Daniel Webster / Edition 1

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In this monumental new biography, Robert V. Remini gives us a full life of Webster from his birth, early schooling, and rapid rise as a lawyer and politician in New Hampshire to his equally successful career in Massachusetts where he moved in 1816. Remini treats both the man and his time as they tangle in issues such as westward expansion, growth of democracy, market revolution, slavery and abolitionism, the National Bank, and tariff issues. Webster's famous speeches are fully discussed as are his relations with the other two of the "great triumvirate," Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Throughout, Remini pays close attention to Webster's personal life - perhaps more than Webster would have liked - his relationships with family and friends, and his murky financial dealings with men of wealth and influence.
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Editorial Reviews

Arthur Schlesinger
“Robert V. Remini's splendid biography of Daniel Webster completes his triptych of the three men who dominated American politics in the first half of the nineteenth century. In a work that matches his earlier fine portraits of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, he brings Webster to vigorous and poignant life, a man massive in his power, massive in his frustrations and faults, massive in his impact on his times.”
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1846, an Alabama congressman lashed into Webster on the House floor as a man of "two characters... as his interests or necessities demand`the God-like Daniel,' and `Black Dan!' " Remini, biographer of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, presents both Websters here, the politician of self-serving laxity in ethics and the spellbinding preacher of American national identity. The last influential Federalist in the tradition of the Founding Fathers, he watched a succession of lesser men occupy the White House. Revered but distrusted, Webster was, to Remini, the victim of his duality. In an era when speech-making was a national entertainment, he held crowds for hours, and his words, in print, became school texts. Yet he would never accept second place on a national ticket and watched two mediocre vice presidents (Tyler and Fillmore) succeed inferior presidents (Harrison and Taylor). Remini conjures up a man and statesman seemingly bigger than life who, especially when in debate with such senatorial peers as Clay and Calhoun, was a gladiator with words and ideas. Shortly before he died in 1852 at age 70, he asked an audience to applaud if it thought he had lived his life well. People "applauded rapturously." Remini remains admiring, but the thoroughness of his coverage requires withholding the rapture. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
This massive biography leaves no stone unturned in portraying a familiar but little-studied antebellum figure, considered the young country's best orator.

Veteran historian Remini (Henry Clay, 1991; The Life of Andrew Jackson, 1988; etc.) maintains a delicate balance between Webster's (1782-1852) two personas: "the Godlike Daniel," so called for his brilliant public addresses and eulogies of heroes of the American Revolution, and "Black Dan," a tag referring not only to his dark appearance but to his ruthless politicking and ferocious temper. Much of the study of Webster's public life is organized around the famous speeches that defined and shaped his career, including his dual eulogy of presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and his congressional address appealing for early recognition of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, which positioned the congressman and senator for later appointments as secretary of state. Black Dan is more evident in Remini's depiction of the statesman's private life. Besides being alcoholic, Webster had the terrible misfortune of outliving four of his five children, launching three abortive and embarrassing attempts to gain the presidency, and suffering endless financial problems. Remini quite deftly shows why he was known as "the Great Expounder and Defender of the Constitution," depicting Webster as one of the earliest strict constructionists, a man who felt that the Constitution was the defining American document and that the preservation of the Union took precedence over all other policy considerations. Unfortunately, it is here that Webster's political clout was eventually devalued, as he refused to combat the Fugitive Slave Act and chose to accept House Speaker Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise, which perpetuated slavery and did nothing but guarantee the outbreak of war. Remini never properly indicts Webster for this moral lapse, nor does he explain why constitutional amendments to reverse the injustice were not considered. Though Remini's obvious admiration for Webster may sometimes cloud his view, a more complete and engrossing biography could not be produced.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393045529
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/1978
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 816
  • Sales rank: 807,532
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert V. Remini is professor of history and research professor of humanities at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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First Chapter



The Godlike Daniel and Black Dan

That voice. It mesmerized. It dazzled. And it rang out like a trumpet. Never shrill, never unpleasantly loud, but deep, dark, with a roll of thunder in it, tempered by a richness of tone and powered by a massive chest that sent it hurtling great distances, even in the open air, it turned "on the harps of the blessed" and shook "the earth underground." Under perfect control, it never broke however high it was driven to convey an emotion or emphasize a point. For a typical three-, four-, or even five-hour oration it usually needed some form of lubrication to be fired up and ready to perform. But once it started to function, it sang out like music in clear and sonorous cadences and swelled and diminished on command. Nobody who heard it ever forgot it. One carried the sound of it to the grave.

