he was selected by the legislature of Massachusetts to fill a vacancy in the United States senate. In that body he won a foremost position.

Probably the most eloquent exhibition of oratory, based on logic and true statesmanship, ever exhibited in the Senate of the United States was the contest between Mr. Webster, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Hayne, the silver-tongued orator of South Carolina; the debate transpiring in 1830. The subject of discussion before the senate by these two intellectual gladiators grew out of a resolution brought forward by Senator Foot, of Connecticut, just at the close of the previous year with a view of some arrangement concerning the sales of the public lands. But this immediate question was soon lost sight of in the discussion of a great vital principle of constitutional law, namely: The relative powers of the States and the national government.

Upon this Mr. Benton and Mr. Hayne addressed the Senate, condemning the policy of the Eastern States as illiberal toward the West. Mr. Webster replied in vindication of New England, and of the policy of the Government. It was then that Mr. Hayne made his attack—sudden, unexpected, and certainly unexampled—upon Mr. Webster personally, upon Massachusetts and other Northern States politically, and upon the constitution itself. In respect to the latter, Mr. Hayne taking the position that it is constitutional to interrupt the administration of the Constitution itself, in the hands of those who are chosen and sworn to administer it; by the direct interference in form of law, of the States, in virtue of their sovereign capacity.

All of these points were handled by Mr. Hayne with that rhetorical brilliancy, and the power which characterized him as the oratorical champion of the South on the floor of the Senate, and it is not saying too much that the speech produced a profound impression. Mr. Hayne’s great effort appeared to be the result of premeditation, concert, and arrangement.

He selected his own time, and that, too, peculiarly inconvenient to Mr. Webster, for at that moment the Supreme Court was proceeding in the hearing of a case of great importance in which he was a leading counsel. For this reason he requested, through a friend, the postponement of the debate. Mr. Hayne objected, however, and the request was refused. The time, the matter, and the manner, indicated that the attack was made with the design to crush so formidable a political opponent as Mr. Webster had become. To this end, personal history, the annals of New England, and the federal party were ransacked for materials.

It was attempted with the usual partisan unfairness of political harangues to make him responsible not only for what was his own, but for the conduct and opinions of others. All the errors and delinquencies, real or supposed, of Massachusetts and the Eastern States, and of the Federal party during the war of 1812, and indeed prior and subsequent to that period were accumulated and heaped upon him.

Thus it was that Mr. Hayne heralded his speech with a bold declaration of war, with taunts and threats, vaunting anticipated triumph—saying ‘that he would carry the war into Africa until he had obtained indemnity for the past and security for the future.’ It was supposed that as a distinguished representative man, Mr. Webster would be driven to defend what was indefensible, to uphold what could not be sustained and, as a Federalist, to oppose the popular resolutions of ’98.

The severe nature of Mr. Hayne’s charges, the ability with which he brought them to bear upon his opponents, his great reputation as a brilliant and powerful declaimer, filled the minds of his friends with anticipations of complete triumph. For two days Mr. Hayne had control of the floor. The vehemence of his language and the earnestness of his manner, we might properly say the power of his oratory, added force to the excitement of the occasion. So fluent and melodious was his elocution that his cause naturally begat sympathy. No one had time to deliberate on his rapid words or canvass his sweeping and accumulated statements. The dashing nature of the onset, the assurance, almost insolence of his tone; the serious character of the accusations, confounded almost every hearer.

The immediate impression of the speech was most surely disheartening to the cause Mr. Webster upheld. Congratulations from almost every quarter were showered upon Mr. Hayne. Mr. Benton said in full senate that as much as Mr. Hayne had done before to establish his reputation as an orator, a statesman, a patriot and a gallant son of the South; the efforts of that day would eclipse and surpass the whole. Indeed the speech was extolled as the greatest effort of the time or of other times—neither Chatham or Burke nor Fox had surpassed it in their palmiest days.

Mr. Webster’s own feelings with reference to the speech were freely expressed to his friend, Mr. Everett, the evening succeeding Mr. Hayne’s closing speech. He regarded the speech as an entirely unprovoked attack on the North, and what was of far more importance, as an exposition of politics in which Mr. Webster’s opinion went far to change the form of government from that which was established by the constitution into that which existed under the confederation—if the latter could be called a government at all. He stated it to be his intention therefore to put that theory to rest forever, as far as it could be done by an argument in the senate chamber. How grandly he did this is thus vividly portrayed by Mr. March, an eye-witness, and whose account has been adopted by most historians.

