Imágenes de páginas


[Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, N.H., Jan. 18, 1782. He was graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, was admitted to the bar in 1805, and soon became prominent as an advocate and as an orator. He was elected to the lower house of Congress for the first time in 1813, and again in 1815 and 1823. In 1827 he entered the Senate, serving there until President Harrison appointed him Secretary of State in 1841. Resigning in 1843, after concluding the important Ashburton Treaty with England, he re-entered the Senate in 1845. In 1850, he was once more appointed Secretary of State by President Fillmore. He died at his home in Marshfield, Mass., Oct. 24, 1852. The standard edition of his works, the text of which is followed in this volume, is that of 1851. The best biography is that by George Ticknor Curtis.

DANIEL WEBSTER was beyond all question the greatest of American orators; in the opinion of many students of oratorical style, he pronounced at least one oration that surpasses any other recorded specimen of human eloquence. He was, indeed, peculiarly and uniquely fortunate both in his natural gifts and in the circumstances of his remarkable career. There have been orators like Burke, whose elocution was noble in diction and weighty in thought, yet whose impressiveness was marred by the speaker's own physical insignificance or by an imperfect delivery; there have been still others who, like Henry Clay, produced upon their immediate hearers an effect that was almost wholly due to charm of utterance and of manner; but very seldom has it been given to any one to unite, in perfect balance and proportion, the physical, the intellectual, and the emotional attributes that raise their possessor to the rank of a great master of eloquence.

Webster, however, had all the natural gifts and all the acquired graces that go to the endowment of the ideal orator. A man of stately presence, and with a face indicative of extraordinary power, his manner was at once easy and unaffected, yet stately and majestic. His intellectual gifts were no less striking, - a marvellous memory richly stored with facts and illustrations

drawn from a large experience and the widest reading, a keenly active, vigorous, and logical mind that pierced through the outer shell of any question and touched at once its very core, an unfailing fund of common sense and perfect reasonableness, a tact and taste that never made rhetorical mistakes nor allowed him for a moment to go too far, and finally a persuasive human sympathy that imparted to his stateliest and most massive utterances a warmth and glow and color such as vivified them and made them speak to the emotions as well as to the intellect. His voice was wonderful in its range and quality. It carried his lightest words with perfect ease to the farthest limits of the vast audiences that heard him, and it had at once an exquisite beauty of tone and a sonorous organ-quality that, in the supreme moments of his oratory, was instinct with an indescribably thrilling power.

Webster was no less fortunate in the time and circumstances of his remarkable career. The period of our national history extending from the close of the War of 1812 to the year of his death was a period when the most vital issues were flung into the political arena. These issues involved the broadest questions of constitutional interpretation, and they touched alike the popular heart and the chords of conscience; so that both intellect and sentiment were aroused by their discussion, and the whole nation watched with the intensest eagerness the forensic battle that sprang out of them. The Senate of the United States was for forty years a battle-ground toward which every eye was turned to note each phase of the struggle and to judge each combatant; and hence all who contended there did so with a knowledge that whether they achieved success or failure the result would at once be recognized by their countrymen. And this knowledge, coupled with the importance of the issues that were at stake, made it inevitable that the very ablest statesmen, the foremost orators, and the most acute debaters should be pitted there against each other. Here again was Webster fortunate ; for under different conditions the natural indolence of his temperament might never have been wholly cast aside, but might have been allowed to obscure and leave untested the tremendous powers that were slumbering beneath it. With antagonists whose intellectual gifts were almost equal to his own, and with the ardor of emulation always intensely

stimulated, Webster was compelled to put forth every atom of his strength. He was throughout his whole senatorial career a giant roused to conflict, a champion always fully armed and ready at any moment to meet all challengers and give instant battle for the cause that he had made his own.

But most of all was Webster fortunate in the cause itself. Entering the Senate at a time when the momentous struggle was beginning between those who viewed the State as a federation of independent sovereignties linked together for purposes of expediency alone, and those who regarded it as a united nation whose constituent parts had been welded together into an imperishable unity, it was with the latter that Webster ranged himself at once, and he at once became their acknowledged chief. Therefore, throughout the rest of his career he stood forth as the unflinching champion of the national ideal, one whose every utterance appealed in some way to the pride of nationality and to the desire of the people to be great and strong and magnificent; and he pictured this ideal in such splendid colors, and he made it seem so real, so stately, and so glorious that in the end the majority of his countrymen accepted it as their own and held to it unflinchingly when at the last it had to stand the final test of war.

