In 1820, the year Maine became a state, the Pilgrim Society celebrated the bicentennial of the Mayflower’s arrival. Daniel Webster, the country’s foremost orator and lawyer, addressed the assembled crowd at Plymouth Massachusetts.

As part of his almost-two-hour speech, Webster explored the history of the English settlement and thundered against slavery. Harvard languages professor George Ticknor reported: “I never was so excited by public speaking before in my life. Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the gust of blood. … When I came out I was almost afraid to come over to him. It seemed to me as if he was like the mount that might not be touched, and that burned with fire.”

Former President John Adams predicted: “This oration will be read 500 years hence with as much rapture as it was heard.”

But 200 years later, Adams’ prediction has not come true. Webster, a statesman whose speeches inspired a young Abraham Lincoln, has become something of an obscure historical figure. Today he’s best remembered, not always fondly, for compromises he helped forge that kept the slave states in the Union in the years before the Civil War – deals he struck despite the belief he expressed in an 1830 Senate speech that Lincoln called “the grandest specimen of American oratory,” namely, that slavery was “one of the greatest evils, both moral and political.”

In his day, he was a political giant at the center of momentous events. He was also a New Englander, who as a lawyer and diplomat made a mark on Maine.

Webster was born in New Hampshire in 1782. After graduating from Dartmouth, he taught at Maine’s Fryeburg Academy from January to September 1802 and copied deeds in the County Register’s office to earn extra money. At age 20, he gave Fryeburg’s Independence Day oration. In 1804 at age 22, Daniel and his brother Ezekiel contemplated Bangor for law practice. According to Webster’s account to a Bangor crowd 31 years later, there was no railroad or public transportation within 50 miles of the city in 1804, and the Webster brothers crossed the Kenduskeag Stream on “floating logs.” They decided Bangor was not yet a good prospect for law practice. Instead, Daniel Webster practiced law in Portsmouth and later in Boston.

But Webster litigated several cases in Maine. Some of them involved Gen. Samuel Veazie, whom Maine author Bill Caldwell called “one of the first Bangor lumber millionaires.” Veazie “wound up owning fifty-two sawmills, more than any other man in Maine. ‘Land’s all right and pine’s all right,’ said Veazie. ‘But it’s the sawmills that make the money.’” When Veazie sued his principal competitor, Ira Wadleigh, over title to sawmill property, shore and water rights on the Penobscot River at Old Town, Wadleigh retained Webster to represent him.

In 1835, Webster went to Bangor to prepare the case. At the time, he aspired to be president, and he agreed to give a dinner speech in the hall of the Bangor House. Because the demand for attendance was too large, he used the hotel balcony to address a crowd of “thousands” outside. The speech, later published, spoke strongly in defense of the Union, the Constitution and civil liberty. Webster’s closing line is memorable even today: “Civil Liberty: Its only security is in Constitutional restraint on political power.”

Together with other lawyers, Webster tried the Veazie lawsuit in 1836 in the beautiful state courthouse in Wiscasset still used today. Among others opposing Webster was William Pitt Fessenden, later senator from Maine and President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. Webster was a lifelong friend of Fessenden’s father, the abolitionist Portland lawyer Gen. Samuel Fessenden, and Webster was the younger man’s godfather. The two opponents are said to have shared a dinner of steamed clams during the trial. History does not record whether Webster followed his Boston custom memorialized in Union Oyster House history: “Daniel Webster, a constant customer, daily drank his tall tumbler of brandy and water with each half-dozen oysters, seldom having less than six plates.”

The two judges presiding over the Veazie case could not agree, and under the rules then in effect the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Gen. Veazie decided not to pursue the matter, Justice Story wrote the Supreme Court opinion in 1837 dismissing the case—over Webster’s objection whose client wanted the title issues decided on the merits.

As the country’s 14th  Secretary of State, from 1841-1843 under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, Webster negotiated the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, settling the border between Maine and New Brunswick. This followed the bloodless Aroostook War (when Fort Kent and Fort Fairfield were erected), the last serious confrontation between the United States and the Great Britain. Both sides had secret historical maps that supported the other party’s position; Webster used a propaganda campaign to persuade Mainers to compromise. In the end, Maine got the larger part of the disputed area while the British secured an important transportation connection between Canada and New Brunswick for military and commercial purposes.

