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In the meantime the health of the great pacificator began to decline. He was forced by a threatening and distressing cough to seek the air of Cuba, which did him no good. He was obliged to decline an invitation of the citizens of New York to address them on the affairs of the nation, but wrote a long letter instead, addressed more to the South than to the North, for he more than any other man, saw the impending dangers.
Although there was a large majority at the South in favor of Union, yet the minority had become furious, and comprised the ablest leaders, concerning whose intention such men as Seward and Chase and John P.
Hale were sceptical. In the ferment of excited pa.s.sions it is not safe to calculate on men’s acting according to reason. It is wiser to predict that they will act against reason. Here Clay was wiser in his anxiety than the Northern statesmen generally, who thought there would be peace because it was reasonable.
Clay did not live to see all compromises thrown to the winds. He died June 29, 1852, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, at the National Hotel in Washington. Imposing funeral ceremonies took place amid general lamentation, and the whole country responded with glowing eulogies.
I have omitted allusion to other speeches which the great statesman made in his long public career, and have presented only the salient points of his life, in which his parliamentary eloquence blazed with the greatest heat; for he was the greatest orator, in general estimation, that this country has produced, although inferior to Webster in ma.s.sive power, in purity of style, in weight of argument, and breadth of knowledge. To my mind his speeches are diffuse and exaggerated, and wanting in simplicity. But what reads the best is not always the most effective in debate. Certainly no American orator approached him in electrical power.
No one had more devoted friends. No one was more generally beloved. No one had greater experience, or rendered more valuable public services.
And yet he failed to reach the presidency, to which for thirty years he had aspired, and which at times seemed within his grasp. He had made powerful enemies, especially in Jackson and his partisans, and politicians dreaded his ascendency, and feared that as President he would be dictatorial, though not perhaps arbitrary like Jackson. He would have been a happier man if he had not so eagerly coveted a prize which it seems is unattainable by mere force of intellect, and is often conferred apparently by accidental circ.u.mstances. It is too high an office to be sought, either by genius or services, except in the military line; but even General Scott, the real hero of the Mexican war, failed in his ambitious aspirations, as well as Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Seward, Chase, and Douglas, while less prominent men were selected, and probably ever will be. This may be looked at as a rebuke to political ambition, which ought to be satisfied with the fame conferred by genius rather than that of place, which never yet made a man really great. The presidency would have added nothing to the glory which Clay won in the Congress of the United States. It certainly added nothing to the fame of Grant, which was won on the battlefield, and it detracted from that of Jackson. And yet Clay felt keenly the disappointment, that with all his talents and services, weaker men were preferred to him.
Aside from the weakness of Clay in attempting to grasp a phantom, his character stands out in an interesting light on the whole. He had his faults and failings which did not interfere with his ambition, and great and n.o.ble traits which more than balanced them, the most marked of which was the patriotism whose fire never went out. If any man ever loved his country, and devoted all the energies of his mind and soul to promote its welfare and secure its lasting union, that man was the ill.u.s.trious Senator from Kentucky, whose eloquent pleadings were household words for nearly half a century throughout the length and breadth of the land.
With him there was no East, no West, no North, and no South, to be especially favored or served, but the whole country, one and indivisible for ages to come. And no other man in high position had a more glowing conviction of its ever-increasing power and glory than he.
“Whether,” says his best biographer, “he thundered against British tyranny on the seas, or urged the recognition of the South American sister republics, or attacked the high-handed conduct of the military chieftain in the Florida war, or advocated protection and internal improvements, or a.s.sailed the one-man power and spoils politics in the person of Andrew Jackson, or entreated for compromise and conciliation regarding the tariff or slavery,–there was always ringing through his words a fervid plea for his country, a zealous appeal in behalf of the honor and the future greatness and glory of the republic, or an anxious warning lest the Union be put in jeopardy.”
One thing is certain, that no man in the country exercised so great an influence, for a generation, in shaping the policy of national legislation as Henry Clay, a policy which, on the whole, has proved enlightened, benignant, and useful. And hence his name and memory will not only be honorably mentioned by historians, but will be fondly cherished so long as American inst.i.tutions shall endure. He is one of the greater lights in the galaxy of American stars, as he was the advocate of principles which have proved conducive to national prosperity in the first century of the nation’s history. It is a great thing to give shape to the beneficent inst.i.tutions of a country, and especially to be a source of patriotic inspiration to its people. It is greater glory than to be enrolled in the list of presidents, especially if they are mentioned only as the fortunate occupants of a great office to which they were blindly elected. Of the long succession of the occupants of the Papal Chair, the most august of worldly dignities, not one in twenty has left a mark, or is of any historical importance, while hundreds of churchmen and theologians in comparatively humble positions have left an immortal fame. The glory of Clay is not dimmed because he failed in reaching a worthy object of ambition. It is enough to be embalmed in the hearts of the people as a national benefactor, and to shine as a star of the first magnitude in the political firmament.