And that look. It hypnotized. It riveted. It could wither miscreants with a single glance. Large, deep-socketed black eyes peered out from a "precipice of brows" and glowed like coals in a furnace waiting for the annoyance or offense that would bring them to full heat.

"He gave me that black look," reported Isaac Bassett, a Senate page, "whenever I did something he did not like," and while "his voice was majestic, his eye was almost superhuman." On one occasion Bassett remembered being asked by Senator Webster one rainy day to go and get a "hack." The boy failed in his search, whereupon "Webster just looked at me. But what a glance! I would rather endure anything than another such glance. I felt like sinking through the floor. Then Webster said, `Go--and--get--that hack.' It is needless to say the carriage was found."

A Congregational minister in New Hampshire recalled looking down at his congregation one Sunday and seeing Webster sitting in the first pew. He fixed "such great, staring black eyes upon me," said the minister, "that I was frightened out of my wits."

Webster had the same effect on other senators as well. Once Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the Little Giant, as he was called, tried to move forward a bill in which he was interested.

"We have no such practice in the Senate, sir," intoned Webster in his deep, solemn voice, fixing his eye on the mover without rising from his seat.

Douglas tried a different tack but did not get very far.

"That is not the way we do business in the Senate, sir," Webster repeated "still more derisively and sternly." Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who was sitting in the Senate chamber, saw the Little Giant's reaction and reported that if Douglas "did not quiver under the eye and voice of Webster, then my eyesight deceived me,--and I was very near him."

A man of swarthy complexion, with bushy eyebrows and hair as black as the feathers of a raven, a "craglike face," a stern countenance, small hands and feet, a mouth like a mastiff, and a stare that locked a listener in an inescapable embrace--that was Daniel Webster, "Black Dan."

One contemporary claimed to have seen many of the great men of the age--King George, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, Daniel O'Connell, Francois Guizot, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun--"yet not one of these approached Mr. Webster in the commanding power of their personal presence. There was a grandeur in his form, an intelligence in his deep dark eye, a loftiness of his expansive brow, a significance in his arched lip, altogether beyond those of any other human being I ever saw." He stood five feet ten inches and weighed 190 pounds in his prime. "He was physically the most splendid specimen of noble manhood my eyes ever beheld," declared Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts.

Some thought him ugly. Webster was taking a trip from Baltimore to Washington by coach one day when the driver suddenly turned to him and said, "Now, sir, tell me who are you!"

"I am Daniel Webster, member of Congress from Massachusetts," came the reply.

"What!" exclaimed the coachman, grasping his passenger warmly by the hand. "Are you Webster? Thank God! Thank God! You were such a deuced ugly chap, that I took you for some cut-throat or highwayman."

A poet later wrote a short story about him entitled "The Devil and Webster." The story tells how Black Dan argues a case in New Hampshire a jury handpicked by the devil. The devil, called Scratch, confronts [Illegible] "eyes glowing like a fox's deep in the woods." "Black Dan" stares back at [Illegible] and "his eyes were glowing too." Both argue their case before this jury [Illegible] criminals, and Black Dan wins. From that day to this, claims the [Illegible] devil "hasn't been seen in the state of New Hampshire."

Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted that the American people regarded [Illegible] "as the representation of the American Continent." Indeed they did. [Illegible] him as the nation's best image of itself from whose mind and mouth [Illegible] most glorious images of this country's heroic past. In their respect and [Illegible] they dubbed him "the Godlike Daniel."

He might be "the Godlike" to many, but to others he remained Dan," one of the greatest intellects "God ever let the Devil buy."

This strange, compelling, extraordinary man emerged from the [Illegible] of New England. His lineage in America stretched back over four [Illegible] Approximately sixteen years after the Pilgrims fell on their knees at [Illegible] give thanks for their safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean, a young [Illegible] name of Thomas Webster--the name means a male weaver--was [Illegible] this country from England around 1636 by his widowed mother, [Illegible] subsequently remarried. Margaret (or Margery) Webster Godfrey first [Illegible] in Ipswich, Massachusetts, before moving with her teenage son to the [Illegible] Hampton, New Hampshire.