Meanwhile, Maine sawmill competitors Veazie and Wadleigh were destined for more disputes. Both bid at a Bangor auction for mill privileges on Old Town Falls in Orono. Wadleigh told the auctioneer in advance that he would bid no higher than $20,000; an agent bid for Veazie. The auctioneer pretended to receive competitive bids well beyond $20,000 and ultimately sold the mill privileges to Veazie’s agent for $40,000. When Veazie learned what had happened, he sued the sellers to recover the excess price he had paid. This time Veazie hired Webster. Once again, the two presiding judges could not agree, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. There Webster, now joined by Fessenden, persuaded the Supreme Court in 1850 to find in Veazie’s favor.

In 1850, turmoil in the country reached new heights. Slave and free states disagreed fiercely over the status of territory acquired in the Mexican-American War, and many believed the Union was in peril. The South threatened secession and dissolution of the Union. Senator Henry Clay, author of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that made Maine a free state, proposed a plan to preserve the Union by combining a number of measures as a compromise between slave and free interests, among them strengthening the notorious Fugitive Slave Act and creating new territories (Utah and New Mexico) whose inhabitants would determine whether they were slave or free. Preserving the Union was Webster’s lifelong pursuit, and Clay successfully sought Webster’s support for the compromise.

On March 7, 1850, Webster made his most controversial speech ever in the Senate. In what came to be known as the “Seventh of March” speech he began as follows: “I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States.” When New England abolitionists learned of Webster’s agreement to the compromise, they felt betrayed. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “’Liberty! Liberty!’ Pho! Let Mr. Webster for decency’s sake shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word ‘Liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.” Emerson called the Fugitive Slave Act a “filthy enactment.” John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem “Ichabod” whose opening stanza describes Webster as “So fallen! So lost! The light withdrawn Which once he wore! The glory from his gray hairs gone Forevermore!” Senator (later President) John F. Kennedy wrote in his 1956 book Profiles in Courage: “It was because Daniel Webster conscientiously favored compromise in 1850 that he earned a condemnation unsurpassed in the annals of political history.” Ultimately, the Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union for a few more years—according to Kennedy, “due in great part to Daniel Webster”—but at the extraordinary cost of perpetuating slavery and enforcing the infamous Fugitive Slave Act.

Later in 1850, Webster left the Senate for the last time to become the 19th Secretary of State under President Fillmore. He died in 1852, prompting great mourning in New England. The City of Portland called a public meeting at City Hall and commissioned Bowdoin College President Dr. Leonard Woods to deliver a public eulogy. Despite the bitter comments two years earlier, Emerson wrote in his journal that “America and the world had lost the completest man. Nature had not in our day or not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece. …He was a statesman, and not the semblance of one. … But alas! He was the victim of his ambition; to please the South betrayed the North, and was thrown out by both.”

Webster argued 168 cases in the United States Supreme Court, and won many well-known constitutional decisions—for example, the Dartmouth College case upholding Dartmouth’s charter against the intervention of the New Hampshire legislature (famously telling Chief Justice Marshall at the end of his argument, “Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!”); McCulloch v. Maryland (defining the scope of Congress’s power and the relationship between the federal government and the states); Gibbons v. Ogden (articulating Congress’s expansive power under the interstate commerce clause). Webster’s reputation as an advocate achieved mythical proportions after his death. Stephen Vincent Benet published “The Devil and Daniel Webster” in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936. In the tale, New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone sells his soul to the devil for seven years’ prosperity. When the devil comes to collect his due, Webster successfully defends Stone before a jury of miscreants from American history and kicks the devil out of Stone’s house, never to return. According to President Clinton’s Solicitor General Seth Waxman (2001): “In the realm of advocacy, Webster doesn’t merely sit in the Pantheon: He is Zeus himself.”

But like so many of this country’s famous men, Webster left a tarnished legacy. His personal habits were questionable—spending beyond his means, borrowing frequently without repayment, and excess in food and drink. The long arc of history makes us recognize now that the English settlement he celebrated at Plymouth in 1820 resulted in unspeakable violence and mistreatment of the region’s Native Americans. And Webster’s willingness to tolerate slavery to preserve the Union was his own pact with the devil, an account still waiting to be settled.

— Special to the Telegram


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