It was on Tuesday, January 26th, 1830—a day to be hereafter memorable in senatorial annals—that the senate resumed the consideration of Foot’s resolution. There was never before in the city an occasion of so much excitement. To witness this great intellectual contest multitudes of strangers had, for two or more days previous, been rushing into the city, and the hotels overflowed. As early as nine o’clock in the morning crowds poured into the capitol in hot haste; at twelve o’clock, the hour of meeting, the senate chamber, even its galleries, floor, and lobbies was filled to its utmost capacity. The very stairways were dark with men who hung on to one another like bees in a swarm.

The House of Representatives was early deserted. An adjournment would hardly have made it emptier. The speaker, it is true, retained his chair, but no business of moment was or could be attended to. Members all rushed in to hear Mr. Webster, and no call of the House or other parliamentary proceedings could call them back. The floor of the Senate was so densely crowded that persons once in could not get out.

Seldom, if ever, has a speaker in this or any other country had more powerful incentives to exertion; a subject, the determination of which involved the most important interests and even duration of the Republic—competitors unequaled in reputation, ability, or position; a name to make still more renowned or lose forever; and an audience comprising, not only American citizens most eminent in intellectual greatness, but representatives of other nations where the art of oratory had flourished for ages.

Mr. Webster perceived and felt equal to the destinies of the moment. The very greatness of the hazard exhilarated him. His spirits arose with the occasion. He awaited the time of onset with a stern and impatient joy. He felt like the war-horse of the Scriptures, who ‘paweth in the valley and rejoiceth in his strength: who goeth on to meet the armed men who sayeth among the trumpets, ha! ha! and who smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the Captains and the shouting.’

A confidence in his resources, springing from no vain estimate of his power but the legitimate off-spring of previous severe mental discipline, sustained and excited him. He had gauged his opponents, his subject and himself.

He was, too, at this period in the very prime of manhood. He had reached middle-age—an era in the life of man when the faculties, physical or intellectual, may be supposed to attain their fullest organization and most perfect development. Whatever there was in him of intellectual energy and vitality the occasion, his full life and high ambition might well bring forth. He never arose on an ordinary occasion to address an ordinary audience more self-possessed. There was no tremulousness in his voice or manner; nothing hurried, nothing simulated. The calmness of superior strength was visible everywhere; in countenance, voice and bearing. A deep-seated conviction of the extraordinary character of the emergency and of his ability to control it seemed to possess him wholly. If an observer more than ordinarily keen-sighted detected at times something like exultation in his eye, he presumed it sprang from the excitement of the moment and the anticipation of victory. The anxiety to hear the speech was so intense, irrepressible and universal that no sooner had the vice-president assumed the chair that a motion was made and unanimously carried to postpone the ordinary preliminaries of senatorial action and take up immediately the consideration of the resolution.

Mr. Webster arose and addressed the Senate. His exordium is known by heart everywhere. “Mr. President when the mariner has been tossed about for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun to take his latitude and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence and before we float further on the waves of this debate refer to the point from which we departed that we may at least be able to form some conjecture where we now are. I ask for the reading of the resolutions.”

Calm, resolute, impressive was this opening speech. There wanted no more to enchain the attention. There was a spontaneous though silent expression of eager attention as the orator concluded these opening remarks. And while the clerk read the resolution many attempted the impossibility of getting nearer the speaker. Every head was inclined closer toward him, every ear turned in the direction of his voice—and that deep, sudden, mysterious silence followed which always attends fullness of emotion. From the sea of upturned faces before him the orator beheld his thought, reflected as from a mirror. The varying countenance, the suffused eye, the earnest smile and ever attentive look assured him of the intense interest excited. If among his hearers there were some who affected indifference at first to his glowing thoughts and fervant periods, the difficult mask was soon laid aside and profound, undisguised, devout attention followed.

In truth, all sooner or later, voluntarily, or in spite of themselves were wholly carried away by the spell of such unexampled eloquence. Those who had doubted Mr. Webster’s power to cope with and overcome his opponent were fully satisfied of their error before he had proceeded far in this debate. Their fears soon took another direction. When they heard his sentences of powerful thought towering in accumulated grandeur one above the other as if the orator strove Titan-like to reach the very heavens themselves, they were giddy with an apprehension that he would break down in his flight. They dared not believe that genius, learning—any intellectual endowment however uncommon, that was simply mortal—could sustain itself long in a career seemingly so perilous. They feared an Icarian fall. No one surely who was present, could ever forget the awful burst of eloquence with which the orator apostrophized the old Bay State which Mr. Hayne had so derided, or the tones of deep pathos in which her defense was pronounced:—