Carl Schurz’s Life of Henry Clay is far the ablest and most interesting that I have read. The Life of Clay by Colton is fuller and more pretentious, but is diffuse. Benton’s Thirty Years in Congress should be consulted; also the various Lives of Webster and Calhoun. See also Wilson’s Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. The writings of the political economists, like Sumner, Walker, Carey, and others, should be consulted in reference to tariffs. The Life of Andrew Jackson sheds light on Clay’s hostility to the hero of New Orleans.
THE AMERICAN UNION.
If I were required to single out the most prominent political genius in the history of the United States, after the death of Hamilton, I should say it was Daniel Webster. He reigned for thirty years as a political dictator to his party, and at the same time was the acknowledged head of the American Bar. He occupied two spheres, in each of which he gained pre-eminence. But for envy, and the enemies he made, he probably would have reached the highest honor that the nation had to bestow. His influence was vast, until those discussions arose which provoked one of the most gigantic wars of modern times. For a generation he was the object of universal admiration for his eloquence and power. In political wisdom and experience he had no contemporaneous superior; there was no public man from 1820 to 1850 who had so great a prestige, and whose name and labors are so well remembered. His speeches and forensic arguments are more often quoted than those of any other statesman and lawyer the country has produced. His works are in every library, and are still read. His fame has not waned, in spite of the stirring events which have taken place since his death. Great generals have arisen and pa.s.sed out of mind, but the name and memory of Webster are still fresh. Amid the tumults and parties of the war he foresaw and dreaded, his glory may have pa.s.sed through an eclipse, but his name is to-day one of the proudest connected with our history. Living men, occupying great official positions, are of course more talked about and thought of than he; but of those ill.u.s.trious characters who figured in public affairs a generation ago, no one has so great a posthumous fame and influence as the distinguished senator from Ma.s.sachusetts. No man since the days of Jefferson is seated on a loftier pedestal; and no one is likely to live longer, if not in the nation’s heart, yet in its admiration for intellectual superiority and respect for political services. While he reigned as a political oracle for more than thirty years,–almost an idol in the eyes of his const.i.tuents,–it was his misfortune to be dethroned and reviled, in the last ten years of his life, by the very people who had exalted and honored him, and at last to die broken-hearted, from the loss of his well-earned popularity and the failure of his ambitious expectations. His life is sad as well as proud, like that of so many other great men who at one time led, and at another time opposed, popular sentiments. Their names stand out on every page of history, examples of the mutability of fortune,–alike joyous and saddened men, reaping both glory and shame; and sometimes glory for what is evil, and shame for what is good.
When Daniel Webster was born,–1782, in Salisbury, New Hampshire, near the close of our Revolutionary struggle,—there were very few prominent and wealthy families in New England, very few men more respectable than the village lawyers, doctors, and merchants, or even thrifty and intelligent farmers. Very few great fortunes had been acquired, and these chiefly by the merchants of Boston, Salem, Portsmouth, and other seaports whose ships had penetrated to all parts of the world Webster sprang from the agricultural cla.s.s,–larger then in proportion to the other cla.s.ses than now at the East,–at a time when manufactures were in their infancy and needed protection; when travel was limited; when it was a rare thing for a man to visit Europe; when the people were obliged to practise the most rigid economy; when everybody went to church; when religious scepticism sent those who avowed it to Coventry; when ministers were the leading power; when the press was feeble, and elections were not controlled by foreign immigrants; when men drank rum instead of whiskey, and lager beer had never been heard of, nor the great inventions and scientific wonders which make our age an era had anywhere appeared. The age of progress had scarcely then set in, and everybody was obliged to work in some way to get an honest living; for the Revolutionary War had left the country poor, and had shut up many channels of industry. The farmers at that time were the most numerous and powerful cla.s.s, sharp, but honest and intelligent; who honored learning, and enjoyed discussions on metaphysical divinity. Their sons did not then leave the paternal acres to become clerks in distant cities; nor did their daughters spend their time in reading French novels, or sneering at rustic duties and labors. This age of progress had not arisen when everybody looks forward to a millennium of idleness and luxury, or to a fortune acquired by speculation and gambling rather than by the sweat of the brow,–an age, in many important respects, justly extolled, especially for scientific discoveries and mechanical inventions, yet not remarkable for religious earnestness or moral elevation.
