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Election to Congress from Boston. — State of Parties. — Meeting of the Eighteenth Congress. — Mr. Webster's Resolution and Speech in favor of the Greeks. — Argument in the Supreme Court in the Case of Gibbons and Ogden. — Circumstances under which it was made. — Speech on the Tariff Law of 1824. — A complete Revision of the Law for the Punishment of Crimes against the United States reported by Mr. Webster, and enacted. — The Election of Mr. Adams as President of the United States. — Meeting of the Nineteenth Congress, and State of Parties. — Congress of Panama, and Mr. Webster's Speech on that Subject. —Election as a Senator of the United States. — Revision of the Tariff Law by the Twentieth Congress.— Embarrassments of the Question. — Mr. Webster's Course and Speech on this Subject.
In the autumn of 1822, Mr. Webster consented to be a candidate for Congress for the city (then town) of Boston, and was chosen by a very large majority over his opponent, Mr. Jesse Putnam. The former party distinctions, as has been already 'observed, had nearly lost their significance in Massachusetts, as in some other parts of the country. As a necessary, or at least a natural consequence of this state of things, four candidates had already been brought forward for the Presidential election of November, 1824; namely, Mr. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, Mr. Clay of Kentucky, General Jackson of Tennessee, and Mr. Crawford of Georgia. Mr. Calhoun of South Carolina and Mr. Lowndes of the same State had also both been nominated by then: friends at an early period of the canvass; but the latter was soon removed by death, and Mr. Calhoun withdrew his pretensions in favor of General Jackson. All the candidates named had either originally belonged to the old Democratic party (or Republican party as it was then more usually called), or had for many years attached themselves to it; but no one of them was supported on that ground. Mr. Crawford alone had attempted to avail himself of the ancient party machinery, so far as to accept a nomination by a Congressional caucus of his friends. They formed, however, but a minority of the Republican members of Congress, and the signal failure of the nomination contributed to the final abandonment of that mode of procedure. No Presidential candidate has since been nominated by a Congressional caucus. In the canvass of 1824, it was the main effort of the friends of all the candidates, by holding out the prospect of a liberal basis of administration, to draw to themselves as many as possible of the old Federal party. In Massachusetts, and generally in New England, the fusion of parties was complete, and Mr. Adams received their united support. In the Middle States the union was less perfect, and the votes of a large proportion of the old Federal party were given to General Jackson and Mr. Crawford.
The Congressional elections in Massachusetts are held a year in advance. It was not till December, 1823, that Mr. Webster took his seat as a member of the Eighteenth Congress. It has rarely happened to an individual, by engaging in public life, to make an equal sacrifice of personal interest. Born to an inheritance of poverty, struggling through youth and early manhood against all the difficulties of straitened means and a narrow sphere, he had risen above them all, and was now in an advantageous position, at the height of his reputation, receiving as great a professional income as any lawyer in the United States, and rapidly laying the foundation of an ample independence. All this was to be put at risk for the hazardous uncertainties, and the scarcely less hazardous certainties, of public life. It was not till after repeated refusals of a nomination to both houses of Congress, that Mr. Webster was at last called upon, in a manner which seemed to him imperative, to make the great sacrifice. In fact, it may truly be said, that, to an individual of his commanding talent and familiarity with political affairs, and consequent ability to take a lead in the public business, the question whether he shall do so is hardly submitted to his option. It is one of the great privileges of second-rate men, that they are permitted in some degree to follow the bent of their inclinations. It was the main inducement of Mr. Webster in returning to political life, that the cessation of the coarse conflicts of party warfare seemed to hold out some hope that statesmanship of a higher order, an impartial study of the great interests of the country, and a policy aiming to promote the development of its vast natural resources, might be called into action.
Although the domestic politics of the United States were in a condition of repose, the politics of Europe at this time were disturbed and anxious. Revolutions had within a few years broken out in Naples, Piedmont, and Spain; while in Greece a highly interesting struggle was in progress, between the ChrisVol. i. g
tian population of that country and the government of their Ottoman oppressors. At an early period of this contest, it had attracted much notice in the United States. A correspondence had been opened between an accredited committee of the Grecian patriots sitting at Paris, with the celebrated Koray at their head, and friends of the cause of Greece in this country;* and a formal appeal had been made to the people of the United States, by the Messenian Senate of Kalamata, the first revolutionary congress which assembled in Greece. President Monroe, both in his annual message of December, 1822, arid in that of 1823, had expressed respect and sympathy for their cause. The attention of Congress being thus called to the subject, Mr. Webster thought it a favorable opportunity to speak an emphatic word, from a quarter whence it would be respected, in favor Oi those principles of rational liberty and enlightened progress which were seeking to extend themselves in Europe. As the great strength of the Grecian patriots was to be derived, not from the aid of the governments of Christendom, but from the public opinion and the sympathy of the civilized world, he felt that they had a peculiar right to expect some demonstration of friendly feeling from the only powerful republican state. He was also evidently willing to embrace the opportunity of entering an American protest against the doctrines which had been promulgated in the manifestoes of the recent congresses of the European sovereigns.