Webster's style had about it always something Roman in its spirit and expression. It was always strong and stately, always noble and majestic, always virile and intensely masterful. Yet there was no heaviness about it, as there was about the style of Benton; his thought flashed through it all with a certain lithe alertness that is seldoin joined to so much pomp and pageantry. Technically described in the language of ancient rhetorical criticism, it was a perfect example of the “Rhodian” style, — the middle style, as distinguished from the florid “ Asiatic” manner of orators like Legaré and Thomas Corwin, and from the Attic simplicity of his lifelong antagonist Calhoun. The closest parallel to it is to be found in the oratory of Cicero. Its rhetoric is as perfect in its choice of phrase, in its marshalling of the sentences, in the rhythmical swing of its cadences, and in the beauty and exquisite fitness of its imagery. Yet it is far superior to Cicero's in this, that we are never conscious in Webster of that combination of weakness and insincerity, of pose and special pleading which the

[ocr errors]

Ciceronian oratory exhibits, nor of the cheap facility of the trained advocate, who can argue with equal plausibility on any side of every question. Webster was always intensely in earnest; the note of perfect conviction dominates his utterances; and there is an undercurrent of the passion that stirs the blood and gives enduring vitality to the words and thoughts of the inspired orator.

The Websterian style, whether it be studied in the legal or in the forensic oratory of its master, or in his formal correspondence, will be found to show at all times the same essential characteristics, though with modifications to suit the occasion or the personality of his auditors. In his legal oratory he is simpler and more direct than elsewhere ; in his great senatorial speeches he is more rhetorical and splendid ; in his correspondence he is more terse and pointed; yet he is always Roman.

The grandest and most magnificent of all his orations is the celebrated reply to Hayne, which was pronounced at the climax of a great national debate, on an occasion of intense dramatic interest, and under circumstances which suggest a gladiatorial combat, with the whole nation as spectators. Of this oration no words can exaggerate the importance or the power. It is indeed, to borrow a phrase of Quintilian, less a creation of eloquence than the very voice of eloquence itself. Every quality of the born orator is seen in it the art of arrangement, the symmetrical development of the central thought, the effective marshalling of facts, the grace of diction, the beauty of imagery, and, in the grand peroration, the whole power and sustained magnificence of a great imaginative intellect aflame with passion, yet conscious of its own irresistible strength, so that it does not hurry, but sweeps along with an ever-increasing impetus, until it carries all before it, and ends in a burst of stirring music that is overwhelming in its sublimity and splendor. This oration must stand as the supreme example of successful oratory, since its words are as thrilling to-day as at the very moment when they were first spoken; and from that moment they became a living power in our political life ; for, declaimed by every schoolboy throughout the land, they sank down deep into the national consciousness, and thus in the end profoundly influenced the whole future of our national history.



And now, let us indulge an honest exultation in the conviction of the benefit which the example of our country has produced, and is likely to produce, on human freedom and human happiness. Let us endeavor to comprehend in all its magnitude, and to feel in all its importance, the part assigned to us in the great drama of human affairs. We are placed at the head of the system of representative and popular governments. Thus far our example shows that such governments are compatible, not only with respectability and power, but with repose, with peace, with security of personal rights, with good laws, and a just administration.

We are not propagandists. Wherever other systems are preferred, either as being thought better in themselves, or as better suited to existing condition, we leave the preference to be enjoyed. Our history hitherto proves, however, that the popular form is practicable, and that with wisdom and knowledge men may govern themselves; and the duty incumbent on us is, to preserve the consistency of this cheering example, and take care that nothing may weaken its authority with the world. If, in our case, the representative system ultimately fail, popular governments must be pronounced impossible. No combination of circumstances more favorable to the experiment can ever be expected to occur. The last hopes of mankind, therefore, rest with us; and if it should be proclaimed, that our example had become an argument against the experiment, the knell of popular liberty would be sounded throughout the earth.

These are excitements to duty ; but they are not suggestions of doubt. Our history and our condition, all that is gone before us, and all that surrounds us, authorize the belief, that popular governments, though subject to occasional variations, in form perhaps not always for the better, may yet, in their general character, be as durable and permanent as other systems.

We know, indeed, that in our country any other is impossible. The principle of free governments adheres to the American soil. It is bedded in it, immovable as its mountains.

And let the sacred obligations which have devolved on this

« AnteriorContinuar »