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Produced by Linda Cantoni and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

[Linda Cantoni ]

American Statesmen



American Statesmen






The Riverside Press Cambridge
























[NOTE. - In preparing this volume I have carefully examined all the
literature contemporary and posthumous relating to Mr. Webster. I have not
gone beyond the printed material, of which there is a vast mass, much of it
of no value, but which contains all and more than is needed to obtain a
correct understanding of the man and of his public and private life. No one
can pretend to write a life of Webster without following in large measure
the narrative of events as given in the elaborate, careful, and scholarly
biography which we owe to Mr. George T. Curtis. In many of my conclusions I
have differed widely from those of Mr. Curtis, but I desire at the outset
to acknowledge fully my obligations to him. I have sought information in
all directions, and have obtained some fresh material, and, as I believe,
have thrown a new light upon certain points, but this does not in the least
diminish the debt which I owe to the ample biography of Mr. Curtis in
regard to the details as well as the general outline of Mr. Webster's
public and private life.]



No sooner was the stout Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts firmly
planted than it began rapidly to throw out branches in all directions. With
every succeeding year the long, thin, sinuous line of settlements stretched
farther and farther away to the northeast, fringing the wild shores of the
Atlantic with houses and farms gathered together at the mouths or on the
banks of the rivers, and with the homes of hardy fishermen which clustered
in little groups beneath the shelter of the rocky headlands. The extension
of these plantations was chiefly along the coast, but there was also a
movement up the river courses toward the west and into the interior. The
line of northeastern settlements began first to broaden in this way very
slowly but still steadily from the plantations at Portsmouth and Dover,
which were nearly coeval with the flourishing towns of the Bay. These
settlements beyond the Massachusetts line all had one common and marked
characteristic. They were all exposed to Indian attack from the earliest
days down to the period of the Revolution. Long after the dangers of Indian
raids had become little more than a tradition to the populous and
flourishing communities of Massachusetts Bay, the towns and villages of
Maine and New Hampshire continued to be the outposts of a dark and bloody
border land. French and Indian warfare with all its attendant horrors was
the normal condition during the latter part of the seventeenth and the
first quarter of the eighteenth century. Even after the destruction of the
Jesuit missions, every war in Europe was the signal for the appearance of
Frenchmen and savages in northeastern New England, where their course was
marked by rapine and slaughter, and lighted by the flames of burning
villages. The people thus assailed were not slow in taking frequent and
thorough vengeance, and so the conflict, with rare intermissions, went on
until the power of France was destroyed, and the awful danger from the
north, which had hung over the land for nearly a century, was finally

The people who waged this fierce war and managed to make headway in despite
of it were engaged at the same time in a conflict with nature which was
hardly less desperate. The soil, even in the most favored places, was none
of the best, and the predominant characteristic of New Hampshire was the
great rock formation which has given it the name of the Granite State.
Slowly and painfully the settlers made their way back into the country,
seizing on every fertile spot, and wringing subsistence and even a certain
prosperity from a niggardly soil and a harsh climate. Their little hamlets
crept onward toward the base of those beautiful hills which have now become
one of the favorite play-grounds of America, but which then frowned grimly
even in summer, dark with trackless forests, and for the larger part of the
year were sheeted with the glittering, untrampled snow from which they
derive their name. Stern and strong with the force of an unbroken
wilderness, they formed at all times a forbidding background to the sparse
settlements in the valleys and on the seashore.

This life of constant battle with nature and with the savages, this work of
wresting a subsistence from the unwilling earth while the hand was always
armed against a subtle and cruel foe, had, of course, a marked effect upon
the people who endured it. That, under such circumstances, men should have
succeeded not only in gaining a livelihood, but should have attained also a
certain measure of prosperity, established a free government, founded
schools and churches, and built up a small but vigorous and thriving
commonwealth, is little short of marvellous. A race which could do this had
an enduring strength of character which was sure to make itself felt
through many generations, not only on their ancestral soil, but in every
region where they wandered in search of a fortune denied to them at home.
The people of New Hampshire were of the English Puritan stock. They were
the borderers of New England, and were among the hardiest and boldest of
their race. Their fierce battle for existence during nearly a century and a
half left a deep impress upon them. Although it did not add new traits to
their character, it strengthened and developed many of the qualities which
chiefly distinguished the Puritan Englishman. These borderers, from lack of
opportunity, were ruder than their more favored brethren to the south, but
they were also more persistent, more tenacious, and more adventurous. They
Were a vigorous, bold, unforgiving, fighting race, hard and stern even
beyond the ordinary standard of Puritanism.