Till the administration of Mr. Jefferson, it had been the custom of the two houses to return answers to the annual messages of the President . These answers furnished Congress with the means of responding to the executive suggestions. As much time was often consumed in debating these answers, (a consumption of time not directly leading to any legislative result,) and as differences in opinion between Congress and the executive, if they existed, were thus prematurely developed, it was thought a matter of convenience, when Mr. Jefferson came into power, to depart from the usage. But though attended with evils, it had its advantages. The opportunity of general political debate, under a government like ours, if not furnished, will be taken. The constituencies look to their representatives to discuss pub
* See North American Review, Vol. XVII. p. 414.
lie questions. It will perhaps be found, on comparing the proceedings of Congress at the present day with what they were fifty years ago, that, although the general debate on the answer to the President's message has been retrenched, there is in the course of the session quite as much discussion of topics incidentally brought in, and often to the serious obstruction of the public business, at the advanced stages of the session.
Whatever may be thought of this as a general principle, President Monroe, as we have seen, having in two successive annual messages called the attention of Congress to this subject, Mr. Webster, by way of response to these allusions, at an early period of the session offered the following resolution in the House of Representatives: —
"Resolved, That provision ought to be made by law for defraying the expense incident to the appointment of an agent or commissioner to Greece, whenever the President shall deem it expedient to make such appointment."
His speech in support of this resolution was delivered on the 19th of January, 1824, in the presence of an immense audience, brought together by the interesting nature of the subject and by the fame of the speaker, now returned, after six years' absen.ce, to the field where he had gathered early laurels, and to which he had now come back with greatly augmented reputation. The public expectation was highly excited; and it is but little to say, that it was entirely fulfilled. The speech was conceived and executed with rare felicity; and was as remarkable for what it did not, as for what it did contain. To a subject on which it was almost impossible to avoid a certain strain of classical sentiment, Mr. Webster brought a chastened taste and a severe logic. He indulged in no ad captandum reference to the topics which lay most obviously in his way. A single allusion to Greece, as the mistress of the world in letters and arts, found an appropriate place in the exordium. But he neither rhapsodized about the ancients, nor denounced the Turks, nor overflowed with Americanism. He treated, in a statesmanlike manner, what he justly called "the great political question of the age," the question "between absolute and regulated governments," and the duty of the United States on fitting occasions to let their voice be heard on this question. He concisely reviewed the doctrines of the Continental sovereigns, as set forth in what has been called "the Holy Alliance," and in the manifestoes of several successive congresses. He pointed out the inconsistency of these principles with those of self-government and national independence, and the duty of the United States to declare their sentiments in support of the latter. He showed that such a declaration was inconsistent with no principle of public law, and forbidden by no prudential consideration. He briefly sketched the history of the Greek revolution; and having shown that his proposal was a pacific measure, both as regards the Turkish government and the European allies, he took leave of the subject with a few manly words of sympathy for the Greeks.
He was supported by several leading members of the House,— by Mr. Clay, Mr. Stevenson of Virginia, afterwards Speaker of the House and Minister to England, and by General Houston of Tennessee; but the subject lay too far beyond the ordinary range of legislation; it gained no strength from the calculations of any of the Presidential candidates; it enlisted none of the great local interests of the country; and it was not of a nature to be pushed against opposition or indifference. It was probably with little or no expectation of carrying it, that the resolution was moved by Mr. Webster. His object was gained in the opportunity of expressing himself upon the great political question of the day. His words of encouragement were soon read in every capital and at every court of Europe, and in every Continental language; they were received with grateful emotion in Greece. At home the speech fully sustained Mr. Webster's reputation, not merely for parliamentary talent, but for an acquaintance with general politics, which few public men in the United States give themselves the trouble to acquire, — even among those who are selected to represent the country abroad. In a letter from Mr. Jeremiah Mason, a person whose judgment on a matter of this kind was entitled to as much respect as that of any man in the community, this speech is pronounced "the best sample of parliamentary eloquence and statesmanlike reasoning which our country can show."
It was during this session, that Mr. Webster made his great argument in the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Gibbons and Ogden, to which we have already alluded. It