By Paul J. Rastatter
Daniel Webster is today remembered as one of a handful of men who was a leading statesman, lawyer and politician in our early republic. Mr. Webster was first elected into the U.S. House of Representatives from New Hampshire as a Federalist candidate in opposition to the War of 1812. He resigned his seat in Congress four years later in order to build up a lucrative law practice in Boston and in Washington. Webster argued many cases before the Supreme Court including Dartmouth College v. Woodward, McCullough v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden. In Boston, his patrons and associates coerced Webster back into public service in 1823. Webster is well known for his oratorical skills and thousands of schoolchildren from New England were required to memorize verbatim one or more of his famous speeches. In the early 1830’s, Webster became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the War on the Second Bank of the United States. Throughout his long career, Daniel Webster was in sympathy with the banking industry …
Webster’s Early Years
Daniel Webster was born and raised in the turbulent yet patriotic days of our nation’s founding. His father, Ebenezer Webster, was a Captain of a New Hampshire militia unit and fought at Dorchester Heights (Bunker Hill) and Bennington, Vermont. As a young boy, Daniel possessed a physical weakness that inclined him to studies and long walks in the countryside. Work on the father’s farm was mainly done by Daniel’s older brother, Ezekiel. A few years after the Revolutionary War, Daniel’s father, Ebenezer, secured a position as a Lay Justice or Judge for the Court of Common Pleas. It was this money ($300 a year) that was used to start Daniel’s education.
Daniel attended school in Salisbury under a schoolmaster as a young lad. He was not a prodigy but was known for his quick wit and verbal ability. In his early teens, Daniel was enrolled in the Exeter Academy for boys to prepare him for the college entrance exams. In 1797, at the age of sixteen, Daniel Webster was admitted to Dartmouth College. He spent four years at Dartmouth and excelled in most subjects but had some trouble with Latin and Greek. He returned to Salisbury to study law. Daniel interrupted his law studies to teach school for a year in Fryeburg, Maine, so that his older brother, Ezekiel, could also attend Dartmouth. Daniel passed the Bar exam and was admitted to practice law in Suffolk County, New Hampshire in 1805.
Daniel had a close relationship with his father and corresponded with him regularly. Many of the letters have been saved in The Papers of Daniel Webster: Correspondence – 3 Volumes. The following is a memorable quote from Daniel’s father, Ebenezer:
Daniel, in the long struggle with poverty and adverse fortune that your mother and I have made to give you and Ezekiel an education, we have often talked over these sacrifices, and the prospects of our children. Your mother has often said to me that she had no fear about Ezekiel; that he had fixed and steady habits, and an indomitable energy… But as for you she did not know. Either you would be something or nothing; she did not know which. I think… you have fulfilled her prophecy. You have come to nothing.” 
In May 1806, Daniel Webster defended Josiah Burnham who was charged with killing two of his companions in a Haverhill jail, by stabbing them with the broken end of a scythe. Webster’s plea against capital punishment fell on deaf ears and Josiah Burnham was hanged on August 12, 1806.  In May 1807, a date that corresponds with the graduation of Ezekiel from Dartmouth, Daniel Webster moved his law practice to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the following year, Daniel married Grace Fletcher, a former schoolteacher from Salisbury. For nine years, Daniel and Grace lived in Portsmouth as Daniel became proficient in law, while two children were born to the happy couple.
In political areas, Webster was a conservative and a Federalist. Webster’s New England was deeply affected by Thomas Jefferson’s embargo. In the election of 1808, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island voted against Jefferson’s handpicked successor, James Madison. Webster, as a staunch Federalist, opposed the war of 1812. Webster gave one of his early speeches at a town gathering on the Fourth of July 1812. Two months later on August fifth, Webster wrote and delivered the “Rockingham Memorial”  that was published in the local newspapers and was sent to President James Madison. In November, 1812, the delegation to the US House of Representatives in New Hampshire increased from five members to six and Daniel Webster’s name was put forward in a general election for this new slot. At the age of thirty-one, Daniel Webster was elected to represent New Hampshire as a Federalist in opposition to the war.
