Daniel Webster

Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead–or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunder storm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster–Dan’l Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.  We also looked at the judge who presided over the case, Justice Hathorne.  Only one personage remains to examine, Daniel Webster.

Born in 1782 a few months after the American victory at Yorktown, Webster would live to be a very old man for his time, dying in 1852.  Webster would serve in the House for 10 years from New Hampshire and 19 years in the Senate from Massachusetts.  Three times Secretary of State, he also attempted on three occasions to win the Presidency failing three times, watching as much lesser men attained that office.  Like his two great contemporaries, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, his name is remembered while most Americans would be hard pressed to name many of those presidents.

While holding political office he also practiced law, arguing an astounding 223 cases before the United States Supreme Court and winning about half of them.

He was acknowledged to be the finest American orator of his day, a day in which brilliant speech making was fairly common on the American political scene, and his contemporaries often referred to him blasphemously as “the god-like Daniel”.  Perhaps the finest example of Webster’s oratory is his Second Reply to Senator Haynes of South Carolina during the debate on tariffs which took place in the Senate  in January of 1830.  In the background lurked the nullification crisis and possible secession, a crisis which would build over the next three decades and explode into the attempted dissolution of the union in 1860.  The ending of this speech was once known by every schoolchild:   Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!

The American Union was Webster’s passion throughout his life, he being above all an ardent patriot.  He was also an ardent opponent of slavery.  However, in 1850 when his opposition to slavery conflicted with what he perceived to be the necessity of a compromise to preserve the Union, he did not hesitate and helped hammer the compromise together.  Because it included a stronger fugitive slave act, he was roundly condemned throughout New England, something noted in The Devil and Daniel Webster:

Well, with that the stranger began to beg and to plead. And he begged and he pled so humble that finally Dan’l, who was naturally kind hearted, agreed to let him go. The stranger seemed terrible grateful for that and said, just to show they were friends, he’d tell Dan’l’s for tune before leaving. So Dan’l agreed to that, though he didn’t take much stock in fortunetellers ordinarily.

But, naturally, the stranger was a little different. Well, he pried and he peered at the line in Dan’l’s hands. And he told him one thing and another that was quite remarkable. But they were all in the past.

“Yes, all that’s true, and it happened,” said Dan’l Webster. “But what’s to come in the future?”

The stranger grinned, kind of happily, and shook his head. “The future’s not as you think it,” he said. “It’s dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster.”

“I have,” said Dan’l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.

“It seems almost within your grasp,” said the stranger, “but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over.”

“And, if I am, I’ll still be Daniel Webster,” said Dan’l. “Say on.”

“You have two strong sons,” said the stranger, shaking his head. “You look to found a line. But each will die in war and neither reach greatness.”

“Live or die, they are still my sons,” said Dan’l Webster. “Say on.”

“You have made great speeches,” said the stranger. “You will make more.”

“Ah,” said Dan’l Webster.

“But the last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you,” said the stranger. “They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die.”

“So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say,” said Dan’l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. “One question,” he said. “I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?”

“Not while you live,” said the stranger, grimly, “but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke.”

“Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!” said Dan’l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, “be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I’d go to the Pit itself to save the Union!”

I think that the Compromise of 1850 was essential for the preservation of the Union.  Ten years later the North barely won the Civil War begun in 1861.  In 1851 the disparity in industrial strength and rail capacity was much less than it would be in 1861.  The South had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Mexican War, and as a result it had many veteran volunteer soldiers in civilian life, still in their prime, who would have given the South perhaps an insurmountable advantage early in a war that began in 1851.  The Republican party still remained in the future, and there was no party in existence in 1850 dedicated both to preservation of the Union and anti-slavery, to rally the strength of the North through a terrible conflict.  Finally, the hapless Millard Fillmore would have made a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln as a war president.  Daniel Webster was absolutely correct in his conclusion that a compromise was needed in order to preserve the Union.  In the world to come I am sure that has given him immense satisfaction.