The life of Daniel Webster is familiar to all intelligent people. His early days were spent amid the toils and blessedness of a New England farm-house, favored by the teachings of intelligent, G.o.d-fearing parents, who had the means to send him to Phillips Academy in Exeter, then recently founded, where he fitted for college, and shortly after entered Dartmouth, at the age of fifteen. In connection with Webster, I do not read of any remarkable precocity, at school or college, such as marked Cicero, Macaulay, and Gladstone; but it seems that he won the esteem of both teachers and students, and was regarded as a very promising youth. After his graduation he taught an academy at Fryeburg, for a time, and then began the study of the law,–first at Salisbury, and subsequently in Boston, in the office of the celebrated Governor Gore. He was admitted to the bar in 1805, and established himself in Boscawen, but soon afterwards removed to Portsmouth, where he entered on a large practice, encountering such able lawyers as Jeremiah Mason and Jeremiah Smith, who both became his friends and admirers, for Webster’s legal powers were soon the talk of the State. At the early age of thirty-one he entered Congress (1813), and took the whole House by surprise with his remarkable speeches, during the war with Great Britain,–on such topics as the enlargement of the navy, the repeal of the embargo, and the complicated financial questions of the day. In 1815 he retired awhile from public life, and removed to Boston, where he enjoyed a lucrative practice. In 1822 he re-entered Congress. So popular was he at this time, that, on his re-election to Congress in 1824, he received four thousand nine hundred and ninety votes out of five thousand votes cast. In 1827 he entered the Senate, where he was to reign as one of its greatest chiefs,–the idol of his party in New England, practising his profession at the same time, a leader of the American Bar, and an oracle in politics on all const.i.tutional questions.
With this rapid sketch, I proceed to enumerate the services of Daniel Webster to his country, since on these enduring fame and grat.i.tude are based. And first, I allude to his career as a lawyer,–not a narrow, technical lawyer, seeking to gain his case any way he can, with an eye on pecuniary rewards alone, but a lawyer devoting himself to the study of great const.i.tutional questions and fundamental principles. In his legal career, when for nearly forty years he discussed almost every issue that can arise between individuals and communities, some half-a-dozen cases have become historical, because of the importance of the principles and interests involved. In the Gibbons and Ogden case he a.s.sumed the broad ground that the grant of power to regulate commerce was exclusively the right of the General Government. William Wirt, his distinguished antagonist,–then at the height of his fame,–relied on the coasting license given by States; but the lucid and luminous arguments of the young lawyer astonished the court, and made old Judge Marshall lay down his pen, drop back in his chair, turn up his coat-cuffs, and stare at the speaker in amazement at his powers.
The first great case which gave Webster a national reputation was that pertaining to Dartmouth College, his _alma mater_, which he loved as Newton loved Cambridge. The college was in the hands of politicians, and Webster recovered the college from their hands and restored it to the trustees, laying down such broad principles that every literary and benevolent inst.i.tution in this land will be grateful to him forever.
This case, which was argued with consummate ability, and with words as eloquent as they were logical and lucid, melting a cold court into tears, placed Webster in the front rank of lawyers, which he kept until he died. In the Ogden and Saunders case he settled the const.i.tutionality of State bankrupt laws; in that of the United States Bank he maintained the right of a citizen of one State to perform any legal act in another; in that which related to the efficacy of Stephen Girard’s will, he demonstrated the vital importance of Christianity to the success of free inst.i.tutions,–so that this very college, which excluded clergymen from being teachers in it, or even visiting it, has since been presided over by laymen of high religious character, like Judge Jones and Doctor Allen. In the Rhode Island case he proved the right of a State to modify its own inst.i.tutions of government. In the Knapp murder case he brought out the power of conscience–the voice of G.o.d to the soul–with such terrible forensic eloquence that he was the admiration of all Christian people. No better sermon was ever preached than this appeal to the conscience of men.
In these and other cases he settled very difficult and important questions, so that the courts of law will long be ruled by his wisdom.
He enriched the science of jurisprudence itself by bringing out the fundamental laws of justice and equity on which the whole science rests.