Among the Puritans who settled in New Hampshire about the year 1636, during
the great emigration which preceded the Long Parliament, was one bearing
the name of Thomas Webster. He was said to be of Scotch extraction, but
was, if this be true, undoubtedly of the Lowland or Saxon Scotch as
distinguished from the Gaels of the Highlands. He was, at all events, a
Puritan of English race, and his name indicates that his progenitors were
sturdy mechanics or handicraftsmen. This Thomas Webster had numerous
descendants, who scattered through New Hampshire to earn a precarious
living, found settlements, and fight Indians. In Kingston, in the year
1739, was born one of this family named Ebenezer Webster. The struggle for
existence was so hard for this particular scion of the Webster stock, that
he was obliged in boyhood to battle for a living and pick up learning as he
best might by the sole aid of a naturally vigorous mind. He came of age
during the great French war, and about 1760 enlisted in the then famous
corps known as "Rogers's Rangers." In the dangers and the successes of
desperate frontier fighting, the "Rangers" had no equal; and of their hard
and perilous experience in the wilderness, in conflict with Indians and
Frenchmen, Ebenezer Webster, strong in body and daring in temperament, had
his full share.

When the war closed, the young soldier and Indian fighter had time to look
about him for a home. As might have been expected, he clung to the frontier
to which he was accustomed, and in the year 1763 settled in the
northernmost part of the town of Salisbury. Here he built a log-house, to
which, in the following year, he brought his first wife, and here he began
his career as a farmer. At that time there was nothing civilized between
him and the French settlements of Canada. The wilderness stretched away
from his door an ocean of forest unbroken by any white man's habitation;
and in these primeval woods, although the war was ended and the French
power overthrown, there still lurked roving bands of savages, suggesting
the constant possibilities of a midnight foray or a noonday ambush, with
their accompaniments of murder and pillage. It was a fit home, however, for
such a man as Ebenezer Webster. He was a borderer in the fullest sense in a
commonwealth of borderers. He was, too, a splendid specimen of the New
England race; a true descendant of ancestors who had been for generations
yeomen and pioneers. Tall, large, dark of hair and eyes, in the rough world
in which he found himself he had been thrown at once upon his own resources
without a day's schooling, and compelled to depend on his own innate force
of sense and character for success. He had had a full experience of
desperate fighting with Frenchmen and Indians, and, the war over, he had
returned to his native town with his hard-won rank of captain. Then he had
married, and had established his home upon the frontier, where he remained
battling against the grim desolation of the wilderness and of the winter,
and against all the obstacles of soil and climate, with the same hardy
bravery with which he had faced the Indians. After ten years of this life,
in 1774, his wife died and within a twelvemonth he married again.

Soon after this second marriage the alarm of war with England sounded, and
among the first to respond was the old ranger and Indian fighter, Ebenezer
Webster. In the town which had grown up near his once solitary dwelling he
raised a company of two hundred men, and marched at their head, a splendid
looking leader, dark, massive, and tall, to join the forces at Boston. We
get occasional glimpses of this vigorous figure during the war. At
Dorchester, Washington consulted him about the state of feeling in New
Hampshire. At Bennington, we catch sight of him among the first who scaled
the breastworks, and again coming out of the battle, his swarthy skin so
blackened with dust and gunpowder that he could scarcely be recognized. We
hear of him once more at West Point, just after Arnold's treason, on guard
before the general's tent, and Washington says to him, "Captain Webster, I
believe I can trust you." That was what everybody seems to have felt about
this strong, silent, uneducated man. His neighbors trusted him. They gave
him every office in their gift, and finally he was made judge of the local
court. In the intervals of his toilsome and adventurous life he had picked
up a little book-learning, but the lack of more barred the way to the
higher honors which would otherwise have been easily his. There were
splendid sources of strength in this man, the outcome of such a race, from
which his children could draw. He was, to begin with, a magnificent animal,
and had an imposing bodily presence and appearance. He had courage, energy,
and tenacity, all in high degree. He was business-like, a man of few words,
determined, and efficient. He had a great capacity for affection and
self-sacrifice, noble aspirations, a vigorous mind, and, above all, a
strong, pure character which invited trust. Force of will, force of mind,
force of character; these were the three predominant qualities in Ebenezer
Webster. His life forms the necessary introduction to that of his
celebrated son, and it is well worth study, because we can learn from it
how much that son got from a father so finely endowed, and how far he
profited by such a rich inheritance.

