HOW THE "FARMER OF MARSHFIELD" SAVED THE
One memorable day in the year 1788,—the year in
which Massachusetts ratified the Constitution,—a small boy of six, in
the little New Hampshire village of Salisbury, made an important
purchase. It was a cheap pocket handkerchief, upon which was printed, as
was one of the customs years ago, the Constitution of the United States.
And that small boy of six read and re-read that Constitution on his
handkerchief until he knew it by heart.
Forty-two years later, in the Capitol at Washington,
a very grand and impressive-looking man—the senator from Massachusetts—delivered
a speech about the Constitution that electrified the world, made his
name famous, and Saved the Union.
That small boy and that masterly man were one and the
same person. His name was Daniel Webster; and from the purchase of that
decorated handkerchief came, in time, the salvation of the Union.
For " Webster’s
boy," as every one in Salisbury called young Daniel Webster, had
early learned to study and to revere the Constitution that kept unbroken
the Union which was dearer to him than life. And when, in 1830, the
clouds gathered, and the action of South Carolina
threatened to weaken the Union or throw the States
into civil war, when men were uncertain how far the Constitution might
permit resistance to the central authority, or how sternly it could
compel obedience to the will of the republic, then Daniel Webster spoke.
On the morning of the 26th of January, 1830, Mr. Bell
of New Hampshire came to him, and said: "It is a critical moment,
and it is time, it is high time, that the people of this country should
know what this Constitution is."
"Then, sir," said Mr. Webster, "if
that is so, by the blessing of Heaven, they shall learn this day, before
the sun goes down, what I understand it to be."
That very day, in the Senate chamber in the Capitol,
Daniel Webster told the people of the United States, in words the people
have never forgotten. how the Constitution, which
had made a weak American Confederacy into a nation of
freemen, denied the right of revolution, secession, or disunion. That
Constitution, he said, created an indivisible union; and his assertion,
so grandly stated, gained strength with time, became the favorite
declamation of Amen can schoolboys, burned its way into the very heart
and soul of all true Americans, inspired loyalty and created patriotism,
and, thirty years after, when a greater danger came, a second time did
Webster’s words save the Union from disruption and overthrow.
Daniel Webster was a child of New
Hampshire, itself a child of Massachusetts. For, though its union with
Massachusetts was broken in i68o, when~ it was declared a separate
province with a governor of its own, New Hampshire always leaned heavily
on the Old Bay colony, whose men had settled it and whose soldiers had
defended it, and again and again it petitioned for union with
Massachusetts,—that union which did not come until, as one of the
thirteen colonies, New Hampshire boldly cast in its lot with Massachusetts,
the organizer of revolution, of independence, and of union.
It was even so with Daniel Webster. For, although he
made his reputation first as a New Hampshire lawyer, he achieved fame as
a Massachusetts man. Removing from Portsmouth in June, i8r6, he
became a citizen of Boston; and the old city honors the memory of
America’s greatest orator and statesman by marking with a tablet the
building now standing on the site of Daniel Webster’s home, while in Marshfield,
in "the old colony," the broad acres of marsh and farmland
within sound of the restless sea are still visited by patriotic pilgrims
who seek the home of Webster.
For that two thousand acre farm in the village of Marshfield
was counted by the great American as really his home. He delighted to be
known as the "farmer of Marsh field," and even in the most
engrossing political moves and successes of his eventful life his heart
would turn toward his dearly loved seaside farm, with its broad fields
and sturdy trees, its live stock and its crops, its strong,
health-giving air, and the unending, inspiring rote of the sea.
But it was not as the "farmer of Marshfield"
so much as the "Expounder of the Constitution" that the
republic knew Daniel Webster. No other man explained or expounded it
more clearly, none adhered to it more devotedly, believed in it more
implicitly, or defended it more grandly. Its central thought—the
integrity of the republic and the permanence of American nationality—was
the one that gave force and direction to his life, lifted him to fame,
and yet led to his downfall.
Daniel Webster earnestly desired to be President of
the United States. But it was not this laudable ambition so much as his
passionate desire for an undisturbed Union that worked his overthrow.
