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U.S. Congressman, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State
Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury (now Franklin), New Hampshire, on January 18, 1782. He attended district schools and Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire), graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, became principal of an academy at Fryeburg, Maine, in 1802, studied law in Boston, and then became a successful lawyer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Elected as a Federalist to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1813, Webster was a vocal opponent of President Thomas Jefferson's embargo and the War of 1812, which destroyed the overseas trade on which Portsmouth depended for its livelihood. He also objected to war taxes, and helped defeat a bill for drafting soldiers. It was Webster's belief that state governments should "interpose" to protect their citizens from the national government. He was not a candidate for re-election in 1816, and left the House in 1817.
In 1816, Webster moved to Boston, where he became friend and attorney of northeastern businessmen who desired a strong national government that could aid business. In a reversal of his previous position on states' rights, Webster argued against New Hampshire's claim to control Dartmouth College, a position which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dartmouth College Case (1816-1819). In another case he held that it was constitutional for the federal government to charter a national bank.
Webster was returned to the U.S. House by the voters of Massachusetts in 1822, and served from 1823 to 1827. During this period he insisted that a protective tariff was unconstitutional.
Despite the position he had taken while in the House, Webster became the nation's most eloquent tariff advocate after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1826. The so-called "Tariff of Abominations," passed in 1828, led Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina to develop the theory that a state could "nullify" federal laws, and refuse to obey them. Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina made a brilliant speech in defense of nullification in 1830, and Webster subsequently responded with a famous speech declaring that the Constitution had created a single, unified nation. In 1832, when South Carolina tried to put nullification into effect, Webster gave powerful support to President Andrew Jackson in resisting the attempt. Webster disagreed with Jackson on other issues, however, especially on the question of the Bank of the United States. When Jackson vetoed a bill for rechartering the bank, Webster did his best to save the institution, but failed. He was re-elected to the Senate as a member of the Whig Party in 1833 and 1839, and served until his resignation on February 22, 1841.
A co-founder of the Whig Party, Webster was one of that party's three presidential candidates in 1836, but disputes within the party helped Jackson's hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, win the election.
Webster left the Senate to become Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and served in that capacity from 1841 to 1843. Under Tyler, he negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which settled the Maine boundary dispute with Canada and avoided another war with Great Britain.
Webster was returned to the Senate by Massachusetts voters in 1844, and served until 1850. During this period he opposed adding Texas to the Union, as well as the War with Mexico. Fearing that the country might break up because of a quarrel over the extension of slavery into the newly-acquired western territories, Webster made a "Union-saving" speech in favor of the Compromise of 1850, and helped get the measure passed. Although the Compromise failed to completely please either North or South, it did succeed in delaying the outbreak of the Civil War by ten years.
Webster resigned from the Senate on July 22, 1850 to accept appointment as President Millard Fillmore's Secretary of State, in which capacity he served until his death. During this tenure he befriended the Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth and became an advocate for Hungarian independence.
Daniel Webster died in Marshfield, Massachusetts, on October 24, 1852, and is interred in Winslow Cemetery.
In 1957, Webster was one of the first men elected to the United States Senate Hall of Fame. A statue of him represents New Hampshire in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.
The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> Individual Biography, A-Z
This page was last updated on October 23, 2017.