By his first wife, Ebenezer Webster had five children. By his second wife,
Abigail Eastman, a woman of good sturdy New Hampshire stock, he had
likewise five. Of these, the second son and fourth child was born on the
eighteenth of January, 1782, and was christened Daniel. The infant was a
delicate and rather sickly little being. Some cheerful neighbors predicted
after inspection that it would not live long, and the poor mother,
overhearing them, caught the child to her bosom and wept over it. She
little dreamed of the iron constitution hidden somewhere in the small frail
body, and still less of all the glory and sorrow to which her baby was

For many years, although the boy disappointed the village Cassandras by
living, he continued weak and delicate. Manual labor, which began very
early with the children of New Hampshire farmers, was out of the question
in his case, and so Daniel was allowed to devote much of his time to play,
for which he showed a decided aptitude. It was play of the best sort, in
the woods and fields, where he learned to love nature and natural objects,
to wonder at floods, to watch the habits of fish and birds, and to acquire
a keen taste for field sports. His companion was an old British sailor, who
carried the child on his back, rowed with him on the river, taught him the
angler's art, and, best of all, poured into his delighted ear endless
stories of an adventurous life, of Admiral Byng and Lord George Germaine,
of Minden and Gibraltar, of Prince Ferdinand and General Gage, of Bunker
Hill, and finally of the American armies, to which the soldier-sailor had
deserted. The boy repaid this devoted friend by reading the newspapers to
him; and he tells us in his autobiography that he could not remember when
he did not read, so early was he taught by his mother and sisters, in true
New England fashion. At a very early age he began to go to school;
sometimes in his native town, sometimes in another, as the district school
moved from place to place. The masters who taught in these schools knew
nothing but the barest rudiments, and even some of those imperfectly. One
of them who lived to a great age, enlightened perhaps by subsequent events,
said that Webster had great rapidity of acquisition and was the quickest
boy in school. He certainly proved himself the possessor of a very
retentive memory, for when this pedagogue offered a jack-knife as a reward
to the boy who should be able to recite the greatest number of verses from
the Bible, Webster, on the following day, when his turn came, arose and
reeled off verses until the master cried "enough," and handed him the
coveted prize. Another of his instructors kept a small store, and from him
the boy bought a handkerchief on which was printed the Constitution just
adopted, and, as he read everything and remembered much, he read that
famous instrument to which he was destined to give so much of his time and
thought. When Mr. Webster said that he read better than any of his masters,
he was probably right. The power of expression and of speech and readiness
in reply were his greatest natural gifts, and, however much improved by
cultivation, were born in him. His talents were known in the neighborhood,
and the passing teamsters, while they watered their horses, delighted to
get "Webster's boy," with his delicate look and great dark eyes, to come
out beneath the shade of the trees and read the Bible to them with all the
force of his childish eloquence. He describes his own existence at that
time with perfect accuracy. "I read what I could get to read, went to
school when I could, and when not at school, was a farmer's youngest boy,
not good for much for want of health and strength, but expected to do
something." That something consisted generally in tending the saw-mill, but
the reading went on even there. He would set a log, and while it was going
through would devour a book. There was a small circulating library in the
village, and Webster read everything it contained, committing most of the
contents of the precious volumes to memory, for books were so scarce that
he believed this to be their chief purpose.

In the year 1791 the brave old soldier, Ebenezer Webster, was made a judge
of the local court, and thus got a salary of three or four hundred dollars
a year. This accession of wealth turned his thoughts at once toward that
education which he had missed, and he determined that he would give to his
children what he had irretrievably lost himself. Two years later he
disclosed his purpose to his son, one hot day in the hay-field, with a
manly regret for his own deficiencies and a touching pathos which the boy
never forgot. The next spring his father took Daniel to Exeter Academy.
This was the boy's first contact with the world, and there was the usual
sting which invariably accompanies that meeting. His school-mates laughed
at his rustic dress and manners, and the poor little farm lad felt it
bitterly. The natural and unconscious power by which he had delighted the
teamsters was stifled, and the greatest orator of modern times never could
summon sufficient courage to stand up and recite verses before these Exeter
school-boys. Intelligent masters, however, perceived something of what was
in the lad, and gave him a kindly encouragement. He rose rapidly in the
classes, and at the end of nine months his father took him away in order to
place him as a pupil with a neighboring clergyman. As they drove over,
about a month later, to Boscawen, where Dr. Wood, the future preceptor,
lived, Ebenezer Webster imparted to his son the full extent of his plan,
which was to end in a college education. The joy at the accomplishment of
his dearest and most fervent wish, mingled with a full sense of the
magnitude of the sacrifice and of the generosity of his father, overwhelmed
the boy. Always affectionate and susceptible of strong emotion, these
tidings overcame him. He laid his head upon his father's shoulder and wept.

With Dr. Wood Webster remained only six months. He went home on one
occasion, but haying was not to his tastes. He found it "dull and
lonesome," and preferred rambling in the woods with his sister in search of
berries, so that his indulgent father sent him back to his studies. With
the help of Dr. Wood in Latin, and another tutor in Greek, he contrived to
enter Dartmouth College in August, 1797. He was, of course, hastily and
poorly prepared. He knew something of Latin, very little of Greek, and next
to nothing of mathematics, geography, or history. He had devoured
everything in the little libraries of Salisbury and Boscawen, and thus had
acquired a desultory knowledge of a limited amount of English literature,
including Addison, Pope, Watts, and "Don Quixote." But however little he
knew, the gates of learning were open, and he had entered the precincts of
her temple, feeling dimly but surely the first pulsations of the mighty
intellect with which he was endowed.

