« PreviousContinue »
though exclusively devoted to his profession, it afforded him no more than a bare livelihood.
But the time for which he practised at the New Hampshire bar was probably not lost with reference to his future professional and political eminence. His own standard of legal attainment was high. He was associated with professional brethren fully competent to put his powers to their best proof, and to prevent him from settling down in early life into an easy routine of ordinary professional practice. It was no disadvantage, under these circumstances, (except in reference to immediate pecuniary benefit,) to enjoy some portion of that leisure for general reading, which is almost wholly denied to the lawyer of commanding talents, who steps immediately into full practice in a large city.
Entrance on Public Life. — State of Parties in 1812. — Election to Congress. — Extra Session of 1813. — Foreign Relations of the Country. — Resolutions relative to the Berlin and Milan Decrees. — Naval Defence. — Reflected to Congress in 1814.— Peace with England.—Projects for a National Bank. — Mr. Webster's Course on that Question. — Battle of New Orleans. — New Questions arising on the Return of Peace. — Course of Prominent Men of Different Parties. — Mr. Webster's Opinions on the Constitutionality of the Tariff Policy. — The Resolution to restore Specie Payments moved by Mr. Webster. — Removal to Boston.
Mr. Webster had hitherto taken less interest in politics than has been usual with the young men of talent, at least with the young lawyers, of America. In fact, at the time to which the preceding narrative refers, the politics of the country were in such a state, that there was scarce any course which could be pursued with entire satisfaction by a patriotic young man sagacious enough to penetrate behind mere party names, and to view public questions in their true light'. Party spirit ran high; errors had been committed by ardent men on both sides; and extreme opinions had been advanced on most questions, which no wise and well-informed person at the present day would probably be willing to espouse. The United States, although not actually drawn to any great depth into the vortex of the French Revolution, were powerfully affected by it. The deadly struggle of the two great European belligerents, in which the neutral rights of this country were grossly violated by both, gave a complexion to our domestic politics. A change of administration, mainly resulting from difference of opinion in respect to our foreign relations, had taken place in 1801. If we may consider President Jefferson's inaugural address as the indication of the principles on which he intended to conduct his administration, it was his purpose to take a new departure, and to disregard the former party divisions. "We have," said he, in that eloquent state paper, "called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists."
At the time these significant expressions were uttered, Mr. Webster, at the age of nineteen, was just leaving college and preparing to embark on the voyage of life. . A sentiment so liberal was not only in accordance with the generous temper of youth, but highly congenial with the spirit of enlarged patriotism which has ever guided his public course. There is certainly no individual who has filled a prominent place in our political history who has shown himself more devoted to principle and less to party. While no man has clung with greater tenacity to the friendships which spring from agreement in political opinion (the idem sentire de republica), no man has been less disposed to find in these associations an instrument of monopoly or exclusion in favor of individuals, interests, or sections of the country.
But however catholic may have been the intentions and wishes of Mr. Jefferson, events both at home and abroad were too strong for him, and defeated that policy of blending the great parties into one, which has always been a favorite, perhaps we must add, a visionary project, with statesmen of elevated and generous characters. The aggressions of the belligerents on our neutral commerce still continued, and, by the joint effect of the Berlin and Milan Decrees and the Orders in Council, it was all but swept from the ocean. In this state of things two courses were open to the United States, as a growing neutral power: one, that of prompt resistance to the aggressive policy of the belligerents; the other, that which was called "the restrictive system," which consisted in an embargo on our own vessels, with a view to withdraw them from the grasp of foreign cruisers, and in laws inhibiting commercial intercourse with England and France. There was a division of opinion in the cabinet of Mr. Jefferson and in the country at large. The latter policy was finally adopted. It fell in with the general views of Mr. Jefferson against committing the country to the risks of foreign war. His administration was also strongly pledged to retrenchment and economy, in the pursuit of which a portion of our little navy had been brought to the hammer, and a species of shore defence substituted, which can now be thought of only with mortification and astonishment.