He was not as learned as he was logical and comprehensive. His greatness as a lawyer consisted in seeing and seizing some vital point not obvious, or whose importance was not perceived by his opponent, and then bringing to bear on this point the whole power of his intellect. His knowledge was marvellous on those points essential to his argument; but he was not probably learned, like Kent, in questions outside his cases,–I mean the details and technicalities of law. He did, however, know the fundamental principles on which his great cases turned, and these he enforced with much eloquence and power, so that his ablest opponents quailed before him. Perhaps his commanding presence and powerful tones and wonderful eye had something to do with his success at the Bar as well as in the Senate,–a brow, a voice, and an eye that meant war when he was fairly aroused; although he appealed generally to reason, without tricks of rhetoric. If he sometimes intimidated, he rarely resorted to exaggerations, but confined himself strictly to the facts, so that he seemed the fairest of men. This moderation had great weight with an intelligent jury and with learned judges. He always paid great deference to the court, and was generally courteous to his opponents. Of all his antagonists at the Bar, perhaps it was Jeremiah Mason and Rufus Choate whom he most dreaded; yet both of these great men were his warm friends. Warfare at the Bar does not mean personal animosity,–it is generally mutual admiration, except in the antagonism of such rivals as Hamilton and Burr. Webster’s admiration for Wirt, Pinkney, Curtis, and Mason was free from all envy; in fact, Webster was too great a man for envy, and great lawyers were those whom he loved best, whom he felt to be his brethren, not secret enemies. His admiration for Jeremiah Mason was only equalled by that for Judge Marshall, who was not a rival. Webster praised Marshall as he might have Erskine or Lyndhurst.
Mr. Webster, again, attained to great eminence in another sphere, in which lawyers have not always succeeded,–that of popular oratory, in the shape of speeches and lectures and orations to the people directly.
In this sphere I doubt if he ever had an equal in this country, although Edward Everett, Rufus Choate, Wendell Phillips, and others were distinguished for their popular eloquence, and in some respects were the equals of Webster. But he was a great teacher of the people, directly,–a sort of lecturer on the principles of government, of finance, of education, of agriculture, of commerce. He was superbly eloquent in his eulogies of great men like Adams and Jefferson. His Bunker Hill and Plymouth addresses are immortal. He lectured occasionally before lyceums and literary inst.i.tutions. He spoke to farmers in their agricultural meetings, and to merchants in marts of commerce. He did not go into political campaigns to any great extent, as is now the custom with political leaders on the eve of important elections. He did not seek to show the people how they should vote, so much as to teach them elemental principles. He was the oracle, the sage, the teacher,–not the politician.
In the popular a.s.semblies–whether for the discussion of political truths or those which bear on literature, education, history, finance, or industrial pursuits–Mr. Webster was pre-eminent. What audiences were ever more enthusiastic than those that gathered to hear his wisdom and eloquence in public halls or in the open air? It is true that in his later years he lost much of his wonderful personal magnetism, and did not rise to public expectation except on great occasions; but in middle life, in the earlier part of his congressional career, he had no peer as a popular orator. Edward Everett, on some occasions, was his equal, so far as manner and words were concerned; but, on the whole, even in his grandest efforts, Everett was cold compared with Webster in his palmy days. He never touched the heart and reason as did Webster; although it must be conceded that Everett was a great rhetorician, and was master of many of the graces of oratory.
The speeches and orations of Webster were not only weighty in matter, but were wonderful for their style,–so clear, so simple, so direct, that everybody could understand him. He rarely attempted to express more than one thought in a single sentence; so that his sentences never wearied an audience, being always logical and precise, not involved and long and complicated, like the periods of Chalmers and Choate and so many of the English orators. It was only in his grand perorations that he was Ciceronian. He despised purely extemporary efforts; he did not believe in them. He admits somewhere that he never could make a good speech without careful preparation. The principles embodied in his famous reply to Colonel Hayne of South Carolina, in the debate in the Senate on the right of “nullification,” had lain brooding in his mind for eighteen months. To a young minister he said, There is no such thing as extemporaneous acquisition.
Webster’s speeches are likely to live for their style alone, outside their truths, like those of Cicero and Demosthenes, like the histories of Voltaire and Macaulay, like the essays of Pascal and Rousseau; and they will live, not only for both style and matter, but for the exalted patriotism which burns in them from first to last, for those sentiments which consecrate cherished inst.i.tutions. How n.o.bly he recognizes Christianity as the bulwark of national prosperity! How delightfully he presents the endearments of home, the cert.i.tudes of friendship, the peace of agricultural life, the repose of all industrial pursuits, however humble and obscure! It was this fervid patriotism, this public recognition of what is purest in human life, and exalted in aspirations, and profound in experience,–teaching the value of our privileges and the glory of our inst.i.tutions,–which gave such effect to his eloquence, and endeared him to the hearts of the people until he opposed their pa.s.sions. If we read any of these speeches, extending over thirty years, we shall find everywhere the same consistent spirit of liberty, of union, of conciliation, the same moral wisdom, the same insight into great truths, the same recognition of what is sacred, the same repose on what is permanent, the same faith in the expanding glories of this great nation which he loved with all his heart. In all his speeches one cannot find a sentence which insults the consecrated sentiments of religion or patriotism. He never casts a fling at Christianity; he never utters a sarcasm in reference to revealed truths; he never flippantly aspires to be wiser than Moses or Paul in reference to theological dogmas. “Ah, my friends,” said he, in 1825, “let us remember that it is only religion and morals and knowledge that can make men respectable and happy under any form of government; that no government is respectable which is not just; that without unspotted purity of public faith, without sacred public principle, fidelity, and honor, no mere form of government, no machinery of laws, can give dignity to political society.”