"In those boyish days," he wrote many years afterwards, "there were two
things which I did dearly love, reading and playing, - passions which did
not cease to struggle when boyhood was over, (have they yet altogether?)
and in regard to which neither _cita mors_ nor the _victoria laeta_ could
be said of either." In truth they did not cease, these two strong passions.
One was of the head, the other of the heart; one typified the intellectual,
the other the animal strength of the boy's nature; and the two contending
forces went with him to the end. The childhood of Webster has a deep
interest which is by no means usual. Great men in their earliest years are
generally much like other boys, despite the efforts of their biographers to
the contrary. If they are not, they are very apt to be little prigs like
the second Pitt, full of "wise saws and modern instances." Webster was
neither the one nor the other. He was simple, natural, affectionate, and
free from pertness or precocity. At the same time there was an innate power
which impressed all those who approached him without their knowing exactly
why, and there was abundant evidence of uncommon talents. Webster's boyish
days are pleasant to look upon, but they gain a peculiar lustre from the
noble character of his father, the deep solicitude of his mother, and the
generous devotion and self-sacrifice of both parents. There was in this
something prophetic. Every one about the boy was laboring and sacrificing
for him from the beginning, and this was not without its effect upon his
character. A little anecdote which was current in Boston many years ago
condenses the whole situation. The story may be true or false, - it is very
probably unfounded, - but it contains an essential truth and illustrates the
character of the boy and the atmosphere in which he grew up. Ezekiel, the
oldest son, and Daniel were allowed on one occasion to go to a fair in a
neighboring town, and each was furnished with a little money from the
slender store at home. When they returned in the evening, Daniel was
radiant with enjoyment; Ezekiel rather silent. Their mother inquired as to
their adventures, and finally asked Daniel what he did with his money.
"Spent it," was the reply. "And what did you do with yours, Ezekiel?" "Lent
it to Daniel." That answer well sums up the story of Webster's home life in
childhood. All were giving or lending to Daniel of their money, their time,
their activity, their love and affection. This petting was partly due to
Webster's delicate health, but it was also in great measure owing to his
nature. He was one of those rare and fortunate beings who without exertion
draw to themselves the devotion of other people, and are always surrounded
by men and women eager to do and to suffer for them. The boy accepted all
that was showered upon him, not without an obvious sense that it was his
due. He took it in the royal spirit which is characteristic of such
natures; but in those childish days when laughter and tears came readily,
he repaid the generous and sacrificing love with the warm and affectionate
gratitude of an earnest nature and a naturally loving heart. He was never
cold, or selfish, or designing. Others loved him, and sacrificed to him,
but he loved them in return and appreciated their sacrifices. These
conditions of his early days must, however, have had an effect upon his
disposition and increased his belief in the fitness of having the devotion
of other people as one of his regal rights and privileges, while, at the
same time, it must have helped to expand his affections and give warmth to
every generous feeling.

The passions for reading and play went with him to Dartmouth, the little
New Hampshire college of which he was always so proud and so fond. The
instruction there was of good quality enough, but it was meagre in quantity
and of limited range, compared to what is offered by most good high schools
of the present day. In the reminiscences of his fellow-students there is
abundant material for a picture of Webster at that time. He was recognized
by all as the foremost man in the college, as easily first, with no second.
Yet at the same time Mr. Webster was neither a student nor a scholar in the
truest sense of the words. He read voraciously all the English literature
he could lay his hands on, and remembered everything he read. He achieved
familiarity with Latin and with Latin authors, and absorbed a great deal of
history. He was the best general scholar in the college. He was not only
not deficient but he showed excellence at recitation in every branch of
study. He could learn anything if he tried. But with all this he never
gained more than a smattering of Greek and still less of mathematics,
because those studies require, for anything more than a fair proficiency, a
love of knowledge for its own sake, a zeal for learning incompatible with
indolence, and a close, steady, and disinterested attention. These were not
the characteristics of Mr. Webster's mind. He had a marvellous power of
rapid acquisition, but he learned nothing unless he liked the subject and
took pleasure in it or else was compelled to the task. This is not the
stuff from which the real student, with an original or inquiring mind, is
made. It is only fair to say that this estimate, drawn from the opinions of
his fellow-students, coincided with his own, for he was too large-minded
and too clear-headed to have any small vanity or conceit in judging
himself. He said soon after he left college, and with perfect truth, that

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