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Daniel Webster, the American statesman, was born in the town of Salisbury, in the county of Merrimack, New Hampshire, America, on January 18, 1782. His mother, a woman of deep piety, was his first teacher; his father was a man of singular but quiet energy, and the training of the youthful statesman was well fitted to prepare him, at least in some respects, for the work which it fell to his lot to perform. From his mother's lips were first received the vital truths of the Bible; and the first copy of that book ever owned by Webster was her gift. Long subsequent to this period, and in the full blaze of his fame, he could say that he had never been able to recollect the time when he could not read the Bible, and supposed that his first schoolmistress began to teach him when he was three or four years of age. His first school-house was built of logs, and stood about half a mile from his father's house, not very far from the beautiful Merrimack. All was then humble enough with this great American statesman. He attended school only during the winter months, and assisted his father in the business of his farm and his mill as soon as he had strength for doing so. He was, however, the brightest boy at school; and when the tempting reward of a knife was promised to the scholar who committed to memory the greatest number of verses from the Bible, Daniel came with whole chapters, which the master could not find time to hear him repeat in full. The boy secured the knife, and his delighted teacher subsequently told the father of that child that "he would do God's work injustice" if gifts so promising were not nurtured at college.
But that consummation was not to be very soon realized. For some time Daniel had to assist his father at a saw-mill; but so resolute was he in acquiring knowledge and training the mind while toiling with the body, that the operations at the mill were systematically interspersed with studies well fitted to form and to brace the embryo patriot for his great life-work. The saw took about ten minutes to cleave a log, and young Webster, after setting the mill in motion, learned to fill up these ten minutes with reading. As a patriot, a statesman, an orator, and a scholar, he became famous, and was called the greatest intellectual character of his country; and we see where he laid the foundation of his greatness--by persistent and invincible ardor even in early boyhood. That magnanimous kindliness and tenderness of heart, which entered so largely into his character, was fostered amid such scenes; and of all the men whose memories we are fain to embalm, he ranks among the least indebted to casualty, and the most to indefatigable earnestness, for the position to which he eventually rose. Amid the forest wilds of America his perseverance laid the foundation of power, of learning, of fame, and of goodness.
A simple incident which happened about this period decided his life-pursuit. He discovered a copy of the "Constitution of the United States," as drawn up by some of her ablest statesmen. It was printed upon a cotton handkerchief which he purchased in a country store with what was then his all, and which amounted to twenty-five cents. He was about eight years of age when that took place, and learned then, for the first time, either that there were United States, or that they had a Constitution.
From this date, or about the year 1790, his path through life was decided, not formally, but really, not by any avowal, but by a fostered predilection. Meanwhile other influences were at work. The father of this New Hampshire boy was strict in his religious opinions and observances, and the son had to conform, sometimes with a grudge at the restraint, but with effects of a vitally beneficial nature to the future patriot. His father then kept a place of entertainment, where teamsters halted to bait, and the attractions of the place were increased by the fact that young Webster often regaled those visitors by his readings. The Psalms of David were his favorite, and there, when only about seven years of age, he first imparted that pleasure by his oratory which he afterward carried up to the highest level which an American citizen can reach. To that humble abode Webster once returned in his declining years, and with streaming eyes descanted on the various events of the home of his youth.
The school which he attended during the winter months was about three miles from his father's house, and he had often to travel thither through deep snow. At the age of fourteen he attended a somewhat more advanced academy for a few months, and his first effort at public speaking there was a failure. He burst into tears; his antipathy to public declamation appeared insurmountable, and neither frowns nor smiles could overcome the reluctance. It was overcome, for when young Webster felt the power which was in him, he boldly employed it. At first, however, he was a failure as a public speaker. With all this, he went forward in the acquisition of knowledge and the bracing of his mind; and in his fifteenth year he once undertook to repeat five hundred lines of Virgil, if his teacher would consent to listen.
About this time the elder Webster disclosed to his son his purpose to send him to college. The talents of the boy and the counsels of friends pointed out that as a proper path, and that son himself will describe the effects of his father's information. "I could not speak," he says. "How could my father, I thought, with so large a family, and in such narrow circumstances, think of incurring so great an expense for me, and I laid my head on his shoulder and wept." That boy, however, had further difficulties to surmount. He had to leave one of his schools to assist his father in the hay harvest; he had, moreover, the hindrance of a slender and sickly constitution; but the Bible, side by side with some standard authors, had now become his English classics, while Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Demosthenes, and others, were his manuals in ancient literature. It was knowledge pursued under unusual difficulties, but, in spite of all, acquired to an unusual extent. So indomitable and persistent was the boy that in a few months he mastered the difficulties of the Greek tongue, and finally graduated at Dartmouth when he was eighteen years of age. Incidents are recorded which show that during his residence at college he was determined to hold the first place or none.