In December 1813, Daniel Webster was en-route to Washington D.C. when disaster struck his hometown of Portsmouth. At seven-thirty at night, a fire broke out in a neighbor’s barn and quickly spread to the town. Webster’s uninsured house worth $6000 and his law library were consumed in the raging fire. “When the conflagration was checked, at about five o’clock on the following morning, fifteen acres lay in smoldering ruins, 272 buildings had been destroyed, including 108 dwelling houses and 64 stores and shops with a total loss of more than $300,000.”
Webster’s shaky finances were wrecked with the fire. Shortly after the disaster, Daniel wrote, “…the safety of my family compensates (for) the loss of property.”  One biographer wrote of Webster’s constant money problems, “Of the frugality so often ascribed to the New England Yankee, neither Daniel Webster nor his father had the slightest trace. He went through Dartmouth on borrowed funds: he assumed his father’s obligations, and paid them off; and when cash came in easily, it was spent as if the source were inexhaustible.”  A contemporary of Webster, Judge Jeremiah Smith wrote, “He does not know the value of money, and never will. No matter; he was born for something better than hoarding money-bags.”
During his first session as a Congressman, Webster embarrassed the Madison administration by requesting information pertaining to the revocation of the Berlin and Milan Decrees. The implication was that Madison had secretly hidden the diplomatic papers, which would have affected the voting on the declaration of War against Great Britain. Shortly thereafter, Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, removed Daniel Webster from his seat on the Committee of Foreign Relations. As a member of the opposition party, Webster approved of expenditures that increased our defenses but voted against what he called, “futile projects of invasion.”
In the winter session of 1814, Daniel Webster headed the opposition against the formation of a national, government-run bank. After the bill was defeated, John C. Calhoun came to Daniel Webster and pleaded for his help in framing a new act that would pass the Congress. Webster agreed and a new bill was drafted but President Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional. A year later a third ‘bank bill’ was drafted with a larger capitalization of $35 million. Webster was opposed to this bill because of the subscription of stock by the government and the appointment of government directors but the bill passed and this time, it was signed by Madison’s successor, President Monroe and became law.
One of Webster’s last votes in the House of Representatives was in favor of increasing the pay of Congressmen from six dollars a day plus mileage to $1500 a year. There was a great outcry from the public over this act of Congress and many members lost their seat, but by the next session, Daniel Webster had decided to move his family and law practice to Boston, Massachusetts and was thereby ineligible to run. Before he left Congress, Daniel Webster was challenged to a duel by John Randolph of Virginia but Daniel refused to meet him to account for “words of a general nature used in debate.”
As a Congressman and an attorney, Webster was admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1814, Webster was employed in two cases involving prizes of war. A year later in an appeal case from Vermont, Webster took a liberal interpretation of the Constitution and argued successfully against citizens of one state claiming land under grants from another state. The modest successes that Webster enjoyed in these cases no doubt stirred his ambition to build up a larger law practice. He would need to move to a larger city than Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Constitutional Lawyer
In August 1816, Webster moved his family and law practice to Boston. It was not long before Webster was placed among the best attorneys in the country. “That Mr. Webster was the foremost American lawyer of his time,” declared Senator George F Hoar, “as well in the capacity to conduct jury trials as to argue questions of the law before the full court, will not, I think, be seriously questioned by anyone who has read the reports of his legal arguments or has studied the history of his encounters before juries with antagonists like Choate or Pinkney.” In one famous criminal case of its day, Daniel Webster defended two brothers accused of shooting a man and stealing his wagon full of supplies. Webster’s cross-examination of the man who was shot revealed inconsistencies in his earlier testimony, thus, proving to the jury that the injured man actually shot himself accidentally while faking the robbery to “avoid his obligations or perhaps also for a passion for notoriety.”
In 1818, Daniel Webster argued the most famous case of his career before the United States Supreme Court. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the New Hampshire State Legislature tried to circumvent the original colonial charter that established Dartmouth College back in 1769. In his closing remarks before the Court, Daniel Webster said, “Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! You may put it out; but if you do, you must carry on your work! You must extinguish one after another, all those great lights of science, which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over the land… It is, sir, as I have said a small college, –and yet there are those who love it…”. Webster was able to guide the court through the difficult political, religious and economic issues and to prove to Chief Justice John Marshall et al, that Connecticut had violated that section of the U.S. Constitution that states, “no State… shall pass any bill of attainer, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.” In referring to the Dartmouth case, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote “It has been cited over a thousand times in subsequent litigation and has extended the jurisdiction of the highest federal court more than any other judgement rendered by them.” 
