Monday, January 29, 2007

Daniel Webster

I just finished reading Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time by Robert Remini. Remini’s style is not quite as compelling as a David McCullough, but he knows his stuff and it shows in his biographies. He has done extensive work in this time period of America, especially Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, and I believe Martin Van Buren, which I have yet to read. I found this biography just as engrossing as his others, although I found Webster a bit more repulsive than that others.

Webster himself was a lawyer. Many politicians went into law as a way to get into politics, but Webster seemed to actually be a lawyer first, politician second. He actually should be better known as a lawyer before the Supreme Court. Here are a few of the cases he argued, many of which are still regarded as important today. The Grotius, The St. Lawerence, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Sturges v. Crowninshield, McCulloch v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, Gibbons v. Ogden, Charles River Bridge Case, Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, Thurlow v. Massachusetts. Those really are just the important ones mentioned. I believe it was said he argued five cases a year before the high court on average. As one might guess, he won most of his cases in front of the Marshall court, but lost most of his cases in front of Taney court. Webster was a terrific lawyer, and thus was a very rich man. It is said he made enough fortune for a dozen lifetimes, but spent two dozen fortunes during his lifetime.

Webster was also a wonderful orator. His fame actually began because of the wonderful speeches he could make. He was constantly asked to give speeches on July 4th and Bunker Hill day, and that led to speeches in the court room, and finally his claim to fame in the Senate were the powerful speeches he made. In fact, for a person known as one of the five greatest Senators of all time, and the only one of the three to have a statue outside in Washington D.C., he was actually a very poor Senator. He made speeches about Union that still ring through the ages, but he never sponsored or wrote any legislation that had any significance. He authored a few judicial bills, but that was about it. His only task was to argue for or against other people’s bills. He was a disaster at leading parties and playing politics. He single-handedly cost the Whigs the election of 1852. He also refused to serve as the Vice President for William Henry Harrison because he considered himself better than Harrison, and to be second to such a man would be an insult. This was an election they were guaranteed to win. Harrison of course served for President for one month before dying, which means Webster would have been President. He also never outlived the charge of adultery because he was a licentious man without any doubt.

Webster did do some good as Secretary of State in the two terms he served in that position. He opened up trade with China, Japan, and recognized the independence of Hawaii. He also settled the disputed boarder of Maine and Wisconsin, a debate that had lasted 50 years. But he also sold offices to make money for himself and his constant need. He had a few failures his second time around, but some of that could be attributed to his declining health (he resigned and died shortly thereafter). He also did some work on opening up more trade with Latin America.

Yet, Webster was mostly a man without a party. He was a leading figure in both the National Republican Party and the Whig Party, but he was really a Federalist. That party collapsed shortly after he joined Congress leaving Webster as a man without a party for the rest of his life. Webster’s ‘liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable’ ideals cost him national popularity. At first it cost him popularity in the South when he opposed Nullification and State’s Rights, but it would later cost him popularity in the North when he refused to become an abolitionist. It was really the only principle that Webster held onto his entire life.

Webster was a fascinating man with huge flaws. While I think he does not quite deserve the praise heaped upon him by history, one cannot truly understand the period without knowing more about ‘Black Dan’ or the ‘Godlike' Daniel Webster.