Thus did he discourse in those proud days when he was accepted as a national idol and a national benefactor,–those days of triumph and of victory, when the people gathered around him as they gather around a successful general. Ah! how they thronged to the spot where he was expected to speak,–as the Scotch people thronged to Edinboro’ and Glasgow to hear Gladstone:–
“And when they saw his chariot but appear, Did they not make an universal shout, That Tiber trembled underneath her banks To hear the replication of their sounds Made in her concave sh.o.r.es?”
But it is time that I allude to those great services which Webster rendered to his country when he was a member of Congress,–services that can never be forgotten, and which made him a national benefactor.
There were three cla.s.ses of subjects on which his genius pre-eminently shone,–questions of finance, the development of American industries, and the defence of the Const.i.tution.
As early as 1815, Mr. Webster acquired a national reputation by his speech on the proposition to establish a national bank, which he opposed, since it was to be relieved from the necessity of redeeming its notes in specie. This was at the close of the war with Great Britain, when the country was poor, business prostrated, and the finances disordered. To relieve this pressure, many wanted an inflated paper currency, which should stimulate trade. But all this Mr. Webster opposed, as certain to add to the evils it was designed to cure. He would have a bank, indeed, but he insisted it should be established on sound financial principles, with notes redeemable in gold and silver.
And he brought a great array of facts to show the certain and utter failure of a system of banking operations which disregarded the fundamental financial laws. He maintained that an inflated currency produced only temporary and illusive benefits. Nor did he believe in hopes which were not sustained by experience. “Banks,” said he, “are not revenue. They may afford facilities for its collection and distribution, but they cannot be sources of national income, which must flow from deeper fountains. Whatever bank-notes are not convertible into gold and silver, at the will of the holder, become of less value than gold and silver. No solidity of funds, no confidence in banking operations, has ever enabled them to keep up their paper to the value of gold and silver any longer than they paid gold and silver on demand.”
Similar sentiments he advanced, in 1816, in his speech on the legal currency, and also in 1832, when he said that a disordered currency is one of the greatest of political evils,–fatal to industry, frugality, and economy. “It fosters the spirit of speculation and extravagance. It is the most effectual of inventions to fertilize the rich man’s field by the sweat of the poor man’s brow.” In these days, when principles of finance are better understood, these remarks may seem like plat.i.tudes; but they were not so fifty or sixty years ago, for then they had the force of new truth, although even then they were the result of political wisdom, based on knowledge and experience; and his views were adopted, for he appealed to reason.
Webster’s financial speeches are very calm, like the papers of Hamilton and Jay in “The Federalist,” but as interesting and persuasive as those of Gladstone, the greatest finance-minister of modern times. They are plain, simple, direct, without much attempt at rhetoric. He spoke like a great lawyer to a bench of judges. The solidity and soundness of his views made him greatly respected, and were remarkable in a young man of thirty-four. The subsequent financial history of the country shows that he was prophetic. All his predictions have come to pa.s.s. What is more marked in our history than the extravagance and speculation attending the expansion of paper money irredeemable in gold and silver? What misery and disappointment have resulted from inflated values! It was doubtless necessary to do without gold and silver in our life-and-death struggle with the South; but it was nevertheless a misfortune, seen in the gambling operations and the wild fever of speculation which attended the immense issue of paper money after the war. The bubble was sure to burst, sooner or later, like John Law’s Mississippi scheme in the time of Louis XV. How many thousands thought themselves rich, in New York and Chicago, in fact everywhere, when they were really poor,–as any man is poor when his house or farm is not worth the mortgage. As soon as we returned to gold and silver, or it was known we should return to them, then all values shrunk, and even many a successful merchant found he was really no richer than he was before the war. It had been easy to secure heavy mortgages on inflated values, and also to get a great interest on investments; but when these mortgages and investments shrank to what they were really worth, the holders of them became embarra.s.sed and impoverished. The fit of commercial intoxication was succeeded by depression and unhappiness, and the moral evils of inflated values were greater than the financial, since of all demoralizing things the spirit of speculation and gambling brings, at last, the most dismal train of disappointments and miseries. Inflation and uncertainty in values, whether in stocks or real estate, alternating with the return of prosperity, seem to have marked the commercial and financial history of this country during the last fifty years, more than that of any other nation under the sun, and given rise to the spirit of extravagant speculations, both disgraceful and ruinous.