Only three weeks after the decision was handed down in the Dartmouth case, Daniel Webster was back in the Supreme Court as junior counsel in another famous case, McCullough v. Maryland. The issues surrounding this case have some significance in examining Webster’s motives ten years later in defending the Bank against Andrew Jackson’s onslaught. When the Second Bank of the United States had been chartered in 1816, a branch was opened in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the special features of the Bank of the United Sates (B.U.S.) was the ability to demand payment in specie (hard currency) for bank notes derived from lesser State banks. This advantage by the B.U.S. caused resentment and in general, a curtailment of credit because the lesser banks had to keep specie on hand in case the B.U.S. decided to cash in its notes. (Similar to what the Federal Reserve does today.) The State banks in Maryland induced the Maryland Legislature to pass an act taxing all banks not chartered by the State thereby driving the B.U.S. out of State. A lawsuit worked its way up through the Maryland Appeals Court and was now in the hands of Daniel Webster and Co-counsel William Pinkney.
The argument in McCullough v. Maryland covered nine full days. The questions before the Court were: 1) Does Congress have the right to charter a ‘National Bank’? and 2) Can a State Legislature tax an institution created by Congress? Daniel Webster spoke for most of the first day of testimony and reminded the Court that, “an unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, the power to destroy.” After the trial, Chief Justice John Marshall took only three days to hand down one of his longest opinions ever written. Marshall had probably written a preliminary draft of his opinion before the trial in early winter. Marshall in essence wrote that yes, Congress does have the right to charter a bank and no, an individual State does not have the power to tax and thus ‘destroy’ an institution created by Congress.
In 1824, Daniel Webster tried his third landmark Supreme Court case; Gibbons v. Ogden or more commonly called the ‘Steamboat case’. The suit was brought about by Thomas Gibbons who started a steamboat line from Elizabethtown, New Jersey into New York City. Gibbons was opposed by powerful interests in New York. Robert Fulton, Robert Livingston and Aaron Ogden shared the monopoly of steamboat traffic in New York waters. Ogden had purchased the right to operate from New Jersey but Gibbons refused to do so. The question before the Court was: Did New York laws granting a monopoly of steamboat traffic violate that section of the U.S. Constitution that leaves to Congress the power ‘to regulate commerce among the several states?”
Daniel Webster spoke for two and one-half hours on behalf of his client, Thomas Gibbons. Some report that his eloquence and his force of argument were never better. After a short postponement, Justice Marshall returned with the opinion that ” the acts of New York must yield to the laws of Congress.”
The Great Orator
In 1820, on the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, Daniel Webster was asked to be the chief speaker for a day of ceremonies to be held in Plymouth, forty miles southeast of Boston. His passion for speaking, his skills as an orator and his profound convictions were long remembered by New Englanders. “Beginning simply, he touched briefly on the momentous nature of the anniversary, analyzed the motives which drove the Pilgrims to our shores, described the history and character of the early settlements, dwelt at some length on the government and society of our country, …emphasized the importance of free schools, denounced the African slave trade, called attention to the religious character of our origin and concluded with a greeting to future generations.” Webster must have deemed this oration as one of his very best because he placed it first in a later published book on all of his important speeches.
In 1825, Webster was again invited to speak at the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill. The Marquis de Lafayette would attend, as would fifty or more veterans from the Revolution. While his audience in Plymouth was only about fifteen hundred, his ‘Bunker Hill’ speech drew a crowd of over twenty thousand. It is primarily this speech that generations of New Englanders memorized and recited verbatim:
We come as Americans to mark a spot, which must forever be dear to us and our posterity. We wish that whosoever, in all coming time, shall turn his eye hither, may behold that the place is not undistinguished where the first great battle of the Revolution was fought….