The son came "thither from, or thro' Mass," wrote Daniel [Illegible] his ancestor, "tho he may have come by way of Piscataqua." One of [Illegible] five sons, Ebenezer, became a tolerable Indian fighter and guide for [Illegible] John Gilman and was one of several grantees of the town of [Illegible] Ebenezer's nine children, the eldest boy, also named Ebenezer, eked out a scant living as a farmer and freeholder but had the good fortune to marry Susannah Bachelder, a descendant of the Reverend Stephen Bachelder, the first settled clergyman in New Hampshire and "a man of some notoriety, in his time, in the County of Rockingham." Susanna possessed all the fortitude and vitality her husband lacked. She added great strength to the Webster lineage. Their eldest son, and the third generation of Ebenezers, was born on April 22, 1739, in Kingston. This Ebenezer was Daniel Webster's father.

He served with some distinction in the French and Indian War in a company of Rangers commanded by Major Robert Rogers. He participated in the invasion of Canada, led by Sir Jeffrey Amherst, and rose to the rank of captain. At the conclusion of the war in 1763 the twenty-four-year-old Ebenezer, together with a group of other men, obtained a grant of a township of land from the royal governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, which they called Stevenstown (to honor their leader, Colonel Ebenezer Stevens) but which was later changed to Salisbury. This township was located near the center of New Hampshire where two steams converge to form the Merrimack River. It stretched nine miles along the west bank of the river and extended in a southwesterly direction.

As his portion of the land grant Ebenezer Webster chose a section of some 225 acres at the extreme northern end of the town along a stream he called Punch Brook. There in 1764 he built a log cabin for himself and his family along with a small gristmill that he shared with his neighbors. The house was perched on a rugged hill some three miles west of the Merrimack River. His nearest "civilized neighbor" to the north lived in Montreal!

Ebenezer Webster and his family endured many hardships in the isolated wilderness of New Hampshire: brutal winters with mountains of snow that lasted sometimes from November to April, marginal land, no roads to reach the outside world, and the constant terror of midnight raids by hostile Indians who took offense at his intrusion into their country. Brown and black bears, gray wolves, and lynxes also challenged his claim to the land.

Not surprisingly, Ebenezer Webster looked as rugged as the country that surrounded him: tall, standing a little over six feet, full-cheated, and hairy, with piercing black eyes under bushy eyebrows, a helmet of jet black hair, and large, indeed very prominent, features, including a bulging forehead and "a Roman nose." But to his son Daniel, Ebenezer was "the handsomest man I ever saw," with the exception of his brother, Ezekiel. The father resembled no other Webster. Most Websters had light complexions and sandy hair and tended slender. Not Ebenezer. Said his son: "No two persons looked more unlike my father, & either of his brothers." Ebenezer took after his mother's side [Illegible] family in both appearance and personal characteristics. "This woman," [Illegible] Daniel Webster about his grandmother, "had black hair, & black eyes, & besides, as my father, who was her eldest son, has told me, a person of [Illegible] strength of character."

Susannah Bachelder Webster's uncommon strength of character [Illegible] itself many times in her son. At the age of fourteen Ebenezer [Illegible] from a tyrannical master to whom he had been apprenticed, and this [Illegible] character no doubt sustained him throughout the years as he struggled to [Illegible] in the remote wilderness of Salisbury.

Commentators frequently mentioned his decisiveness. As an [Illegible] headed a committee to choose a new clergyman for the town, and [Illegible] dispute arose over a minor doctrinal point that delayed the ordination, he before the members of the church council selected to perform the [Illegible] and barked, "Gentlemen, the ordination must come on now, and, if you [Illegible] assist, we must try to get along without you." That outburst settled the [Illegible] The ordination proceeded without further delay. For when Ebenezer [Illegible] words had the ring of authority, which his son believed resulted from his soldiership." Firm, possibly rigid, and certainly decisive whenever he [Illegible] judgment, Ebenezer Webster struck his fellow citizens as resolute and [Illegible] an extremely strong-minded man.

As the town grew, he served his community at different times as [Illegible] town clerk, highway surveyor, coroner, and judge. Throughout his life [Illegible] important local positions, and he charged only three or four shillings a [Illegible] his services.