For, laboring to preserve the Union inseparable, he was willing to
concede too much to mischief-makers, to agree too readily to unsafe and
impossible compromises, to stifle the warnings of his own conscience and
the indignant demands of his countrymen. This led him to support, in 1850,
the wicked Fugitive Slave Law, rather than lose to
the Union the loyalty of the slave States. It was an unwise thing to do;
for, instead of helping the Union, it hurt it; and it lost Webster the
support of the liberty-loving men of the land and the following of the
slavery-hating North, which had before so honored and idolized him.
That loss of popular favor killed him; and though men
look now upon his course with calmer and clearer eyes, and hold him
guiltless of selfish aims, the commonwealth has never ceased to mourn
that the man who so grandly defended Massachusetts in 1830
should have so misjudged or ignored her in 1850.
And yet, the judgment of Webster and the judgment of
his fellow-citizens were equally mistaken. History proves the first;
those two splendid poems by Whittier, "Ichabod" and "The
Lost Occasion," establish the second. Time, after all, is the
surest test of sincerity.
But what schoolboy does not know that masterly
defense of Massachusetts that opens Daniel Webster’s famous reply to
Hayne, delivered in the Senate chamber at Washington on the 26th of
January, 1830? Its words ring in our ears as grandly as they did in
those of our fathers and grandfathers seventy years ago:
"Mr. President, I shall enter on no encomium
upon Massachusetts. There she is! Behold her and judge for yourselves.
There is her history; the world knows it by heart. The past, at least,
is secure. There is Boston and Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill,—and
there they will remain forever. The bones of her sons, falling in the
great struggle for independence, now lie mingled with the soil of every
State from New England to Georgia; and there they will lie forever. And,
sir, where American liberty raised its first voice, and where its youth
was nurtured and sustained, there it still lives, in the strength of its
manhood and full of its original spirit."
There is more in the same lofty strain. Every
Massachusetts boy and girl—every American, young or old, in every part
of our common country—should know by heart that splendid defense of
the Bay State. For: it is a part, not of the story
of Massachusetts alone, but of American history and American oratory,—the
dignified, triumphant opening of what has beçp, called the
"greatest speech since Demosthenes."
As a lawyer, as an orator, as a politician, as a
statesman, as a diplomatist, as an American, Daniel Webster honored
Massachusetts as her representative in Congress and the
cabinet for nearly thirty years.
Historians tell us that the two greatest triumphs of
his life were in oratory and diplomacy,—the matchless reply to Hayne
in 1830, and his masterly treaty with Great Britain in 1842.
The first saved the Union; the other freed the
republic from foreign entanglements and encroachments. But these
triumphs were but two items in the list of Daniel Webster’s services
for Massachusetts and the republic.
He did much for Massachusetts; he did more for
America. While he defended and protected the fisheries of Massachusetts,
upon which so much of her prosperity depended, he settled the disputed
of national boundaries, and held America at peace with
the world. While he made the two noble orations
that celebrated the beginning and the completion of the monument on
Bunker Hill, he inspired by his grander plea for an unbroken Union so
passionate a patriotism that, ten years after his death, his words led
the hosts of loyal America to rally in defense of the Union and the
And that flag! How devoted was his loyalty to it, how
enduring his love for it! For, as
he lay dying, in his breezy farmhouse at
Marshfield, he would look from his
every morning, to catch the flutter of the Stars and Stripes, where,
according to his orders, the flag of the Union was to float from
its staff until his last breath had passed.
"Let my last feeble and lingering glance,"
he had said in that splendid and immortal speech, "behold the
gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the
earth, still full high advanced, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a
single star obscured." And so it all happened just as he wished.
And thus he died, a loyal son of the republic; thus he lay, guarded by
the flag he loved; and one Massachusetts man, who had differed from him,
but revered him, called him, as in the majesty of death, banked in
flowers, he lay there on his lawn at Marshfield, dead, beneath the
sky, the "grandest figure in
Christendom since Charlemagne."
His faults forgotten, his virtues
remembered, let every boy and girl in America be proud of the fame, and never
indifferent to the labors of America's grandest statesman, Daniel
Webster of Massachusetts.