“Mr. President: I shall enter on no encomium upon Massachusetts. There she is—behold her and judge for yourselves. There is her history, the world knows it by heart. The past at least is secure. There is Boston, and Concord, and Lexington, and Bunker Hill, and there they will remain forever. The bones of her sons falling in the great struggle for independence now lie mingled with the soil of every State from New England to Georgia, and there they will remain forever. And sir, where American liberty raised its first voice, and where its youth was nurtured and sustained, there it still lives in the strength of its manhood and full of its original spirit. If discord and disunion shall wound it, if party strife and blind ambition shall hawk at and tear it, if folly and madness, if uneasiness under salutary and necessary restraint, shall succeed to separate it from that Union by which alone its existence is made sure it will stand in the end by the side of that cradle in which its infancy was rocked, it will stretch forth its arm with whatever vigor it may still retain over the friends who gather around it and it will fall at last, if fall it must, amidst the proudest monuments of its own glory and on the very spot of its origin.”

No New England heart but throbbed with vehement emotion as Mr. Webster dwelt upon New England sufferings, New England struggles, and New England triumphs during the war of the Revolution. There was scarcely a dry eye in the Senate; all hearts were overcome; grave judges and men grown old in dignified life turned aside their heads to conceal the evidence of their emotion.

We presume that none but those present can understand the excitement of the scene. No one who was present can, it seems, give an adequate description of it. No word-painting can convey the deep, intense enthusiasm, the reverential attention of that vast assembly, nor limner transfer to canvas their earnest, eager, awe-struck countenances. Though language were as subtle and flexible as thought it would still be impossible to represent the full idea of the occasion. Much of the instantaneous effect of the speech arose of course from the orator’s delivery—the tones of his voice, his countenance and manner. These die mostly with the occasion, they can only be described in general terms.

“Of the effectiveness of Mr. Webster’s manner in many parts,” says Mr. Everett, himself almost without a peer as an orator, “it would be in vain to attempt to give any one not present the faintest idea. It has been my fortune to hear some of the ablest speeches of the greatest living orators on both sides of the water, but I must confess I never heard anything which so completely realized my conception of what Demosthenes was when he delivered the oration for the Crown.”

Could there be higher praise than this? Keen nor Kemble nor any other masterly delineator of the human passions ever produced a more powerful impression upon an audience or swayed so completely their hearts. No one ever looked the orator as he did; in form and feature how like a god! His countenance spake no less audibly than his words. His manner gave new force to his language. As he stood swaying his right arm like a huge tilt-hammer, up and down, his swarthy countenance lighted up with excitement, he appeared amid the smoke, the fire, the thunder of his eloquence like Vulcan in his armory forging thoughts for the gods!

Time had not thinned nor bleached his hair; it was as dark as the raven’s plumage, surmounting his massive brow in ample folds. His eye always dark and deep-set enkindled by some glowing thought shown from beneath his somber overhanging brow like lights in the blackness of night from a sepulcher. No one understood better than Mr. Webster the philosophy of dress; what a powerful auxiliary it is to speech and manner when harmonizing with them. On this occasion he appeared in a blue coat, a buff vest, black pants and white cravat; a costume strikingly in keeping with his face and expression. The human face never wore an expression of more withering, relentless scorn than when the orator replied to Hayne’s allusion to the “Murdered Coalition”—a piece of stale political trumpery well understood at that day.

“It is,” said Mr. Webster, “the very cast off slough of a polluted and shameless press. Incapable of further mischief it lies in the sewer, lifeless and despised. It is not now, sir, in the power of the honorable member to give it dignity or decency by attempting to elevate it and introduce it into the Senate. He cannot change it from what it is—an object of general disgust and scorn. On the contrary, the contact, if he choose to touch it, is more likely to drag him down, down, down to the place where it lies itself.” He looked as he spoke these words as if the thing he alluded to was too mean for scorn itself, and the sharp stinging enunciation made the words still more scathing. The audience seemed relieved, so crushing was the expression of his face which they held onto as ’twere spell-bound—when he turned to other topics. But the good-natured yet provoking irony with which he described the imaginary, though life-like scene of direct collision between the marshaled army of South Carolina under General Hayne on the one side, and the officers of the United States on the other, nettled his opponent even more than his severe satire, it seemed so ridiculously true.

