Daniel Webster: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

Historic significance: Daniel Webster was one of the most eloquent and influential American political figures of the early 19th century. He served in the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate. He also served as secretary of state, and had a formidable reputation as a Constitutional lawyer.

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, seemed to define national politics for decades.

Daniel Webster

Engraved portrait of politician and orator Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Life span: Born: Salisbury, New Hampshire, January 18, 1782.

Died: At the age of 70, October 24, 1852.

Congressional career: Webster first attained some local prominence when he addressed an Independence Day commemoration, July 4, 1812, 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, and concentrated on his legal career. He acquired a reputation as a highly skilled litigator and he participated as a lawyer in prominent cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during the era of Chief Justice John Marshall.

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

Early 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.

He 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 a position of states' rights, and Webster, in a famous rebuttal, forcefully argued the opposite.

The verbal fireworks between Webster and Hayne became something of a symbol for the nation's increasing sectional disputes. The debates were covered in detail by the newspapers and watched closely by the public.

As the Nullification Crisis developed, inspired by Calhoun, 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, and in 1836 Webster ran for president, as a Whig, against Martin Van Buren, a close political associate of Jackson. In a four way race, Webster only carried his own state of Massachusetts.

Four years later Webster 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.

Cabinet Career

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 was the new president, and the Tyler Precedent became accepted practice.

Webster had been one of the cabinet officials who felt Tyler was not fully the president and that the cabinet should share some of the presidential powers. After that controversy, Webster did not get along with Tyler, and resigned from his cabinet 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. And 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 territories. But in the late 1840s 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 hated in New England.

Webster delivered a highly anticipated address during Senate debates, remembered as the "Seventh of March Speech," in which he spoke 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 when Zachary Taylor died, 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 oratorical 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 an epic brokered convention. Angered, Webster refused to support Scott's candidacy.

Webster died on October 24, 1852, just before the general election (which Scott would lose to Franklin Pierce).

Personal Life

Spouse and family: Webster married Grace Fletcher in 1808, and they had four sons (one of whom would be killed in the Civil War). His first wife died in early 1828, and he married Catherine Leroy in late 1829.

Education: Webster grew up on a farm, and worked on the farm in the warm months and attended a local school in the winter. He later attended Phillips Academy and Dartmouth College, from which he graduated.

He learned the law by working for a lawyer (the usual practice before law schools were more common). He practiced law from 1807 until the time he entered Congress.