Webster by Henry C. Deming

What justice can be done "in an half-hour of words, to fifty years of great deeds on high places." The most meagre epitome of Daniel Webster's career, can not be compressed into the few pages allotted him in this book. Foremost, in the highest spheres of intellectual exertion, as a lawyer, orator and statesman—great in all these, yet greater as a man—how can his character, even in outline, be sketched by an unskilled pencil, on so small a canvas? High as were his stations, and severe as were his labors, they were not high nor severe enough, to exhaust his force, or exhibit his full  proportions, but while meeting and mastering all, it was still manifest, that he had powers in reserve, superior to greater tasks than were ever imposed. At the bar, the puzzles of jurisprudence yielded too readily to his analysis. In Congress, but one question only ever wrung his withers or strained his strength. He shook off the perplexities of diplomacy, like dew-drops from his mane; too great for party, too great for sycophancy, too great to be truly appreciated, the exalted position to which he aspired, would have added no new lustre to his name, no additional guarantee of its immortality. There was no niche in our temple, vast enough for his colossal image.

Consider too, the extent and profundity of his opinions, during the half-century of his public life. On all questions of our foreign and domestic policy, on all the important epochs of our history, on everything respecting the origin, growth, commerce, peace and prosperity of this union of states, "everywhere the philosophical and patriotic statesman and thinker, will find that he has been before him, lighting the way, sounding the abyss. His weighty language, his sagacious warnings, his great maxims of empire, will be raised to view and live to be deciphered, when the final catastrophe shall lift the granite foundation in fragments from its bed." Merely to review the record of these opinions, his public speeches, historical discourses, and state papers would be to write the civil and constitutional history of the country since the war of 1812.

Assaying none of these ambitious flights, and bearing in mind the title of this book, we shall confine ourselves to the humble task of collating from the fragmentary reminiscences of personal friends, and from his own autobiographical allusions, a brief account of the homes and home life of Webster.

There is a "vulgar error," which needs no Sir Thomas Browne to refute, that the possession of great intellectual endowments, is incompatible with the growth and development of the affections. During his entire career Mr. Webster suffered from this misconception. When he refused to adopt any of the arts of popular adulation; when he manifested his real respect for the people, by addressing their understandings, rather than by cajoling their weaknesses; when, rapt in his own meditations, he forgot to bow, to smile, to flatter, and bandy unmeaning compliment; when the mean stood abashed before his nobleness, and the weak before his strength, disappointed self-conceit, invariably turned from his presence, with the sneering remark, "Webster has no soul."

Death strips off all disguises. Calumny is silent over the graves of the great. It was not, until he was removed beyond the reach of party warfare and interested depreciation, it was not, until the veil that hid his true lineaments, was drawn aside, that Mr. Webster's inner life, and social relations, were revealed to his countrymen, and they began to discover, that underneath the giant's brain, there was a  giant heart. The disclosures of those who enjoyed his familiarity and confidence, have now placed it beyond all controversy, that home, home affections, home pursuits, home enjoyments, were more congenial to Mr. Webster's nature, than the dizzy heights of office, or the stormy forum.

He saw not merely in HOME, the walls that protected him, from Boreas and the dog-star, the spot of earth appropriated to himself, the place that ministered to his material enjoyments, but while the sense of comfort and the sense of property entered into its complex idea, his sentiments and affections gave to it a higher and holier meaning. The word Home carried him back to his infancy, and forward to his age. It connected itself with all his affections, filial, fraternal, parental, with those grand and solemn epochs of humanity, birth, marriage and death. To his lofty imagination, the roof-tree was consecrated with ceremonies, more imposing than those of our Saxon ancestors. It symbolized the family tie, the domestic virtues, the Lares and Penates of classic mythology. Home was his retreat from the world of action, to the world of contemplation. Here he was to live. These walls would witness those experiences, sweet, bitter, mournful; those communings with God, with friends, kindred and himself; those aspirations, dreams, disappointments—that are embraced in that word of infinite significance, Life. Here his wife was to administer love and consolation; here children were to be born, hostages to fortune, heritors of name and fame, idols upon whom can be lavished the inexhaustible treasures of love. Here the pilgrimage was to end, here he was to die.

 On the bleak and rugged soil of Salisbury, New Hampshire, in a green nook, hardly sheltered from the wintry blasts, he was born. Under an aged elm, whose branches reach across the highway, stands this ancient habitation. It is in the shadow of lofty mountains, while a broad and rapid river winds through the meadows spread out before the door. "Looking out at the east window," says he, in one of his letters, from this hallowed spot, "my eye sweeps along a level field of one hundred acres. At the end of it, a third of a mile off, I see plain marble grave-stones, designating the places where repose my father and mother, brother and sisters. The fair field is before me. I could see a lamb on any part of it. I have ploughed it, and raked it, but never mowed it; somehow, I could never learn to hang a scythe."

