The Magazine


Jan 12, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 17 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Robert Vincent Remini


Daniel Webster

The Man and His Time


Norton, 796 pp., $ 39.95

The historian Robert Remini, who has given us volumes on Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Henry Clay, has now given us a definitive and lively biography of their contemporary, Daniel Webster. Each of the first three figures enjoyed greater political success than Webster, but Webster is the one who may have the best claim to being a national trailblazer. The United States emerged from the Civil War a far different country from what it had been -- and Webster was one of those who most insistently pointed the way.

Webster, born in 1782, grew up in the frozen north of New Hampshire, the son of a farmer who put all his savings into sending his boy to Dartmouth College. With total recall and a thirst for history, Webster quickly developed into an orator of searing intensity and scrambled ahead in the law. Soon he was in Portsmouth, suing everyone in sight and collecting good fees, though never quite enough: His luxurious tastes and penchant for bad investments saddled him with debt his entire life.

Before long, he entered politics, winning election to the House in 1812, when he was thirty. A staunch Federalist, he admired George Washington, believed fervently in the Constitution, and preferred Britain to revolutionary and Napoleonic France, convinced that commerce would benefit the farmer and mechanic as well as the money-wise capitalist. In 1816, he transplanted himself to Boston (even while noting that New York was growing faster), where he found plentiful legal business and a supply of rich men willing to supplement his officeholder's salary.

Webster is today remembered as one of our greatest members of Congress, but he shaped little legislation -- certainly far less than Clay. He did not found a political party, as both Clay and Van Buren did. Nor was he a political philosopher in the class of, for instance, John C. Calhoun. And, as we all know, he never became president. (He ran once, in 1836, as one of several Whigs trying to maximize the party's vote against the Democrat Van Buren, and carried only Massachusetts. Four years later, he turned down a chance to be the Whig vice-presidential nominee. Had he accepted, he would have succeeded William Henry Harrison as president a scant month after Harrison was sworn in.)

Rather, Webster shaped the nation in other ways -- first, as a lawyer. He was the earliest of our significant politicians to make his career primarily as a lawyer, thus serving as a prototype for many to come. A favorite advocate of Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story, he argued two-hundred and twenty-three cases before the Supreme Court, and his persuasiveness in several of those cases helped free-market capitalism thrive.

His most famous case involved his alma mater, Dartmouth, in 1819. The New Hampshire legislature had passed a law changing the school's colonial charter, ousting its trustees, and transforming it from a private to a state institution. The aggrieved trustees turned to Webster, who was able to persuade Marshall and the court that the legislature had violated the Constitution's ban on the infringement of contracts. As Webster anticipated, the court's decision insulated corporations from government interference and made possible the use of the corporate form, which shielded entrepreneurs from personal liability for corporate debt and encouraged risk-taking.

Webster also argued McCulloch v. Maryland, in which Marshall ruled that the state of Maryland could not tax a branch of the Bank of the United States. Webster played as large a role as anyone in creating a rule of law that nurtured private enterprise and made possible the enviably successful American economy. (When we hear today that Russia still needs a reliable rule of law to foster its economy, we hear that Russia needs what Webster helped bequeath to America.)

Webster's oratorical power attracted national attention, and visitors streamed to the Supreme Court chamber whenever he left the House or Senate to argue a case. Among his chestnuts: "It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it." (This, of course, was the Dartmouth case.) And, in McCulloch, "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Webster's rhetoric was more than fustian. He took care to publish and preserve (and slightly clean up) most of his major speeches, and, unlike much nineteenth-century oratory, they read well today.