With his true Southern blood Hayne inquired with some degree of emotion if the gentleman from Massachusetts intended any personal imputation by such remarks? To which Mr. Webster replied with perfect good humor, “Assuredly not, just the reverse!” The variety of incident during the speech, and the rapid fluctuation of passions, kept the audience in continual expectation and ceaseless agitation. The speech was a complete drama of serious comic and pathetic scenes, and though a large portion of it was argumentative—an exposition of constitutional law—yet grave as such portion necessarily must be, severely logical and abounding in no fancy or episode, it engrossed throughout undivided attention. The swell of his voice and its solemn roll struck upon the ears of the enraptured hearers in deep and thrilling cadence as waves upon the shore of the far-resounding sea.

The Miltonic grandeur of his words was the fit expression of his great thoughts and raised his hearers up to his theme, and his voice exerted to its utmost power penetrated every recess or corner of the Senate—penetrated even the ante-rooms and stairways, as in closing he pronounced in deepest tones of pathos these words of solemn significance: “When my 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 lustre, not a stripe erased nor polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as ‘What is all this worth?’ nor those other words of folly and delusion: ‘Liberty first and Union afterwards,’ but everywhere spread all over it characters of living light blazing on all of 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 American heart: ‘Liberty and union now and forever, one and inseparable!'”

The speech was over but the tones of the orator still lingered on the ear, and the audience, unconscious of the close, retained their positions. Everywhere around seemed forgetfulness of all but the orator’s presence and words. There never was a deeper silence; the feeling was too overpowering to allow expression by voice or hand. But the descending hammer of the chair awoke them with a start, and with one universal, long drawn, deep breath, with which the over-charged heart seeks relief, the crowded assembly broke up and departed.

In the evening President Jackson held a levee at the White House. It was known in advance that Mr. Webster would attend it, and hardly had the hospitable doors of the mansion been thrown open, when the crowd that had filled the Senate-Chamber in the morning rushed in and occupied the room, leaving a vast and increasing crowd at the entrance. On all previous occasions the general himself had been the observed of all observers. His receptions were always gladly attended by large numbers, and to these he himself was always the chief object of attraction on account of his great military and personal reputation, official position, gallant bearing, and courteous manners. But on this occasion the room in which he received his company was deserted as soon as courtesy to the president permitted.

Mr. Webster was in the East room and thither the whole mass hurried. He stood almost in the center of the room pressed upon by surging crowds eager to pay him deference. Hayne, too, was there, and with others went up and complimented Mr. Webster on his brilliant effort. In a subsequent meeting between the two rival debators Webster challenged Hayne to drink a glass of wine with him, saying as he did so, “General Hayne I drink to your health, and I hope that you may live a thousand years.” “I shall not live more than one hundred if you make another such a speech,” Hayne replied.

To this day Webster’s speech is regarded as the master-piece of modern eloquence—unsurpassed by even the mightiest efforts of either Pitt, Fox or Burke—a matchless intellectual achievement and complete forensic triumph. It was to this great, triumphant effort that Mr. Webster’s subsequent fame as a statesman was due.

Upon the election of General Harrison to the presidency Mr. Webster was offered his choice of the places in the cabinet, a recognition of ability probably never accorded to any other man before or since. He finally accepted the office of Secretary of State. Our relation with England demanded prompt attention. The differences existing between the two nations relative to the Northern boundary could not be disregarded, and Mr. Webster and Lord Ashburton brought about a treaty which was equally honorable and advantageous to the countries. He was also able later to contribute much toward the settlement of the Oregon boundary question through private channels of influence, though holding no official position at the time.

In 1847 he started on a tour of the Southern States, being well received throughout; especially in Charleston, Columbia, Augusta and Savannah was as well received, but his health failing him in the latter city, he was obliged to abandon his project of making a tour of the whole South. He became Secretary of State under Mr. Fillmore. This position he held at his death which occurred at Marshfield, on the 24th day of October, 1852. Funeral orations were delivered throughout the country in great numbers.

He was a man of commanding figure, large but well proportioned. His head was of unusual size, his eyes deep-seated and lustrious, and had a voice powerful yet pleasing; his action, while not remarkably graceful, was easy and impressive. His social tastes were very strong and he possessed marked conversational power. He lived in an age of great legislators and it is needless to add that he was excelled in statesmanship by none.

Professor Ticknor, speaking in one of his letters of the intense excitement with which he listened to Webster’s Plymouth address, says: “Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gush of blood, for after all you must know I am aware it is no connected and compact whole, but a collection of broken fragments, of burning eloquence to which his manner gave ten fold force. When I came out I was almost afraid to come near him. It seemed to me that he was like the mount that might not be touched, and that burned with fire.”