Although the discipline of party was sufficiently strong to cause this system of measures to be adopted and pursued for years, it was never cordially approved by the people of the United States of any party. Leading Republicans both at the South and at the North denounced it. With Mr. Jefferson's retirement from office it fell rapidly into disrepute. It continued, however, to form the basis of our party divisions till the war of 1812. In these divisions, as has been intimated, both parties were in a false position; the one supporting and forcing upon the country a system of measures not cordially approved, even by themselves; the other, a powerless minority, zealously opposing those measures, but liable for that reason to be thought backward in asserting the neutral rights of the country. A few men of well-balanced minds, true patriotism, and sound statesmanship, in all sections of the country, were able to unite fidelity to their party associations with a comprehensive view to the good of the country. Among these, mature beyond his years, was Mr. Webster. As early as 1806 he had, in a public oration, presented an impartial view of the foreign relations of the country in reference to both belligerents, of the importance of our commercial interests and the duty of protecting them. "Nothing is plainer," said he, "than this: if we will have commerce, we must protect it. This country is commercial as well as agricultural. Indissoluble bonds connect him who ploughs the land with him who ploughs the sea. Nature has placed us in a situation favorable to commercial pursuits, and no government can alter the destination. Habits confirmed by two centuries are not to be changed. An immense portion of our property is on the waves. Sixty or eighty thousand of our most useful citizens are there, and are entitled to such protection from the government as their case requires."
At length the foreign belligerents themselves perceived the folly and injustice of their measures. In the strife which should inflict the greatest injury on the other, they had paralyzed the commerce of the world and embittered the minds of all the neutral powers. The Berlin and Milan Decrees were revoked, but in a manner so unsatisfactory as in a great degree to impair the pacific tendency of the measure. The Orders in Council were also rescinded in the summer of 1812. War, however, justly provoked by each and both of the parties, had meantime been declared by Congress against England, and active hostilities had been commenced on the frontier. At the elections next ensuing, Mr. Webster was brought forward as a candidate for Congress of the Federal party of that day, and, having been chosen in the month of November, 1812, he took his seat at the first session of the Thirteenth Congress, which was an extra session called in May, 1813. Although his course of life hitherto had been in what may be called a provincial sphere, and he had never been a member even of the legislature of his native State, a presentiment of his ability seems to have gone before him to Washington. He was, in the organization of the House, placed by Mr. Clay, its Speaker, upon the Committee of Foreign Affairs, a select committee at that time, and of necessity the leading committee in a state of war.
There were many men of uncommon ability in the Thirteenth Congress. Rarely has so much talent been found at any one time in the House of Representatives. It contained Clay, Calhoun, Lowndes, Pickering, Gaston, Forsyth, in the front rank; Macon, Benson, J. W. Taylor, Oakley, Grundy, Grosvenor, W. R. King, Kent of Maryland, C. J. Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, Pitkin of Connecticut, and others of scarcely inferior note. Although among the youngest and least experienced members of the body, Mr. Webster rose, from the first, to a position of undisputed equality with the most distinguished. The times were critical. The immediate business to be attended to was the financial and military conduct of the war, a subject of difficulty and importance. The position of Mr. Webster was not such as to require or permit him to take a lead; but it was his steady aim, without the sacrifice of his principles, to pursue such a course as would tend most effectually to extricate the country from the embarrassments of her present position, and to lead to peace upon honorable terms.
As the repeal of the Orders in Council was nearly simultaneous with the declaration of war, the delay of a few weeks might have led to an amicable adjustment. Whatever regret on the score of humanity this circumstance may now inspire, the war must be looked upon, in reviewing the past, as a great chapter in the progress of the country, which could not be passed over. When we reflect on the influence of the conflict, in its general results, upon the national character; its importance as a demonstration to the belligerent powers of the world that the rights of neutrals must be respected; and more especially, when we consider the position among the nations of the earth which the United States have been enabled to take, in consequence of the capacity for naval achievement which the war displayed,