It was at Dartmouth that Webster's patriotism first flashed forth with true American ardor, a harbinger to his whole future career. He had now mastered his boyish aversion to oratory, and on July 4, 1800, the twenty-fourth anniversary of American Independence, he delivered an oration full of patriotic sentiment, manifesting the decided bent of his mind, and deserving a place, in the opinion of some, among the works which he subsequently published. He was then only eighteen years of age.
To increase the straitened funds of the family, Daniel Webster for some time kept a school at Freyburg, in Maine. His income there, eked out by other means, which were the wages of indomitable industry, enabled him to send his brother, Ezekiel, to college--the grand object which he had in view in becoming a schoolmaster. He was, however, all the while prosecuting his studies in law, and in the year 1805 entered on the duties of a legal practitioner at Boston. His familiar title in the country where he resided was "All eyes," and he used them with singular advantage. In Boston, at Portsmouth, and elsewhere, he continued these pursuits, and he thus early adopted some of the maxims which guided him through life. "There are evils greater than poverty;" "What bread you eat, let it be the bread of independence;" "Live on no man's favor;" "Pursue your profession;" "Make yourself useful to the world.... You will have nothing to fear." Such were his convictions, and he embodied them in deeds. One instance of his generosity is recorded at this period. His father had become embarrassed; the devoted son hastened to liquidate his father's debt, and he did it with a decision like that which signalized him all his days. He resided as a lawyer at Portsmouth for about nine years.
It was in the year 1812 that Webster was first elected a member of Congress, and he reached that elevation by his masterly ability in the affairs of his profession. By persistent patience first, and then by resistless power, he took up the foremost position in the sphere in which he moved. He appeared in the majesty of intellectual grandeur, like one who was all might and soul, and poured forth the stores of an opulent mind in a manner which was entirely his own. His words had both weight and fire; and the contrast is now great between the boy who broke down and wept at his first declamation, and the man, bending opponents to his will by his energy and indomitable zeal. The laurel of victory, it has been fondly said, was proffered to him by all, and bound his brow for one exploit till he went forth to another. In his thirtieth year he entered the field of politics, like one who had made up his mind to be decided, firm, and straightforward; and such was the serenity of this great soul, amid wild commotions, that the enthusiast mistook it for apathy, the fierce for lukewarmness. It was the great calm of profound conviction, borne up by a thorough reliance on the right--the right as to time, as to degree, and as to resources for the battle of life. From the day on which he threw himself into the political arena, he belonged to the United States, and not to his native county alone. Crowds soon gathered round one who had mastered so many difficulties, and taken his place among the kingly men who rule the spirits whom they are born first to subdue, and then to bind to themselves by the spell of genius.
It is well known that this man, so humble in his origin, yet so masterly in his mind, passed through all the gradations of rank that are open to an American citizen, up to the right hand of the highest. We have seen when he entered Congress. In 1841 he became Secretary of State, and from that period bore the place in American politics which would be readily conceded, in this ardent country, to one who was deemed and called "the master mind of the world." In his love of freedom, Webster has been likened to Washington, or expressly called his equal in regard to patriotism and true greatness. It is not wonderful, therefore, that this patriot's friends proposed him as President of the United States. He failed, and felt the failure, but soothed his disappointment by the conviction that no man "could take away from him what he had done for his country." Those who loved and admired him thought that the word president would have dimmed the lustre of the name of Daniel Webster; and they add, in regard to his disappointment, "if we must sorrow that what men expected can never come to pass, let us not weep for him but for our country." Others, however, were of opinion that Webster was "rejected and lost"; while those who look deeper at the causes of events may see, in that disappointment, the needful antidote administered by the Supreme Wisdom to ward off the danger of too universal a success. This gifted and ambitious man was suffered to take an active part in the government of one of the greatest of the nations. By his bold and manly grasp of American interests, he did much to weld the different States more closely into one. He negotiated, on the part of his country, some of the most important treaties which promote the peace and the amity of nations, for example, what is called the Ashburton treaty with Great Britain; and it would have seemed too much for one mortal, successful as Webster had already been, to be lifted to an official level with princes. That was denied him; his empire was not countries--it was minds. He was to be trained for a nobler exaltation than a throne.