Ebenezer had no formal education, although he could read and [Illegible] Indeed some of the earliest records of Salisbury are in his handwriting. "[Illegible] in him," Daniel remembered years later, "what I collect to have been the [Illegible] of some of the old Puritans. He was deeply religious, but not sour. [Illegible] contrary, good-humored, facetious, showing even in his age, with a [Illegible] laugh, teeth all as white as alabaster, gentle, soft, playful, and yet having [Illegible] in him that he seemed to have borrowed from a lion." Daniel Webster loved his father very deeply. In fact he idolized him.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution Captain Webster assembled nearly two hundred men from the township and marched forward into battle with troops from other New Hampshire towns. He commanded these troops at Bennington, and at White Plains, and he was present at West Point at the moment of Benedict Arnold's defection. He stood guard at General George Washington's headquarters the night of Arnold's treason. The general reportedly said to him, "Captain Webster, I believe I can trust you." As someone who revered George Washington above all other statesmen, Daniel Webster took enormous pride in what the general had said to his father. "I should rather have it said upon my father's tombstone that he had guarded the person of George Washington, and was worthy of such a trust, than to have emblazoned upon it the proudest insignia of heraldry that the world could give!"

Years later at a tavern in Concord, General John Stark, the hero of the Bennington fight, peered at Ebenezer's son and then, with all the candor of age fortified by several stiff drinks, said, "Daniel, your face is pretty black, but it isn't so black as your father's was with gunpowder at the Bennington fight." Daniel later recorded that it was the last time he ever saw General Stark, and he took it as a high compliment that he resembled his father.

Ebenezer and his first wife, Mehitable Smith, a Kingston girl, had five children, only three of whom survived to maturity. When Mehitable died in March 1774, she left an eight-year-old girl, Susannah, and two small boys, David and Joseph. In need of another helpmate Ebenezer consulted his brother's wife. She told him to take a look at Abigail ("Nabby") Eastman, a seamstress of good character, who was visiting her relatives in Salisbury. A meeting took place, and in August 1774, five months after Ebenezer's first wife died, the two were married by Parson Jonathan Searle. When the couple entered his cabin, Ebenezer turned to his bride and said, "These, Nabby, are my children."

Abigail was a "spinster lady," long past the usual marital age for a woman in the colonial era. Born on July 19, 1737, she was thirty-seven at the time of her wedding. She was dark-complexioned, stout, and decidedly plain, an appearance that may account for her prolonged spinsterhood. But she was described as a woman of "clear and vigorous understanding," tender and self-sacrificing. "She was a woman of more than ordinary intellect, & possessed a force of character which was felt throughout the humble circle in which she moved," wrote one of her sons. Of Welsh origin, she was descended from Roger Eastman, who migrated to America in 1636 and settled in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Her father, Major Roger Eastman, lost a leg fighting the French and together with his wife, Jerusha Fitz, Nabby's mother, also Welsh, came to live with their newly acquired son-in-law and died many years later in the Webster home.

During the next ten years Abigail bore Ebenezer five children. First, two girls: Mehitable, later an unmarried schoolteacher, born in 1775, and then Abigail, born in 1778, who later married William Haddock. The first son, Ezekiel, called Zeke by the family, arrived on March 11, 1780. Two years later Daniel was born on January 18, 1782, the same year as Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, and Thomas Hart Benton, three men who were to have a profound effect upon his life. The youngest child, Sarah, born in 1784, later married a cousin, Ebenezer Webster.

Just three months prior to Daniel's birth, Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. To all intents and purposes the American Revolution ended with this surrender, and now a free people, numbering slightly fewer than three million and scattered geographically over more than a thousand miles from north to south, had to form a government that would protect their newly acquired freedom.

Webster, Van Buren, Calhoun, Benton, and many others of their generation helped shape and direct the government they inherited from the revolutionary generation. They all were men of ferocious ambition, and none more so than Black Dan, whose ambition was instilled in him at an early age by his mother.

Not much is known about Abigail Webster except that she wanted her two sons to "excel" in whatever careers they chose. "Her anticipations went beyond the narrow sphere in which their lot seemed to be cast. The distinction attained by both, & especially by the younger may well be traced in part to her early promptings & judicious guidance."

