Daniel Webster (1782-1852) emerged as one of the greatest orators and most influential statesmen in the United States in the early 19th century. As an attorney, he argued several landmark cases before the Supreme Court that expanded the power of the federal government. A dedicated nationalist, Webster was elected to multiple terms in the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he represented Massachusetts, and twice served as U.S. secretary of state.
Early Life and Career in Law and Politics
Webster was born on January 18, 1782 in Salisbury, New Hampshire, on what was then the frontier of English settlement in North America. His father was a farmer and tavern-keeper, and young Webster often gave readings and recitations to entertain tavern guests, an early indication of his oratorical skills.
After less than a year of preparatory school at Phillips Exeter Academy, Webster entered Dartmouth College at the age of 15. He graduated in 1801 near the top of his class, and began studying law under the tutelage of a local lawyer in Salisbury. By 1807, Webster had enough experience to set up his own law practice in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He married Grace Fletcher in 1808, and the couple would have five children.
Motivated by the economic interests of his clients, Portsmouth’s wealthy shipowners and merchants, Webster was drawn into politics. He opposed the embargo and other policies of Thomas Jefferson’s administration aimed at limiting trade with Great Britain and France. After such policies culminated in the U.S. declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, Webster delivered a public address that July denouncing Jeffersonian policies as unjustly punishing New England. Known as the “Rockingham Memorial,” the speech propelled Webster’s election to Congress as a member of the Federalist Party in 1813.
Arguments Before the Supreme Court
During his first years in Congress, Webster railed against President James Madison’s war policies, invoking a states’ rights argument to oppose a conscription bill that went down to defeat. After the War of 1812 and the effective dissolution of the Federalist Party, he left Washington and moved with his family to Boston, Massachusetts. Representing some of the city’s leading business interests, he became one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country.
Despite his earlier defense of states’ rights, Webster’s persuasive arguments before the Supreme Court would help shape a series of landmark decisions issued by Chief Justice John Marshall regarding the scope of federal power under the Constitution, including Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824).
In the most famous, McCulloch v. Maryland (1824), Marshall accepted Webster’s view that Congress had the authority under the Constitution to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper”—including chartering the Bank of the United States—and that states like Maryland could not tax a branch of that bank, or any other federal institution. He even stole Webster’s memorable language in defense of the bank, writing that “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.”
In addition to his legal victories, Webster continued to gain attention for his public oratory, including a moving speech at Plymouth in 1820 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing there.
The Senate Debate on Nullification
By 1823, Webster was representing his Boston constituents in the House of Representatives, where trained his focus on challenging the protective tariffs championed by Kentucky’s Henry Clay. After being elected to the Senate in 1826, Webster was traveling back to Washington in December 1827 when his wife, Grace, fell ill on the journey; she died less than a month later. Webster married his second wife, Caroline LeRoy, in late 1829.
In the Senate, Webster would make his name as one of the so-called Great Triumvirate of influential statesmen of the era, alongside Clay and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Though he had previously opposed protective tariffs as unconstitutional (and bad for New England’s shipping business) he changed his tune when it came to the Tariff of 1828. Known in the South as the Tariff of Abominations, the law offered significant protection for his region’s growing textile industry.
In 1830, South Carolina’s Robert Hayne presented Calhoun’s argument that a state had the right to nullify laws they disliked, and even secede from the Union as a last resort. (At the time, Calhoun was vice president and could not argue before the Senate himself.) In a speech considered among the greatest in U.S. political history, Webster eloquently defended the supremacy of the federal government over the states, arguing that nullification would end up tearing the country apart.
The Bank War and Emergence of the Whig Party
Despite opposing President Andrew Jackson, Webster supported a force bill that would authorize Jackson to send federal troops to South Carolina to enforce tariff collection during the ensuing Nullification Crisis. After South Carolina backed down on nullification, Webster again broke with Jackson over the Bank of the United States, which Jackson sought to destroy by vetoing the renewal of the bank’s charter.
Despite the best efforts of Webster, who acted as legal adviser for the Bank and its chairman, Nicholas Biddle, Congress was unable to override his veto. During the Bank War that followed, opponents of Jacksonian Democrats formed the new Whig Party. Three Whig candidates—including Webster—ran for president in 1836, all going down in defeat to Jackson’s favored successor, Martin Van Buren.
When Whig William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren in 1840, he appointed Webster as his secretary of state. But Harrison died only a few weeks into his term, becoming the first U.S. president to die while in office. The rest of the cabinet resigned in protest rather than serve under his vice president, John Tyler, but Webster remained in office for the next two years, helping to resolve a dispute over the border of Maine and otherwise improve U.S. relations with Britain. In 1843, Webster resigned due to growing debts (he was a profligate spender) and continued Whig opposition to Tyler.
War with Texas and Compromise of 1850
Reelected to the Senate in 1845, Webster opposed the annexation of Texas and the ensuing war with Mexico under Tyler’s successor, James K. Polk, in which one of Webster’s own sons died of typhoid fever during his service. Still hoping to win the presidency, Webster attempted to walk a delicate line on the greatest issue dividing the nation at the time: the expansion of slavery into new U.S. territory.
Amid the worsening sectional tensions that followed the Mexican-American War, Webster spoke in favor of Clay’s compromise proposals, arguing in his “Seventh of March” speech in 1850 that a ban on slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico was unnecessary because the region’s climate was not conducive to plantation agriculture. Webster’s support for the Compromise of 1850, including the controversial law requiring federal officials to aid in the recapture of runaway slaves, infuriated antislavery Whigs along with many in the North, and permanently doomed his presidential aspirations.
Last Years and Death
Webster again served as secretary of state under Millard Fillmore from 1850-52, negotiating tensions between the United States and Austria and pushing for the opening of U.S. trade with Japan. He made one last attempt to gain the Whig presidential nomination in 1852 over other rivals (including Fillmore) but was rejected in favor of the military hero Winfield Scott.
Already suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Webster’s health worsened after a carriage accident in May 1852 left him with a head injury and internal wounds. He died on October 24, 1852 at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The only one of Webster’s five children to survive him, his son Daniel Fletcher Webster, was killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run while fighting to preserve the Union his father had championed.
H.W. Brands. Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018)
Biography: Daniel Webster. American Battlefield Trust.
“The Most Famous Senate Speech: January 26, 1830.” U.S. Senate.