Equally remarkable were Mr. Webster’s speeches on tariffs and protective industries. He here seemed to borrow from Alexander Hamilton, who is the father of our protective system. Here he co-operated with Henry Clay; and the result of his eloquence and wisdom on those great principles of political economy was the adherence to a policy–against great opposition–which built up New England and did not impoverish the West.
Where would the towns of Lowell, Manchester, and Lawrence have been without the aid extended to manufacturing interests? They made the nation comparatively independent of other nations; they enriched the country, even as manufactures enriched Great Britain and France. What would England be if it were only an agricultural country? It would have been impossible to establish manufactures of textile fabrics, without protection. Without aid from governments, this branch of American industry would have had no chance to contend with the cheap labor of European artisans. I do not believe in cheap labor. I do not believe in reducing intelligent people to the condition of animals. I would give them the chance to rise; and they cannot rise if they are doomed to labor for a mere pittance. The more wages men can get for honest labor, the better is the condition of the whole country. Withdraw protection from infant industries, and either they perish, or those who work in them sink to the condition of the laboring cla.s.ses of Europe. Nor do I believe it is a good thing for a nation to have all its eggs in one basket. I would not make this country exclusively agricultural because we have boundless fields and can raise corn cheap, any more than I would recommend a Minnesota farmer to raise nothing but wheat. Insects and mildews and unexpected heats may blast a whole harvest, and the farmer has nothing to fall back upon. He may make more money, for a time, by raising wheat exclusively; but he impoverishes his farm. He should raise cattle and sheep and gra.s.s and vegetables, as well as wheat or corn.
Then he is more independent and more intelligent, even as a nation is by various industries, which call out all kinds of talent.
I know that this is a controverted point. Everything _is_ controverted in political economy. There is scarcely a question which is settled in its whole range of subjects; and I know that many intellectual and enlightened men are in favor of what they call free-trade, especially professors in colleges. But there is no such thing as free-trade, strictly, in any nation, or in the history of nations. No nation legislates for universal humanity on philanthropic principles; it legislates for itself. There is no country where there are not high duties on some things, not even England. No nation can be governed on abstract principles and in disregard of its necessities. When it was for the interest of England to remove duties on corn, in order that manufactures might be stimulated, they took off duties on corn, because the laboring-cla.s.ses in the mills had to be fed. Agricultural interests gave way, for a time, to manufacturing interests, because the wealth of the country was based on them rather than on lands, and because landlords did not antic.i.p.ate that bread-stuffs brought from this country would interfere with the value of their rents. But England, with all her proud and selfish boasts about free-trade, may yet have to take a retrograde course, like France and Prussia, or her landed interests may be imperilled. The English aristocracy, who rule the country, cannot afford to have the value of their lands reduced one-half, for those lands are so heavily mortgaged that such a reduction of value would ruin them; nor will they like to be forced to raise vegetables rather than wheat, and turn themselves into market-gardeners instead of great proprietors. The landlords of Great Britain may yet demand protection for themselves, and, as they control Parliament, they will look out for themselves by enacting measures of protection, unless they are intimidated by the people who demand cheap bread, or unless they submit to revolution. It is eternal equity and wisdom that the weak should be protected. There may be industries strong enough now to dispense with protection; but unless they are a.s.sisted when they are feeble, they will cease to exist at all. Take our shipping, for instance, with foreign ports,–it is not merely crippled, it is almost annihilated. Is it desirable to cut off that great arm of national strength? Shall we march on to our destiny, blind and lame and halt? What will we do if England and other countries shall find it necessary to protect themselves from impoverishment, and reintroduce duties on bread-stuffs high enough to make the culture of wheat profitable? Where then will our farmers find a market for their superfluous corn, except to those engaged in industries which we should crush by removing protection?
I maintain that Mr. Webster, in defending our various industries with so much ability, for the benefit of the nation on the whole, rendered very important services, even as Hamilton and Clay did; although the solid South, wishing cheap labor, and engaged exclusively in agriculture, was opposed to him. The independent South would have established free-trade,–as Mr. Calhoun advocated, and as any enlightened statesman would advocate, when any interest can stand alone and defy compet.i.tion, as was the case with the manufactures of Great Britain fifty years ago.
The interests of the South and those of the North, under the inst.i.tution of slavery, were not identical; indeed, they had been in fierce opposition for more than fifty years. Mr. Webster was, in his arguments on tariffs and cognate questions, the champion of the North, as Mr.
Calhoun was of the South; and this opposition and antagonism gave great force to Webster’s eloquence at this time. His sentences are short, interrogative, idiomatic. He is intensely in earnest. He grapples with sophistries and scatters them to the winds; both reason and pa.s.sion vivify him.