As Webster advances, in years and distinction, he seems only to have been drawing a lengthened chain from his first home. With what constancy does he carry its features in his mind, Kearsarge, the Merrimack and Punch Brook! He spares no expense to cultivate the old acres and keep, the old house in repair. With what regularity does he revisit it and explore all his boyish haunts, the orchard, the mill, the meeting-house, the well, the hillside and the trout stream! With what a swelling heart, and moistened eye, does he sit beneath the ancestral elms that stretch their arms, in benediction, over the old homestead, while busy fancy repeoples these familiar scenes with the absent and the dead, the mother that bore him, the father on whose shoulder he wept, the much beloved brother, whose education he earned, "with weary fingers by the midnight lamp?" How from the great popular gathering, from the "sea of upturned faces," and even from the important issues that hung on his eloquence, does his mind impulsively wander to this cherished home—"Raised amid the snow-drifts of New Hampshire, at a period so early that, when the smoke first rose from its rude chimney, and curled over the frozen hills, there was no similar evidence of a white man's habitation between it and the settlements on the rivers of Canada. Its remains still exist. I make to it an annual visit. I carry my children to it to teach them the hardships endured by the generations which have gone before them. I love to dwell on the tender recollections, the kindred ties, the early affections, and the touching narratives and incidents, which mingle with all I know of this primitive family abode. I weep to think that none of those who inhabited it are now among the living; and if ever I am ashamed of it, or if I ever fail in affectionate veneration for HIM who reared and defended it against savage violence and destruction, cherished all the domestic virtues beneath its roof, and, through the fire and blood of seven years' revolutionary war, shrunk from no danger, no toil, no sacrifice to serve his country, and to raise his children to a condition better than his own, may my name and the name of my posterity be blotted forever from the memory of mankind."

"Take care," says he, in one of the last letters which he wrote to John Taylor, "take care to keep my mother's garden in good order, even if it cost you the wages of a man to take care of it." One of Mr. Webster's most cherished relics, which he sometimes carried in his vest pocket, and exhibited to his friends, was an antique tea-spoon, covered with rust,  which John Taylor found in this very garden of his mother. In the library at Marshfield, the eye turns from Healey's splendid portraits, to a small and unpretending silhouette, with the inscription, "my excellent mother," in the handwriting of her immortal son.

When he selected as the home of his manhood, the old mansion by the far-resounding sea, how completely was every want of his nature represented in the grand and impressive features of the place. Marshfield lies within the limits of the Pilgrims' earliest colony, and on Mr. Webster's farm stands the house to which Edward Winslow carried his household gods, from aboard the tempest-tost Mayflower, and the house to which a company of British soldiers bade final adieu, when they marched from it to storm the redoubts on Bunker Hill. It thus connects two chapters of that colonial history, which Mr. Webster loved to study and paint, and two imperishable monuments to his own renown. It is surrounded by vast and fertile fields, meadows and pastures green, dotted here and there with groves and orchards, for one who worshiped, as in a sanctuary, beneath the over-hanging branches of trees, and dotted also with great herds of red and black oxen, for one who "was glad when his cattle lifted up their large-eyed, contemplative faces, and recognized their master by a look." Its border, landward, is hedged with nothing less than a vast forest of pines, and within a few hours' ride, lies a fresh wilderness, unbroken, as when the Pilgrims first saw it from the Mayflower's mast-head, where the wild eagle still soars, and the timid deer "glances through the glade." His eye, far as its glance could penetrate, rested on the most sublime of all nature's attractions, on thee—

"glorious mirror where the Almighty's form
Glasses itself in tempests; in all time,
Calm or convulsed—in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid zone
Dark heaving; boundless, endless, and sublime,
The image of eternity, the throne
Of the Invisible."

Scattered over its far-reaching expanse, he could always see the white sails of that commerce he loved to defend, and occasionally, one of those "oak leviathans," bearing the glorious flag of the union—"not a stripe erased, or polluted, not a single star obscured;" memorials at once of the nation's glory, and of his own proudest triumph.

As deep answereth unto deep, none of the majestic harmonies of the domain, but found a full and equal response in the bosom of its lord. Old ocean never rolled its waves, at the feet of one who could better grasp their immeasurable extent, unfathomable depth. When, with these surroundings, he stood on that autumn eve, beneath that magnificent elm that grows by his door-side, the sea's eternal anthem in his ear, and in his eye, the infinite vault of the starry heavens, he could find in recorded language but this one utterance: "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers; the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor."

 While his tastes were thus attuned to the grandest aspects of nature, all the rural sights and rural sounds of this chosen spot, ministered to the delight of his acute sensibilities. "The smell of new-mown hay," says Mr. Hillard, "and of the freshly turned furrows of spring, was cordial to his spirit. The whetting of the mower's scythe, the beat of the thresher's flail, the heavy groan of loaded wagons, were music to his ear!" The rich verdure of clover, the waving of the golden grain, the shriek of the sea-mew and the softest song of the nightingale; all the varying aspects of sky and field and sea, furnished him with a distinct and peculiar enjoyment. The shrinking quail whistled in his garden shrubbery, and fed, unscared, in his carriage-way.