Daniel's birth, in the midst of a bleak New Hampshire winter, took place in a frame house, built by his father, near the spot where the original log cabin stood. (When birth in a log cabin became a distinct political advantage during the 1840s, Daniel lamented his misfortune in missing out on his opportunity. But he always boasted that his older brothers and sisters enjoyed the privilege.) The house was a single-story four-room affair with a high gabled roof, a single chimney, a window on either side of the front door, and three other windows at each end. The kitchen was at the rear of the house.

Two years later, in January 1784, the family moved three miles east to Salisbury Lower Village. They moved into a larger house in a much better location in a valley at the bend of the Merrimack River. Still part of Salisbury, it was later incorporated into the township of Franklin. Ebenezer purchased it from the Call family, who Daniel later remembered had suffered frightful cruelties from Indian attacks just a few years earlier. The house had two stories with a garret, and it was here that young Daniel grew up.

From the house, on clear days, the rugged peaks of Mount Kearsarge and Mount Ascutney could be seen to the west and the White Mountains to the northeast. High hills surrounded the Webster farm, some of them crowned with wooded summits, others showing rocky heads of gray granite. A small alluvial plain stretched half a mile on the western side of the Merrimack River on which the Webster house stood. When skillfully cultivated, this plain could be extremely productive. "This is a very picturesque country," observed Daniel many years later. "I really think this region is the true Switzerland of the United States."

Daniel's earliest memory of growing up in this valley--and it was a very vivid impression, he claimed--occurred in 1790, when he was eight. A steady downpour of rain pelted his house for two days, and the river rose and overflowed its banks, sending tons of water cascading over the meadowland. A huge barn, fifty by twenty feet, belonging to a Mr. G. and filled with hay and grain and sheep and chickens, floated majestically downstream under the eyes of the Webster family. "We were all busy in preparing to fly to the mountains," Daniel wrote, "so soon as our house should manifest a disposition to follow Mr. G's barn." Fortunately the house stood its ground.

Unlike his brother, Ezekiel, who was robust and enjoyed the heavy labor of working a farm, Daniel was a rather sickly child, not much given to physical exertion. He did of course work the fields, plowing them, raking them, and hoeing them, but he never mowed them. "Somehow I could never learn to hang a scythe," he later recalled, and he complained to his father. Hang it to suit yourself, said Ebenezer, whereupon Daniel hung it on a tree and said, "There, that's just right." His father laughed and told him to leave it there. "I had not wit enough" to learn to hang a scythe, Daniel later admitted. "My brother Joe used to say that my father sent me to college in order to make me equal to the rest of the children."

At different times in his early life Daniel's parents despaired of his life. On one occasion Ebenezer turned to his wife with his son in his arms and said, "We must give him up; we never can raise this child." Abigail said nothing. She simply took Daniel into her arms, "and her tears fell fast upon his face as she pressed him to her bosom." There was no further talk of giving him up. At another time, concerned that he would develop rickets, she rode on horseback to the Boar's Head at Hampton Beach in the hope that seabathing would help him. She traveled to the coast alone, carrying Daniel in her arms. "There was a mother for you!" Daniel proudly boasted to a friend years later.

But despite his "sickly nature," the child inherited his father's constitution as well as his frame and physical appearance, and he survived a good twenty-two years longer than his more robust older brother.

Because of his physical limitations as a child, Daniel read a great deal. In later life he could not remember who taught him to read--he naturally supposed that it was his mother--and in fact he read the Bible at such an early age that he never knew a time when he could not read Holy Scripture. His father encouraged his reading habits and frequently read to him. "My father had a sonorous voice," Daniel later claimed, "an untaught yet correct ear, and a keen perception of all that was beautiful or sublime in thought. How often after the labors of the day, before twilight had deepened into obscurity, would he read to me his favorite portions of the Bible, the Book of Job, the Prayer of Habakkuk, and extracts from Isaiah!"