This was the period of Webster’s greatest popularity, as the defender of Northern industries. This made him the idol of the merchants and manufacturers of New England. He made them rich; no wonder they made him presents. They ought, in grat.i.tude, to have paid his debts over and over again. What if he did, in straitened circ.u.mstances, accept their aid?
They owed to him more than he owed to them; and with all their favor and bounty Webster remained poor. He was never a rich man, but always an embarra.s.sed man, because he had expensive tastes, like Cicero at Rome and Bacon in England. This, truly, was not to his credit; it was a flaw in his character; it involved him in debt, created enemies, and injured his reputation. It may have lessened his independence, and it certainly impaired his dignity. But there were also patriotic motives which prompted him, and which kept him poor. Had he devoted his great talents exclusively to the law, he might have been rich; but he gave his time to his country.
His greatest services to his country, however, were as the defender of the Const.i.tution. Here he soared to the highest rank of political fame.
Here he was a statesman, having in view the interests of the whole country. He never was what we call a politician. He never was such a miserable creature as that. I mean a mere politician, whose calling is the meanest a man can follow, since it seeks only spoils, and is a perpetual deception, incompatible with all dignity and independence, whose only watchword is success.
Not such was Webster. He was too proud and too dignified for that form of degradation; and he perhaps sacrificed his popularity to his intellectual dignity, and the glorious consciousness of being a national benefactor,–as a real statesman seeks to be, and is, when he falls back on the elemental principles of justice and morality, like a late Premier of England, one of the most conscientious statesmen that ever controlled the destinies of a nation. Webster, like Burke, was haughty, austere, and brave; but such a man is not likely to remain the favorite of the people, who prefer an Alcibiades to a Cato, except in great crises, when they look to a man who can save them, and whom they can forget.
I cannot enumerate the magnificent bursts of eloquence which electrified the whole country when Webster stood out as the defender of the Const.i.tution, when he combated secession and defended the Union. How n.o.ble and gigantic he was when he answered the aspersions of the Southern orators,–great men as they were,–and elaborately showed that the Union meant something more than a league of sovereign States! The great leaders of secession were overthrown in a contest which they courted, and in which they expected victory. His reply to Hayne is, perhaps, the most masterly speech in American political history. It is one of the immortal orations of the world, extorting praise and admiration from Americans and foreigners alike. In his various encounters with Hayne, McDuffee, and Calhoun, he taught the principles of political union to the rising generation. He produced those convictions which sustained the North in its subsequent contest to preserve the integrity of the Nation. There can be no estimate of the services he rendered to the country by those grand and patriotic efforts. But for these, the people might have succ.u.mbed to the sophistries of Calhoun; for he was almost as great a giant as Webster, and was more faultless in his private life. He had an immense influence; he ruled the whole South; he made it solid. The speeches of Webster in the Senate made him the oracle of the North. He was not only the great champion of the North, and of Northern interests, but he was the teacher of the whole country. He expounded the principles of the Const.i.tution,–that this great country is one, to be forever united in all its parts; that its stars and stripes were to float over every city and fortress in the land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the river St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, and “bearing for their motto no such miserable interrogatory as, What are all these worth? nor those other words of delusion and folly, Liberty first and Union afterwards; but that other sentiment, dear to every American heart, Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
It was after his memorable speech in reply to Hayne that I saw Webster for the first time. I was a boy in college, and he had come to visit it; and well do I remember the unbounded admiration, yea, the veneration, felt for him by every young man in that college and throughout the town,–indeed, throughout the whole North, for he was the pride and glory of the land. It was then that they called him G.o.dlike, looking like an Olympian statue, or one of the creations of Michael Angelo when he wished to represent majesty and dignity and power in repose,–the most commanding human presence ever seen in the Capitol at Washington.
When we recall those patriotic and n.o.ble speeches which were read and admired by every merchant and farmer and lawyer in the country, and by which he produced great convictions and taught great lessons, we cannot but wonder why his glory was dimmed, and he was pulled down from his pedestal, and became no longer an idol. It is affirmed by many that it was his famous 7th of March speech which killed him, which disappointed his friends and alienated his const.i.tuents. I am therefore compelled to say something about that speech, and of his history at that time.
