Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Daniel Webster

Sometimes Forgotten American Blogging discusses people truly forgotten by history. Sometimes, I talk about people who are somewhat known but deserve more prominence. Today, I want to do something different. In his time, Daniel Webster was one of the nation's 2 or 3 most famous people. He was considered one of the 3 great senators of the antebellum era, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. But whereas Clay is more or less remembered today by educated people for his role in the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850 and Calhoun is remembered for his pro-slavery rhetoric, virtually no one knows anything about Daniel Webster. During the post-World War II era, historians focused a great deal of attention on the antebellum period, giving great attention to all sorts of figures, including Jackson, Clay, Benton, Webster, Calhoun and Van Buren, but also more obscure figures like Nicholas Biddle and Frank Blair. Today, the Jacksonian Era is virtually ignored by both popular and academic historians, and the stars of people like Webster have dimmed. What I intend on doing today is make an attempt to resurrect the reputation of a famous historical figure before it has fully fallen. Daniel Webster is on the verge of being forgotten by most Americans, and this is a shame because few people did more to shape early nineteenth-century America than him.

In his gigantic biography of Webster, Robert Remini writes, 'He was a statesmen, one of the five greatest senators in the history of the United States Congress, a magnificent orator (arguably the best the nation ever produced), an excellent secretary of state, an outstanding lawyer, and an important contributor to the constitutional development of the United States." Indeed, and Webster also played a very significant role in transitioning the United States to a capitalist nation. Any real discussion of Webster's life would take a very long time and more space than I have here, but I will point to a few key issues that I hope will spur some reconsideration of this very important man.

Born in New Hampshire in 1782, Webster came to regional prominence by criticizing the War of 1812. Many in New England despised the war, which exposed deep divisions within the early republic between pro-English and pro-French factions. Many in New England supported the English and did not want war with them; Webster gave a speech that both said the war was an attack on New England's trading rights while criticizing radicals who wanted to seceded from the union, radicals that would eventually kill the Federalist party by the end of the war. He was quickly elected to the House of Representatives in 1812 where he served two terms. Here he stood up for the Federalist principles that remained his core values long after that party had faded from view--support for a national bank and support for internal improvements and a strong central government, although early in his career, he opposed tariffs that favored one region of the nation over another.

In 1817, Webster returned to private life and it is here that he really began making a national name for himself. Moving back to New Hampshire to practice law, Webster was hired by Dartmouth College to represent them in the case that became Dartmouth College v. Woodward. The legislature, attacking Dartmouth for its elitist ways, moved to turn the college into a public institution. Dartmouth fought back, arguing that they had taken over sovereignty from the King of England after the Revolution and thus only they had the right to change the charter. The Supreme Court under John Marshall ruled in favor of Webster and Dartmouth in 1819, arguing that corporations were independent of the states. He was involved in other massively important cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), arguing for business and corporate rights in the early republic and being upheld by the Marshall Court.

Gaining fame for his constitutional law cases, Webster returned to politics in 1822, going back to the House where he served with distinction until 1827, when he was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts. Webster switched to supporting protective tariffs, which helped out New England at the expense of farmers in the South and West. What made Webster nationally famous though was his role in the 1830 Webster-Hayne Debate. What was on the surface about land policy was really a battle over nullification. Like everything during the Early Republic, slavery dominated the discussion. South Carolina Senator Robert Young Hayne at first argued that Webster and New England politicians had undermined the ability of American farmers to gain access to land in the West because of restrictive tariffs. The two senators went back and forth, with Hayne celebrating nullification. This was more than Webster could stand. In his second reply to Hayne, on January 26, 1830, Webster turned his considerable rhetorical skills against this perfidious doctrine, arguing that:

"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... not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as "What is all this worth?" nor those other words of delusion and folly, "Liberty first and Union afterwards"; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all 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 true American heart,— Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!"

This made Webster a regional leader, hated by the South and loved by New England. It also only increased his ambition. Webster decided he wanted to be president. He ran for the Whig nomination in both 1836 and 1840 but failed both times. In 1840, he was offered the Vice-President position under William Henry Harrison. He declined and John Tyler took the offer. Webster soon realized his mistake when Harrison died 30 days after taking office and the incompetent Tyler took over. How would a Webster presidency have changed American history? It is hard to say. He would have been the first real Whig to have the position. The Whigs only won with generals whose political positions were unknown; everyone knew Webster's positions and he would have pushed hard to pass higher tariffs, internal improvements, etc. Likely we would have seen a Third National Bank. He would have moved against the slave power hard, particularly if they continued to push ideas of nullification. But ultimately he remained thwarted in his highest ambitions.

Webster did however take the Secretary of State job under Harrison, which at that time was still seen as an avenue to the presidency. He put together the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which finally settled the border between Maine and New Brunswick and helped the US and Britain become closer allies, or at least not abject enemies. He left the post in 1842, after the Whig party turned their back on Tyler and returned to the Senate in 1845. He opposed the Mexican War and Texas Annexation, and supported the Compromise of 1850 after the war threatened to tear the United States apart. This ended his Senate career when abolitionists and others outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act were shocked that Webster supported it. Webster left the Senate for the last time in 1850, when he became Millard Fillmore's Secretary of State. He ran again for president in 1852, failing of course. He then died soon after, the result of a fall from a horse combined with cirrhosis of the liver; early Americans could drink us all under the table and this eventually took its toll on many men, famous and obscure.

This is only a brief overview of Webster's accomplishments. I think his most important contributions are the court cases promoting the US as a nascent capitalist society. Others think his Senate years defined his career. Without a doubt though, Daniel Webster is a vital figure for understanding antebellum America and the decline of his reputation and his disappearance from the national narrative are completely unjustified.

Much of the information in this post comes from 2 giant books that are very much of their time. Robert Remini's Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time and Merrill Peterson's The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun are both final books in the long careers of historians who came of age during the renewal of scholarship on the Jacksonian period after World War II. To my knowledge, no recent biographies of interest on Webster or any of the other figures of that era have come out in recent years. If they have, they have not received a whole lot of publicity.