Ebenezer tried to give the boy the best education available in this remote area. The neighbors regarded two of his instructors, Thomas Chase and James Tappan, as mediocre at best. The first, Chase, took on Daniel as a student when the lad was three or four years of age. Chase "read tolerably well & wrote with a fair hand; but spelling was not his forte." Tappan was hardly better. "Something that was called a school," remembered Ezekiel years later, "was kept for two or three months in the winter by some itinerant pedagogue,--often a wretched pretender, claiming only to teach a little reading, writing & cyphering,--& wholly incompetent to give any valuable assistance to a clever youth in learning either." When it came to reading, the boy "generally could perform better than the teacher." Tappan later stated that "Daniel was always the brightest boy in the school, and Ezekiel the next: but Daniel was much quicker at his studies than his brother. He would learn more in five minutes than another boy in five hours."

As for writing, Daniel found it "laborious, irksome & repulsive," so much so that his instructors warned him that his fingers were "destined for the plough tail." What education Daniel actually acquired during these early years, recalled Ezekiel, "was derived from the judicious & experienced father, & the strong-minded, affectionate, & ambitious mother."

Later one of his teachers, William Hoyt, an austere man, turned out to be an exceptional teacher. He was "a good reader, and could teach boys, and did teach boys that which so few masters can, or will do, to read well themselves," declared Daniel. Hoyt had been a printer in Newburyport and kept a dry goods shop in Salisbury, where Daniel remembered buying a small cotton pocket handkerchief with the Constitution of the United States printed on both sides. He was about eight at the time. He sat down under an elm tree and "read and re-read" it. "From this I first learned either that there was a constitution, or that there were thirteen states. I remember to have read it, and have known more or less of it ever since."

All his teachers remembered Daniel's phenomenal memory. Tappan, for example, once offered a jackknife to the student who could memorize the greatest number of verses in the Bible over the weekend. Daniel outdistanced every other student in the class. He recited some sixty or seventy verses before Tappan stopped and awarded him the prize. But Daniel protested. He had learned several more chapters, he insisted.

Early on the boy developed a real passion for reading, and thanks to the efforts of Thomas W. Thompson, a local lawyer, the Reverend Thomas Worcester, and his father, the neighborhood acquired a small circulating library that enabled Daniel to sample the Spectator and portions of Joseph Addison's Criticism upon Chevy Chase. He was particularly fond of poetry. "As far back as I can recollect," he declared at a later time, "I had a great passion for poetry, and devoured all I could command." At the age of ten or twelve he memorized whole passages from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man and Dr. Isaac Watts's Psalms and Hymns. He especially admired the Psalms and Hymns. "No other poetry has since appeared to me so affecting." Virtually to the day he died Daniel could "repeat, almost literally, the devotional lines I was then so fond of." As an adult he littered his speeches with "quotations from the old English poets, but also verses from the old Sternhold and Hopkins hymn-book which he had studied in the Salisbury meeting-house." So few books were available that for Daniel to read each book several times "was nothing." He even memorized the poetry and anecdotes in the almanac.

Toward the end of his life a friend asked him if the many quotations he employed in his speeches from the classics and English literature took a great deal of research. Mostly, he replied, "I learned those things when young, & laid them up & have now only to fetch them out."

When the school was located near his house, Daniel naturally found it easy to attend. But when it moved to a distant district, he had to travel two and a half to three miles in the dead of winter to reach it. When the school moved still farther away, Ebenezer boarded his son with a neighboring family so that he could attend classes regularly. This "extra care" Daniel received "originated in a conviction of the slenderness & frailty of my constitution."

Once around 2:00 A.M. in midwinter, when he had risen from bed to check the exact wording of a poem, he inadvertently let fall from his candle a spark that started a fire. Fortunately the other members of the family awoke immediately to his cries for help, and the fire was soon extinguished. "The house was saved by my father's presence of mind," Daniel later confessed. "While others went for water, he seized every thing movable which was on fire, and wrapped them up in woollen blankets. My maternal grandmother, eighty years of age, was sleeping in the room."

In addition to reading, Daniel loved sports. Reading and sports became his two delights in life, and he never outlived them. Though sickly and frail as a youth, he always managed to find the energy to amuse himself in games of one kind or another with his brothers and sisters whenever they could afford the time from their assigned chores. He liked to pitch quoits, skate on the frozen river during the winter, and wrestle with his older brother. He and Zeke became close friends. For his brother Ezekiel, "Daniel had not only the most devoted affection, but the most exalted respect."

On one occasion Ebenezer assigned the two boys a specific task that they neglected to do. Annoyed, the father turned to them and demanded a reason for their failure.

