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, 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.