Mr. Webster was doubtless an ambitious man. He aspired to the presidency. And why not? It is and will be a great dignity, such as ought to be conferred on great ability and patriotism. Was he not able and patriotic? Had he not rendered great services? Was he not universally admired for his genius and experience and wisdom? Who was more prominent than he, among the statesmen of the country, or more thoroughly fitted to fulfil the duties of that high office? Was it not natural that he should have aspired to be one of the successors of Washington and Adams and Jefferson? He comprehended the honor and the dignity of that office. He did not seek it in order to divide its spoils, or to reward his friends; but he did wish to secure the highest prize that could be won by political services; he did desire to receive the highest honor in the gift of the people, even as Cicero sought the consulate at Rome; he did believe himself capable of representing the country in its most exacting position. It is nothing against a man that he is ambitious, provided his ambition is lofty. Most of the ill.u.s.trious men of history have been ambitious,–Cromwell, Pitt, Thiers, Guizot, Bismarck,–but ambitious to be useful to their country, as well as to receive its highest rewards. Webster failed to reach the position he desired, because of his enemies, and, possibly, from jealousy of his towering height,–just as Clay failed, and Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton, and Stephen Douglas, and William H. Seward. The politicians, who control the people, prefer men in the presidential chair whom they think they can manage and use, not those to whom they will be forced to succ.u.mb. Webster was not a man to be controlled or used, and so the politicians rejected him. This he deeply felt, and even resented. His failure saddened his latter days and embittered his soul, although he was too proud to make loud complaints.
I grant he did not here show magnanimity. He thought that the presidency should be given to the ablest and most experienced statesman. He did not appear to see that this proud position is too commanding to be bestowed except for the most exalted services, and such services as attract the common eye, especially in war. Presidents in so great a country as this reign, like the old feudal kings, by the grace of G.o.d. They are selected by divine Providence, as David was from the sheepfold. No American, however great his genius, except the successful warrior, can ever hope to climb to this dizzy height, unless personal ambition is lost sight of in public services. This is wisely ordered, to defeat unscrupulous ambition. It is only in England that a man can rise to supreme power by force of genius, since he is selected virtually by his peers, and not by the popular voice. He who leads Parliament is the real king of England for the time, since Parliament is omnipotent. Had Webster been an Englishman, and as powerful in the House of Commons as he was in Congress at one time, he might have been prime minister. But he could not be president of the United States, although the presidential power is much inferior to that exercised by an English premier. It is the dignity of the office, not its power, which const.i.tutes the value of the presidency. And Webster loved dignity even more than power.
In order to arrive at this coveted office,–although its duties probably would have been irksome,–it is possible that he sought to conciliate the South and win the favor of Southern leaders. But I do not believe he ever sought to win their favor by any abandonment of his former principles, or by any treachery to the cause he had espoused. Yet it is this of which he has been accused by his enemies,–many of those enemies his former friends. The real cause of this estrangement, and of all the accusations against him, was this,–he did not sympathize with the Abolition party; he was not prepared to embark in a crusade against slavery, the basal inst.i.tution of the South. He did not like slavery; but he knew it to be an inst.i.tution which the Const.i.tution, of which he was the great defender, had accepted,–accepted as a compromise, in those dark days which tried men’s souls. Many of the famous statesmen who deliberated in that venerated hall in Philadelphia also disliked and detested slavery; but they could not have had a const.i.tution, they could not have had a united country, unless that inst.i.tution was acknowledged and guaranteed. So they accepted it as the lesser evil. They made a compromise, and the Const.i.tution was signed. Now, everybody knows that the Abolitionists of the North, about the year 1833, attacked slavery, although it was guaranteed by the Const.i.tution; attacked it, not as an evil merely, but as a sin; attacked it, by virtue of a higher law than const.i.tutional provision. And as an evil, as a stain on our country, as an insult to the virtue and intelligence of the age, as a crime against humanity, these people of the North declared that slavery ought to be swept away. Mr. Webster, as well as Mr. Fillmore, Mr. Lincoln, Mr.
Everett, and many other acknowledged patriots, was for letting slavery alone, as an evil too great to be removed without war; which, moreover, could not be removed without an infringement on what the South considered as its rights. He was for conciliation, in order to preserve the Const.i.tution as well as the Union. The Abolitionists were violent in their denunciations. And although it took many years to permeate the North with their leaven, they were in earnest; and under persecutions and mobs and ostracism and contempt they persevered until they created a terrible public opinion. The South had early taken the alarm, and in order to protect their peculiar and favorite inst.i.tution, had at various times attempted to extend it into newly acquired territories where it did not exist, claiming the protection of the Const.i.tution. Mr. Webster was one of their foremost opponents in this, contesting their right to do it under the Const.i.tution. But in 1848 the Antislavery opinion at the North crystallized in a political organization,–the Free-Soil Party; and on the other hand the South proposed to abrogate the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as an offset to the admission of California as a free State, and at the same time asked in further concession the pa.s.sage of the Fugitive Slave Bill; and, in antic.i.p.ation of failing to get these, threatened secession, which of course meant war.
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