More to explorer


  1. We live in a much different country today than the one Daniel Webster fought to preserve. I would not compromise my anti-abortion principles to save this country (and I certainly wouldn’t go to hell rather than see its dissolution, as Webster proclaims his willingness to do in Benet’s fictional account). Over a century-and-a-half has lapsed since Webster’s time, and the country we have today would no doubt be unrecognizable to Webster. I’m not so sure he’d find what we have today so worth preserving.

  2. Completely disagree Jay, root and branch! Your words actually echo those of radical abolitionists prior to the Civil War who denounced the Constitution as a Covenant with Death because of slavery and called for the breaking up of the Union. Wiser men, like Lincoln and Webster, saw that the primary hope for ending slavery was the preservation of the Union and that the Union was a good in and of itself. They were proven right and I think their example is something to ponder today when there is too much idiotic talk about Secession once again. There is nothing wrong with this country that would be solved by breaking up the United States of America into two or more squabbling Republics, and endless new evils would result. As for Webster’s quip in the story about going to the Pit, considering he just had bested Satan in court and was about to give him a kick in the hindquarters, I doubt if Webster would have been going to the Pit to surrender his soul, but rather to have another round with Mr. Scratch!

  3. The difference, Donald, is that I don’t believe for one minute that the best hope for ending abortion lies in the preservation of the Union. Nor am I sold on the Manifest Destiny-based argument that the Union is necessarily a good in and of itself.

    Now, I’m no secessionist, and I certainly don’t hope for the dissolution of our country. And I don’t even think it’s a realistic possibility any time in the near future (certainly not our lifetimes, and probably not our children’s lifetimes). But I firmly believe that there may be circumstances at some point in our nation’s future in which there may a much higher good than preservation of the Union to work toward and/or fight for.

  4. Though I’m extremely fond of the “Liberty and Union” speech, I’m more in Jay’s corner on this one.

    I don’t see him taking a Garrisonian position. Indeed, the problem is not the Constitution, the problem is that it has been turned into a Rorschach test, with people amending it without actually doing the hard work of amending it. Either via lawsuit or winking at flatly-unconstitutional legislation. We have a Union–indeed, increasingly a unitary state–but less liberty.

    Union without liberty is…well, there was a Soviet Union once.

  5. Thank you, Dale, for saying in just a few words what I was unable to convey in either of my two comments. You have concisely and accurately captured my exact concerns.

  6. Webster would have recognized a contemporary American plague.

    From his critique of President Jackson’s veto message against the renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United states.

    “In his 1832 veto of renewing the Bank’s (Second Bank of the United States) charter, Jackson complained that its profits went to foreigners and a ‘few hundred of our own citizens, chiefly of the richest class.’ Daniel Webster replied that the message was a ‘wanton attack on whole classes of people, for the purposes of turning against them the prejudices and resentments of other classes.’” The poison runs even stronger today in the party of Obama.

  7. I think that but for the preservation of the Union in the 19th Century the whole planet would have entered a totalitarian nightmare in the 20th. I believe that on the whole the United States of America has been a powerful force for good in this world and I will not allow slavery or abortion to alter in the slightest my love for this country and for the Union. I completely agree with Webster’s ringing words : Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable and I believe his words are just as applicable today as it was in his time. As for liberty, I think I will do a post comparing the status of liberty in Webster’s day and the status of liberty in our own time.

  8. A comparison of liberty in the two time periods will be interesting. From my perspective, neither “liberty” or “union” means what it did back then. Today, liberty is more akin to license and union to co-existence.

  9. America is the only nation on the face of the earth with freedom guaranteed by our Creator endowed, unalienable rights, unalienable because God is infinite, and unchangeable.

    Jesus Christ descended into hell.

    “I doubt if Webster would have been going to the Pit to surrender his soul, but rather to have another round with Mr. Scratch!”

  10. Yes, Bill Clinton is out of office, so they say. But if you go to the White House and listen closely, they say you can still hear his grand oratory echoing through the halls. And if you call out his name three times, it is said that you can feel the ground shake and his voice bellow forth, “is Girls Gone Wild still in business?”. You better answer that it is, or he will return to the White House and right the injustice…nah, it doesn’t work for some reason.

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