Little has yet been said regarding Webster as an orator. It was mainly in that respect, however, that he surpassed his fellows, and mainly by that means was he enabled to ascend to the high position which he held so long. The versatility of his powers was very great, and the mode in which he sometimes employed them was not a little remarkable. He had, on one occasion, spent several hours with his colleagues in adjusting some important questions involving the interests of kingdoms; and on returning home he sportively sallied forth and purchased some eggs, on the principle of seeing how extremes meet, in regard to occupation as well as in other respects. But there were serious things mixed with his jests; and as an orator, Webster stands in the first rank, if not foremost, in the New World. When it was known that he was to speak, the excitement sometimes amounted to a furor, and a hundred dollars have been paid for a ticket of admission to hear him. Meanwhile the avenues that led to his arena were blocked up by the crowds pressing for admittance; and when he did appear, it was to rouse, to agitate, and convulse. He felt what he said in his inmost soul, and his words were winged with fire, even while they were massively powerful, and connected with a logic which tolerated no breaks in the chain.
Webster reached the allotted term of mortal existence, and in his seventy-first year passed away alike from the frowns and the applause of mortals. On the morning of Sabbath, October 24, 1852, he was summoned away. Though much enfeebled, his mind was calm, and he died with the confidence of a little child, reposing on the mercy of his God as revealed in the Saviour. Among his last utterances was this, "Heavenly Father, forgive my sins, and welcome me to thyself through Christ Jesus." His very last words were, "I still live," and his loving, weeping friends took them up as a prediction of that immortality on which he was about to enter. Through life he had hallowed the Sabbath, and he died upon it. The autumn was his favorite season, and he passed away amid its mellow glories, after affectionately and solemnly taking leave of his weeping wife, children, kindred, and friends, down to the humblest members of his household. His death, it is supposed, was hastened by injuries received by the breaking down of his carriage; but it did not find him unprepared. Long years before he had erected his own tomb; and there, on a plain marble slab over the door, the visitor reads the simple inscription--Daniel Webster.
Some ten thousand friends, countrymen, and lovers, helped to lay him there, and one of the orations pronounced in connection with his departure was thus touchingly closed: "The clasped hands--the dying prayers--oh, my fellow-citizens, this is a consummation over which tears of pious sympathy will be shed, after the glories of the forum and the senate are forgotten."
The following letter to a friend on the choice of a profession, written by Webster when only twenty years of age, is reprinted from "The Life of Daniel Webster" by George Ticknor Curtis, through the courtesy of D. Appleton and Co., the publishers, and with the permission of the widow and heirs of the author.
"What shall I do? Shall I say, 'Yes, gentlemen,' and sit down here to spend my days in a kind of a comfortable privacy, or shall I relinquish these prospects, and enter into a profession, where my feelings will be constantly harrowed by objects either of dishonesty or misfortune, where my living must be squeezed from penury (for rich folks seldom go to law), and my moral principle continually be at hazard? I agree with you that the law is well calculated to draw forth the powers of the mind, but what are its effects on the heart? Are they equally propitious? Does it inspire benevolence, and awake tenderness; or does it, by a frequent repetition of wretched objects, blunt sensibility, and stifle the still small voice of mercy?
"The talent with which Heaven has intrusted me is small, very small, yet I feel responsible for the use of it, and am not willing to pervert it to purposes reproachful and unjust; nor to hide it, like the slothful servant, in a napkin.
"Now, I will enumerate the inducements that draw me toward the law: First, and principally, it is my father's wish. He does not dictate, it is true, but how much short of dictation is the mere wish of a parent, whose labors of life are wasted on favors to his children? Even the delicacy with which the wish is expressed gives it more effect than it would have in the form of a command. Secondly, my friends generally wish it. They are urgent and pressing. My father even offers me--I will sometime tell you what--and Mr. Thompson offers my tuition gratis, and to relinquish his stand to me.
"On the whole, I imagine I shall make one more trial in the ensuing autumn. If I prosecute the profession, I pray God to fortify me against its temptations. To the winds I dismiss those light hopes of eminence which ambition inspired, and vanity fostered. To be 'honest, to be capable, to be faithful' to my client and my conscience, I earnestly hope will be my first endeavor. I believe you, my worthy boy, when you tell me what are your intentions. I have long known and long loved the honesty of your heart. But let us not rely too much on ourselves; let us look to some less fallible guide to direct us among the temptations that surround us."