"What have you been doing, Ezekiel?"

"Nothing, sir," came the reply.

"Well, Daniel, what have you been doing?"

"Helping Zeke, sir," the boy happily responded.

Another companion was "a certain battered old British soldier and sailor" who had deserted at Bunker Hill and moved to New Hampshire, where he settled on the Webster farm. The old soldier taught the boy the art of angling, a pastime that Daniel enjoyed immensely to the end of his life.

Daniel later remembered a scene in which he was in the fields with his father when Abiel Foster, a congressman, called and came into the field to speak with Ebenezer. When the visitor had left, the father summoned Daniel and said, "My son, that is a worthy man, he is a member of Congress, he goes to Philadelphia, and gets six dollars a day, while I toil here. It is because he had an education, which I never did. If I had had his early education, I should have been in Philadelphia in his place.... Now I must work here."

"My father," the boy responded, "you shall not work. Brother and I will work for you, and wear our hands out, and you shall rest." Then young Daniel broke down and wept.

"My child," Ebenezer declared, "it is of no importance to me. I now live but for my children. I could not give your elder brothers the advantages of knowledge, but I can do something for you. Exert yourself, improve your opportunities, learn, learn, and when I am gone, you will not need to go through the hardships which I have undergone, and which have made me an old man before my time."

The following May 25, 1796, Ebenezer took his young son, then fourteen years of age, to Exeter and deposited him in the Phillips Academy, over which Dr. Benjamin Abbot presided. The boy had never been so far away from home before, and the change "overpowered" him. He joined ninety boys who had seen more, done more, and knew more than he. The experience terrified him, but he quickly set about adapting himself to this new environment. Since he had arrived late in the academic year, he was assigned to the lowest class. He studied English grammar, writing, and arithmetic. He fairly mastered the grammar over a six-month period, and then, after a short break at home, he began the study of Latin, reciting his lessons to the twelve-year-old Joseph Stevens Buckminster, who had completed his work at Exeter but was too young to enter college. Daniel's other instructors included Peter Oxenbridge Thacher and Nicholas Emery. "I am proud to call them both masters," he later wrote.

Daniel did not distinguish himself as a scholar, despite his passion for reading. Other students read more and knew more, he later admitted, "but so much as I read I made my own. When a half hour or an hour, at most, had elapsed, I closed my book, and thought over what I read. If there was any thing peculiarly interesting or striking in the passage, I endeavored to recall it, and lay it up in my memory, and commonly could effect my object." This ability to concentrate on and remember what he read proved enormously valuable to him throughout his life. "Thus greater credit was given me for extensive and accurate knowledge than I really possessed," he modestly confessed.

One classmate, James gingham, claimed that when Daniel arrived at Exeter, he had "an independent air and was rather careless in his dress and appearance." Nor did he "join much in the plays and amusements of the boys of his age, but paid close attention to his studies." The adult Daniel Webster dressed and behaved similarly. Many contemporaries commented on his aloofness and his incorrect and inappropriate "costume," especially when arguing before the Supreme Court.

According to his own lights, young Daniel made tolerable progress in most subjects he took at Exeter--all except one. Difficult as it is to believe, he later claimed that he "could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the School." Many a speech he memorized and repeatedly rehearsed in his room to impress his tutors and the other students. Alas, when the day arrived to deliver the declamation before the entire school and all eyes turned toward him when his name was called, he could not rise from his seat. He sat there paralyzed. Several instructors frowned their displeasure; others smiled. Buckminster "pressed and entreated," but "I never could command sufficient resolution." When the assembly was dismissed, Daniel went back to his room "& wept bitter tears of mortification."

(Chapter One continues)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2009


    I suppose Arthur Schlesinger will always be regarded as FDR's most important biographer as will Robert Caro of Lyndon Johnson. But Robert Remini's profiles of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and Daviel Webster should be required reading for all students trying to get a feel for pre-Civil War America.

    The writing is lush and warm, bringing alive characters such as the above who you just can't help but like.

    In this case, Webster comes across as an original thinker, an incredibly captivating speaker--even better than Obama?--and all-around fun guy who loved to make money and drink wine.

    Remini is a fantastic writer and historian. Bravo.

    N. Murphy of New York

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