One year later, Mr. Webster was once more on the podium eulogizing the deaths of two great Presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
1 Fuess, Daniel Webster, 7-11. Ebenezer Webster’s Revolutionary War Record. There is an anecdote of a supposed quote from Gen. Washington after a brief mutiny of New Jersey and Pennsylvania troops and how glad the General was to have Captain Webster’s men guarding him!
2 McMaster, Daniel Webster, 11. “$300 a year as Lay Justice of the Court of Common Pleas.”
3 Fuess, D.W., 84. Admitted to the Bar in Suffolk County in 1805.
4 The Correspondence of Daniel Webster Vol. 1, 37. Father’s quote: “You have come to nothing.”
5 Fuess, D.W., 89. Josiah Burnham hanged on August 12, 1806.
6 Fuess, D.W., 95. Rockingham Memorial sent to Pres. Madison in opposition to the War.
7 McMaster, D.W., 89. Quote about the fire in Portsmouth.
8 Correspondence of Daniel Webster Vol. 1, 145. Quote from D.W. “the safety of my family compensates (for) the loss of property.
9 Fuess, D.W., 118. Quote from Fuess on frugality of Yankees.
10 Lewis, Speak for Yourself, Daniel, 37. Quote from Judge and later Governor Smith on “he was born for more than hoarding money bags.”
11 Fuess, D.W., 162. D.W.- “futile projects of invasion.”
12 Current, D.W. and the Rise of National Conservatism, 18. Third ‘bank’ bill signed by Monroe.
13 Fuess, D. W., 189. Quote for why Webster turned down Randolph duel.
14 Baxter, One and Inseparable- D.W and the Union., 128. Quote from Sen. Hoar on Webster as the best lawyer in the country.
15 Fuess, D.W., 212. Facts relating to the case of the two brothers accused of hijacking.
16 Fuess, D.W., 231. Dartmouth College Quote “there are those who love it”
17 Fuess, D.W., 224. U.S. Constitution- “…expost facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.”
18 Henry Cabot Lodge, Daniel Webster, 96. Dartmouth College Case…’cited over a thousand times in subsequent legislation.”
19 Fuess, Daniel Webster, 250. “the power to destroy” quote
20 Beveridge, Marshall, IV, 290. Marshall wrote a draft of opinion before trial!
21 U.S. Constitution… “to regulate commerce among the several states.”
22 Beveridge, Marshall, IV, 429. Gibbons v Ogden – “the acts of New York must yield to Congress”
23 Fuess, D.W., 289-290. Summary of the Plymouth oration.
24 Benson, Daniel Webster, 159. Quote from the ‘Bunker Hill’ speech.
25 Wiltse, ed., The Papers of Daniel Webster-Correspondence Vol. 2, 83, 144, 157. Letters to and from Biddle.
26 Current, Daniel Webster and the Rise of National Conservatism, 76. Biddle refused loan to National Intelligencer.
27 Wilburn, Jean Alexander, Biddle’s Bank, 5. Reasons why Biddle chose 1832 vote.
28 Current, D.W., 77. Massachusetts banks in good shape.
29 Watson, Liberty and Power, 143. Quote from Jackson ‘The bank is trying to kill me…’
30 Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War, 158. Quote on Jackson’s veto message.
31 Wilburn, Biddle’s Bank,7. Van Buren’s loss of the Court of St. James
32 Hammond, Banks and Politics, 369. Early Jacksonian policy — ‘spoils of victory’.
33 Hammond, Banks and Politics in America, 371. Letter to Sen. Felix Grundy — “a wholly new ‘national’ bank.
34 Hammond, Banks and Politics, 374. Not true-1826 to 1832 ‘high water mark for a sound currency’.
35 Current, D.W. and the Rise of National Conservatism, 77. Quote from Webster after the bank veto.
36 Current, D.W., 79. Quote from the Louisville Journal on Webster.
37 Current, D.W., 81. Letter to Biddle requesting retainer.
38 Watson, Liberty and Power, 158. Memorials demand restoration of Bank deposits.
39 Watson, Liberty, 159. Origin of the party name ‘Whigs”.
40 Lodge, Daniel Webster, 208-209. Quote from Lodge on formation of Whigs.
41 Watson, Liberty, 159. 347 new State banks chartered.
42 Current, D.W., 86. New recharter bill for B.U.S.