The observer can not fail to notice characteristics of Webster in all the features of this favorite abode. His door-yard is a broad field of twenty acres, unbroken by fence or hedge. Around it, sweep in concentric circles, of vast diameter, great belts of forest-trees, planted with his own hands, offering secluded recesses and shady walks, where "musing solitude might love to roam." Gotham Hill, once a sand-bank, piled up by the ocean, and long defeating, by its barrenness, the ingenuity of his culture, he at length clothed with a green garment of beautiful clover. Cherry Hill was converted from a lean and parched mole, into a cool and inviting grove, within a rod of his door, almost an alcove to the library. Everything in and about the house were as thoroughly systemized and adapted to each other, as the points of one of his briefs. The appurtenances of the mansion, the main barn, the sheep barn, the piggery, are all  where the necessities of the farm and the comeliness of the homestead require them to be placed. In the interior, the parlors, the library filled with the lore of all ages, the ample hospitality of the dining-room, the breakfast-room, opening toward that morning light he loved so dearly, the dairy cooled by its proximity to the ice-house, the gun-room furnished with every appliance for field sports, the decorations and the furniture; everything in his mansion as in his arguments, bespeaks the mind of Webster.

Within a stone's throw of this parlor-window, observe those two young English elms; they are called "the Brother and Sister," and were thus named and thus planted, by the bereaved father, when Julia and Edward were torn from his heart. "I hope the trees will live," said he, with touching pathos of tone, as he completed this labor of love. There is no more pathetic expression of parental sorrow, to be found in our language, than the dedication of the sixth volume of his works, to the same departed twain. "With the warmest parental affection, mingled with afflicted feelings, I dedicate this, the last volume of my works, to the memory of my deceased children, Julia Webster Appleton, beloved in all the relations of daughter, wife, mother, sister and friend; and Major Edward Webster, who died in Mexico, in the military service of the United States, with unblemished honor and reputation, and who entered the service solely from a desire to be useful to his country, and do honor to the state in which he was born.

"Go, gentle spirits, to your destined rest;
While I—reversed our nature's kindlier doom—
Pour forth a father's sorrow on your tomb."

 And yet Mr. Webster was "cold as marble; all intellect."

But let us pass into the library; the Library! Here Vulcan forged those infrangible chains, that impenetrable armor—the shield of Achilles and the sword of Hector. Here you feel nearer to Webster than even when you enter his tomb; much that is in this room his immortal spirit carried with it in its upward flight. It is not that lifelike portrait, by Healey, that introduces you, as it were, into the visible presence of the great statesman. It is the inspiration of the place, these scattered tools, just as they were dropped by the master-workman, that well-worn manual, thumbed by his own hand; that turned leaf, indicating the last page of human lore upon which his eye ever gazed; that arm-chair, his favorite seat. He seems just to have left it, and you will now find him, in one of those shady lanes, that lead to Cherry Hill, walking slowly, as he welds together the facts and principles he has gleaned from yonder opened folio. Here then, with these surroundings, with that beautiful landscape in his eye, Daniel Webster studied, pondered, and communed with these old tomes as with familiar faces. How often has he turned from the living world, to find kindred here in Bacon, Chatham, Fox and Burke! How often has his eye run over that complete set of parliamentary debates! How often has he conned those volumes of Hansard, and these of McCullough! How often has he resorted to that full alcove of dictionaries, to learn the precise and exact meaning of some important word; and to you, Shakspeare, Milton and Gray, how often has he fled for refreshment and consolation! How often, harassed by cares, and stung by ingratitude, has he murmured, in this air, the music of his favorite Cicero, "Hæc studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solatium præbent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur."

Let us now ascend this staircase, (adorned with no costly paintings, but with some choice engravings, interesting from the associations they recall, or as mementos from friends, or tributes from artists,) and approach this darkened chamber, looking toward the setting sun; tread softly and slowly! Within these walls, on that plain bedstead, beneath that window commanding an ocean prospect, Webster died. Here occurred that grand and affecting leave-taking, with kindred, friends and the world; here, "the curfew tolled the knell of parting day;" here occurred a death-scene, which can find no parallel in human history, but in the death of Socrates; here, with the assured consciousness, that his own contributions to the fund of human wisdom were imperishable, and that the "next ages" could not fail to do justice to his patriotic labors, he faintly murmured, as his spirit took its flight, and his eye closed forever, "I still live."

On an eminence overlooking the sea, by the side of the burial-place of the first Pilgrims, is Webster's last home. A mound of earth and marble slab, mark the spot where sleeps all that is mortal of the great American.