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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

In Vindication of Webster

By William Cleaver Wilkinson (1833–1920)

[Born in Westford, Vt., 1833. Died in Chicago, Ill., 1920. Daniel Webster and the Compromise Measures of 1850.—The Century Magazine. 1876.]

THE FIGHT now is fought, and the victory, somehow, has been won. In the truce of antislavery strife that has happily succeeded at last, and with us become, it may be trusted, a perpetual peace, it is no longer excusable if we let the unjust reproach against Webster grow traditional and inveterate.

But this cannot happen. Posterity, at least, will not suffer it. However minded still may be the new American nation that now is, the new American nation that is soon to be will surely do him justice. His own great words come back. They seem chosen for our needs in speaking of him. We give the phrase a forward aspect, and we say of Webster, The future, at least, is secure. For his renown, is it not of the treasures of the whole country? The tree sent its top high, it spread its branches wide, but it cannot fall, for it cast its roots deep. It sunk them clean through the globe. No storm, not of force to burst the orb, can overturn it. It certainly is not less safe to stand than is the republic itself. Perhaps it is safer.

What he spoke lives, while what was spoken against him perishes, and his own speech, in the end, will effectually defend him. Already the rage of defamation breaks and disperses itself, vainly beating against that monumental rock to his fame.

  • “Their surging charges foam themselves away.”
  • When the storm has fully spent itself, when the fury is quite overpast, the candid weather will quickly drink up the drench of mist and of cloud that still stains it. Then Webster’s works will be seen, and the speech of the seventh of March among them, standing there, like Mont Blanc, severe and serene, to attest, “how silently!” but with none left to gainsay, the greatness of the man, the pureness of the patriot.

    But thus far to anticipate, and not to anticipate farther, would be scarce half to have guessed the recompense of acknowledgment that surely awaits Daniel Webster. History will sit down by and by to meditate his words, and, wisely comparing events, make up her final award. She then will perceive, and proclaim, that, not once, nor twice, in an hour of darkness for his country, this man, not merely in barren wish and endeavor, but in fruitful force and accomplishment as well, stood forth sole, or without rival eminent, vindicator and savior of the republic. She will see, and she will say, that, especially in 1850, while many clear and pure spirits were accepting, amid applause, the glorious bribe of instant enrollment among ostensible and confessed defenders of liberty, one spirit was found—a spirit of grave and majestic mold, capable of putting this brilliant lure aside, to choose, almost alone, amid obloquy, and scorn, and loss, a different bribe—a bribe which turned sternly toward its chooser an obverse of rejection for himself, but which bore, concealed from other, less deeply beholding eyes than his, a reverse of real eventual rescue for liberty, involved in necessary precedent redemption for his country. That chief selected spirit’s name, history will write in the name of Daniel Webster. Nor will she omit to point out that, in thus choosing bravely for country, he did not less choose wisely for liberty.

    But history will go farther. She will avouch that not even with death did Webster cease being savior to his country. It was Webster still, she will say, that saved us yet again in 1861. Illuminating her sober page with a picture of that sudden and splendid display of patriotism which followed Fort Sumter, she will write under the representation her legend and her signature, “This is Daniel Webster.” I have pondered his words, she will say, I have studied his life, and this apparition is none other than he. Sleeping wakefully even in death for her sake, he hearkened to hear the call of his country. He heard it in the guns of Fort Sumter. Resurgent at the sound, that solemn figure once more, and now, for the last and the sufficing occasion, reappeared on the scene, standing visibly, during four perilous years, relieved, in colossal strength and repose, against her dark and troubled sky, the Jupiter Stator of his country.

    For that magnificent popular enthusiasm for the Union—an enthusiasm, the like of which, for blended fury and intelligence enlisted on behalf of an idea, the world had never before beheld, this, as history will explain, was by no means the birth of a moment. Fort Sumter fired it, but it was otherwise fueled and prepared. Daniel Webster, by eminence, his whole life long had been continuously at work. Speech by speech, year after year, the great elemental process went on. These men might scoff, and those men might jeer, but none the less, through jeer and scoff, the harried Titan kept steadily to his task. Three generations, at least, of his countrymen he impregnated, mind and conscience and heart, with the sentiment of devotion to the Union. This, in great part, accounts for the miracle of eighteen hundred sixty-one. Thus was engendered and stored in the American character the matchless spirit of patriotism which slept till Fort Sumter, but which, with Fort Sumter, flamed out in that sudden, that august, that awful illustration all over the loyal land. One flame—who forgets it?—one flame of indignation and wrath, like a joyful sword from its sheath, leaping forth, released at last, from the patient but passionate heart of the people! That monster Union meeting, for example, in New York city on the twentieth of April, filling Union Square from side to side, and from end to end, with swaying surges of people—what was it, history will inquire, but Daniel Webster, come again, in endlessly multiplied count, but in scarce augmented volume of personal power?

    Such is certain to be the final sentence of history. And if history notes, as she will, that the generous desire of freedom for the slave—a desire bond of conscience before, in millions of hearts, but gloriously emancipate now, by the welcomed foretokenings of war—if history notes that this influence entered to heighten the noble passion of the hour, this influence, too, she will gratefully recognize to have been largely a fruit of the eloquence of Webster.

    Should some share, perchance, of this confident prediction fail, history, at least, must decide that, comprehensively surveyed in its relation to the whole of his own life, and in its relation to the life of the republic, Webster’s part in the affairs of eighteen hundred fifty was the part of an honest, a consistent, a wise, and an upright patriot and statesman. With this measure of justice, let us make late haste to pacify now his indignant fame.