Biography of Daniel Webster, American Statesman

Engraved portrait of politician and orator Daniel Webster
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Daniel Webster (January 18, 1782–October 24, 1852) was one of the most eloquent and influential American political figures of the early 19th century. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, in the Senate, and in the executive branch as the Secretary of State. Given his prominence in debating the great issues of his day, Webster was considered, along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, a member of the "Great Triumvirate"; the three men, each representing a different region of the country, defined national politics for several decades.

Fast Facts: Daniel Webster

  • Known For: Webster was an influential American statesman and orator.
  • Born: January 18, 1782 in Salisbury, New Hampshire
  • Parents: Ebenezer and Abigail Webster
  • Died: October 24, 1852 in Marshfield, Massachusetts
  • Spouse(s): Grace Fletcher, Caroline LeRoy Webster
  • Children: 5

Early Life

Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, on January 18, 1782. He grew up on a farm, and worked there during the warm months and attended a local school in the winter. Webster later attended Phillips Academy and Dartmouth College, where he became known for his impressive speaking skills.

After graduation, Webster learned the law by working for a lawyer (the usual practice before law schools became common). He practiced law from 1807 until the time he entered Congress.

Early Political Career

Webster first attained some local prominence when he addressed an Independence Day commemoration on July 4, 1812, speaking on the topic of the war which had just been declared against Britain by President James Madison. Webster, like many in New England, opposed the War of 1812.

He was elected to the House of Representatives from a New Hampshire district in 1813. In the U.S. Capitol, he became known as a skillful orator, and he often argued against the Madison administration's war policies.

Webster left Congress in 1816 to concentrate on his legal career. He acquired a reputation as a highly skilled litigator and argued several prominent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during the era of Chief Justice John Marshall. One of these cases, Gibbons v. Ogden, established the scope of the U.S. government's authority over interstate commerce.

Webster returned to the House of Representatives in 1823 as a representative from Massachusetts. While serving in Congress, Webster often gave public addresses, including eulogies for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (who both died on July 4, 1826). He became known as the greatest public speaker in the country.

Senate Career

Webster was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 1827. He would serve until 1841, and would be a prominent participant in many critical debates.

Webster supported the passage of the Tariff of Abominations in 1828, and that brought him into conflict with John C. Calhoun, the intelligent and fiery political figure from South Carolina.

Sectional disputes came into focus, and Webster and a close friend of Calhoun, Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, squared off in debates on the floor of the Senate in January 1830. Hayne argued in favor of states' rights, and Webster, in a famous rebuttal, forcefully argued for the authority of the federal government. The verbal fireworks between Webster and Hayne became something of a symbol for the nation's growing divisions. The debates were covered in detail by newspapers and watched closely by the public.

As the Nullification Crisis developed, Webster supported the policy of President Andrew Jackson, who threatened to send federal troops to South Carolina. The crisis was averted before violent action took place.

Webster opposed the economic policies of Andrew Jackson, however, and in 1836 he ran for president as a Whig against Martin Van Buren, a close political associate of Jackson. In a contentious four-way race, Webster only carried his own state of Massachusetts.

Secretary of State

Four years later, Webster again sought the Whig nomination for president but lost to William Henry Harrison, who won the election of 1840. Harrison appointed Webster as his Secretary of State.

President Harrison died a month after taking office. As he was the first president to die in office, there was a controversy over presidential succession in which Webster participated. John Tyler, Harrison's vice president, asserted that he should become the next president, and the "Tyler Precedent" became accepted practice.

Webster was one of the cabinet officials who disagreed with this decision; he felt that the presidential cabinet should share some of the presidential powers. After this controversy, Webster did not get along with Tyler, and he resigned from his post in 1843.

Later Senate Career

Webster returned to the U.S. Senate in 1845. He had tried to secure the Whig nomination for president in 1844 but lost to longtime rival Henry Clay. In 1848, Webster lost another attempt to get the nomination when the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War.

Webster was opposed to the spread of slavery to new American territories. In the late 1840s, however, he began supporting compromises proposed by Henry Clay to keep the Union together. In his last major action in the Senate, he supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act that was highly unpopular in New England.

Webster delivered a highly anticipated address during Senate debates—later known as the Seventh of March Speech—in which he spoke in favor of preserving the Union. Many of his constituents, deeply offended by parts of his speech, felt betrayed by Webster. He left the Senate a few months later, when Millard Fillmore, who had become president after the death of Zachary Taylor, appointed him as Secretary of State.

In May 1851, Webster rode along with two New York politicians, Senator William Seward and President Millard Fillmore, on a train trip to celebrate the new Erie Railroad. At every stop across New York State crowds gathered, mostly because they were hoping to hear a speech by Webster. His oratory skills were such that he overshadowed the president.

Webster tried again to be nominated for president on the Whig ticket in 1852, but the party chose General Winfield Scott at a brokered convention. Angered by the decision, Webster refused to support Scott's candidacy.

Death

Webster died on October 24, 1852, just before the general election (which Winfield Scott would lose to Franklin Pierce). He was buried in Winslow Cemetery in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Legacy

Webster cast a long shadow in American politics. He was greatly admired, even by some of his detractors, for his knowledge and speaking skills, which made him one of the most influential political figures of his time. A statue of the American statesman stands in New York's Central Park.

Sources

  • Brands, H. W. "Heirs of the Founders: the Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants." Random House, 2018.
  • Remini, Robert V. "Daniel Webster: the Man and His Time." W.W. Norton & Co., 2015.