Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was an outspoken advocate for the shipping and industrial interests of his state. He was a powerful orator and was nationally known for his speaking ability. Webster was a prominent Whig who championed the elites of his region. “He was a thoroughgoing elitist, and he reveled in it,” says biographer Robert Vincent Remini.
Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire in 1782. He and his nine siblings grew up on their parents’ farm, a small parcel of land granted to his father. His ancestors were among the early settlers of Salisbury.
Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a preparatory school in Exeter, New Hampshire, before attending Dartmouth College. After he graduated from Dartmouth (Phi Beta Kappa), Webster was apprenticed to the lawyer Thomas W. Thompson in Salisbury. But his career was short lived as he left to support his older brother’s studies by working as a schoolteacher.
After a year, he returned to the law in 1802 and two years later he moved to Boston where he clerked for Christopher Gore. Gore’s practice encompassed international, national, and state politics. Webster learned about many aspects of the law and met many Massachusetts politicians. In 1805, he was admitted to the bar.
He returned to New Hampshire shortly after being admitted to the bar due to his father’s declining health. He set up a law practice in Boscawen but after his father’s death in 1896 he handed over his practice to his brother and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Daniel Webster was a Federalist who had been educated at the Federalist-leaning Dartmouth College. In 1807 Thomas Jefferson had pushed through the Embargo Act of 1807, stopping all trade to both Britain and France. As New England relied on commerce with the two nations, the region strongly opposed Jefferson’s attempt at “peaceable coercion.” Webster wrote an anonymous pamphlet attacking it.
The trouble between the United States and Britain escalated into the War of 1812. Webster gave a speech in the same year at the Washington Benevolent Society, a speech that proved critical to his career. The speech condemned the war and the violation of New England’s shipping rights that preceded it, but it also strongly denounced the extremism of those more radical among the unhappy New Englanders who were beginning to call for the region’s secession from the Union.
Webster’s outspokenness led to his election to the House of Representatives in 1812. He would remain in the House until March 1817. He was an outspoken critic of the Madison administration and its wartime policies, denouncing its efforts at financing the war through paper money and opposing Secretary of War James Monroe‘s conscription proposal.
Notable in his second term was his support of the reestablishment of a stable specie-based national bank; but he opposed the tariff of 1816 (which sought to protect the nation’s manufacturing interests) and House Speaker Henry Clay’s American System.
Webster did not seek a third term and he returned to his law practice which he moved from Portsmouth to Boston. He had married in 1808 and was to have four children with his wife Grace.
Webster was one of the foremost constitutional lawyers of the early 1800’s. He argued 223 cases before the Marshall Court, winning about half of them. Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster’s briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.
With the help of a coalition of Federalists and Republicans, Webster was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in June 1827. His first wife died in 1828 and he remarried a year later.
Webster became New England’s champion in the fight over the Tariff of 1828. Webster changed his position to support a protective tariff in 1828 explaining that after the failure of the rest of the nation to heed New England’s objections in 1816 and 1824, “nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others.” The region was heavily invested in manufacturing and he would not now do it injury.
Webster’s speaking ability came to the fore during the Nullification Crisis when he famously summed up his position in opposition to nullification of federal laws “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”
In 1836, Webster was one of four Whig Party candidates to run for the office of President, but he only managed to gain the support of Massachusetts. This was the first of three unsuccessful attempts at gaining the presidency. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Webster was offered the vice presidency, but he declined.
However, Harrison appointed Webster as his Secretary of State, a position that he retained under John Tyler after Harrison’s death a month after his inauguration. In September 1841, an internal division amongst the Whigs over the question of the National Bank caused all the Whigs (except Webster who was in Europe at the time) to resign from Tyler’s cabinet.
In 1842, he was the architect of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved the Caroline Affair, established the definitive Eastern border between the United States and Canada (Maine and New Brunswick), and signaled a definite and lasting peace between the United States and Britain. Webster succumbed to Whig pressure in May 1843 and finally left the cabinet. Webster later served again as Secretary of State in President Millard Fillmore’s administration from 1850 until 1852.
In the United States presidential election, 1848, he sought the Whig Party’s nomination for the President but was beaten by the military hero Zachary Taylor. Webster was once again offered the Vice-Presidency, but he declined saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Taylor died 16 months after the inauguration, the second time a President who offered Webster the chance to be Vice President died.
During the debates over the Compromise of 1850, Webster once again exhibited his eloquence on the floor of the Senate. Webster gave one of his most famous speeches, later called the Seventh of March speech, characterizing himself “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American…” In it he gave his support to the compromise, which included the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Webster returned to the State Department in July 1850 where he became embroiled in prosecutions of those who aided Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner. The juries convicted none of the accused. His popularity in New England fell to a low and he was passed over for the 1852 Whig nomination for the presidency.
A rump “Native American Party” put his name on the ballot without permission and he collected a few thousand votes, even though he died just before the election. Daniel Webster died on October 24, 1852 at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts, after falling from his horse and suffering a crushing blow to the head, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, which resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage.
The great irony was that his son Fletcher went on to serve as a Union Army infantry colonel in the Civil War that Webster tried to prevent. Fletcher Webster commanded the 12th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was killed in action on August 29, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run.