American statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) earned fame for his staunch support of the federal government and his skills as an orator. Originally a lawyer, Webster was elected a New Hampshire congressman in 1813. He later served as a Massachusetts congressman and senator, becoming a leading proponent of federal action to stimulate the economy through protective tariffs, transportation improvements and a national bank. As U.S. secretary of state, he helped ease border tensions with Britain through negotiations of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842. Despite his standing as a Whig leader, Webster was never able to secure his party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency.
Webster gained fame for his championship of a strong federal government, though he had been a rather extreme advocate of states’ rights at the beginning of his forty years in public life. As a congressman (1813-1817) from New Hampshire, he opposed the War of 1812 and hinted at nullification. As a congressman (1823-1827) and a senator (1827-1841, 1845-1850) from Massachusetts, he became a leading proponent of federal action to stimulate the economy through protective tariffs, transportation improvements, and a national bank. He won renown as the defender of the Constitution by denouncing nullification when South Carolina adopted it. Long an opponent of slavery extension, he spoke against annexing Texas and against going to war with Mexico. He held, however, that no law was needed to prevent the further extension of slavery when he urged the Compromise of 1850 as a Union-saving measure.
As secretary of state (1841-1843, 1850-1852), Webster earned a reputation as one of the greatest ever to hold the office. His most notable achievement was the negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which settled a long-standing dispute over the Maine and New Brunswick boundary and ended a threat of war between Great Britain and the United States.
The most highly paid attorney of his time, Webster exerted considerable influence on the development of constitutional law. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall adopted Webster’s arguments in a number of significant cases, among them Dartmouth College v. Woodward, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden. These decisions strengthened the federal government as against the state governments, the judiciary as against the legislative and executive branches, and commercial and industrial as against agricultural interests.
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As an orator, Webster had no equal among his American contemporaries. With the magic of the spoken word he moved judges and juries, visitors and colleagues in Congress, and vast audiences gathered for special occasions. His great occasional addresses, commemorating such historic events as the landing of the Pilgrims and the Battle of Bunker Hill, gave dramatic expression to his nationalism and conservatism. He reached the height of his eloquence in his reply to the nullificationist Robert Y. Hayne, a reply that concluded with the words ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!’
In politics Webster along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun formed what was called a ‘great triumvirate,’ though the three seldom combined except in opposition to President Andrew Jackson. All were ambitious for the presidency. Webster rivaled Clay for leadership of the Whig party but never obtained the party’s presidential nomination except in his own state of Massachusetts. Whigs generally considered him unavailable because of his close association with the Bank of the United States and with Boston and New York businessmen, from whom he received generous subsidies.
Although identified with the Boston aristocracy, Webster had come from a plain New Hampshire farm background. A college education, at Dartmouth, helped him to rise in the world. Despite his large income he remained constantly in debt as a result of high living, unfortunate land speculations, and expenses as a gentleman farmer.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.