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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

Personal Reminiscences

By Daniel Webster (1782–1852)

[Born in Salisbury, N. H., 1782. Died at Marshfield, Mass., 1852. From the brief Autobiography written for Mrs. Lee, 1829.—The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster. Edited by Fletcher Webster. 1856.]


I DO not remember when or by whom I was taught to read; because I cannot and never could recollect a time when I could not read the Bible. I suppose I was taught by my mother, or by my elder sisters. My father seemed to have no higher object in the world, than to educate his children, to the full extent of his very limited ability. No means were within his reach, generally speaking, but the small town schools. These were kept by teachers, sufficiently indifferent, in the several neighborhoods of the township, each a small part of the year. To these I was sent, with the other children.

When the school was in our neighborhood, it was easy to attend; when it removed to a more distant district I followed it, still living at home. While yet quite young, and in winter, I was sent daily two and a half or three miles to the school. When it removed still further, my father sometimes boarded me out, in a neighboring family, so that I could still be in the school. A good deal of this was an extra care, more than had been bestowed on my elder brothers, and originating in a conviction of the slenderness and frailty of my constitution, which was thought not likely ever to allow me to pursue robust occupation.

In these schools, nothing was taught but reading and writing; and, as to these, the first I generally could perform better than the teacher, and the last a good master could hardly instruct me in; writing was so laborious, irksome, and repulsive an occupation to me always. My masters used to tell me, that they feared, after all, my fingers were destined for the plough-tail.

I must do myself the justice to say that, in those boyish days, there were two things I did dearly love, viz.: reading and playing; passions which did not cease to struggle, when boyhood was over, (have they yet, altogether?) and in regard to which neither the cita mors nor the victoria læta could be said of either.

At a very early day, owing I believe mainly to the exertions of Mr. Thompson, the lawyer, the clergyman, and my father, a very small circulating library had been bought. These institutions, I believe, about that time received an impulse, among other causes, from the efforts of Dr. Belknap, our New Hampshire historian. I obtained some of these books, and read them. I remember the “Spectator” among them; and I remember, too, that I turned over the leaves of Addison’s criticism on Chevy Chase, for the sake of reading connectedly the song, the verses of which he quotes from time to time as subjects of remark. It was, as Dr. Johnson said in another case, that the poet was read and the critic was neglected. I could not understand why it was necessary that the author of the “Spectator” should take such great pains to prove that Chevy Chase was a good story; that was the last thing I doubted.

I was fond of poetry. By far the greater part of Dr. Watts’s Psalms and Hymns I could repeat memoriter, at ten or twelve years of age. I am sure that no other sacred poetry will ever appear to me so affecting and devout.

I remember that my father brought home from some of the lower towns Pope’s “Essay on Man,” published in a sort of pamphlet. I took it, and very soon could repeat it, from beginning to end. We had so few books that to read them once or twice was nothing. We thought they were all to be got by heart. I have thought of this frequently since, when that sagacious admonition of one of the ancients (was it Pliny?) has been quoted, legere multum non multa….


It so happened, that within the few months during which I was at the Exeter Academy, Mr. Thacher, now judge of the Municipal Court of Boston, and Mr. Emery, the distinguished counsellor at Portland, were my instructors. I am proud to call them both masters. I believe I made tolerable progress in most branches which I attended to, while in this school; but there was one thing I could not do. I could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the school. The kind and excellent Buckminster sought, especially, to persuade me to perform the exercise of declamation, like other boys; but I could not do it. Many a piece did I commit to memory, and recite and rehearse, in my own room, over and over again; yet when the day came, when the school collected to hear declamations, when my name was called, and I saw all eyes turned to my seat, I could not raise myself from it. Sometimes the instructors frowned, sometimes they smiled. Mr. Buckminster always pressed, and entreated, most winningly, that I would venture; but I could never command sufficient resolution. When the occasion was over, I went home and wept bitter tears of mortification….

In February, 1797, my father carried me to the Rev. Samuel Wood’s, in Boscawen, and placed me under the tuition of that most benevolent and excellent man. It was but half-a-dozen miles from our own house. On the way to Mr. Wood’s, my father first intimated to me his intention of sending me to college. The very idea thrilled my whole frame. He said he then lived but for his children, and if I would do all I could for myself, he would do what he could for me. I remember that I was quite overcome, and my head grew dizzy. The thing appeared to me so high, and the expense and sacrifice it was to cost my father, so great, I could only press his hands and shed tears. Excellent, excellent parent! I cannot think of him, even now, without turning child again.

Mr. Wood put me upon Virgil and Tully; and I conceived a pleasure in the study of them, especially the latter, which rendered application no longer a task. With what vehemence did I denounce Cataline! With what earnestness struggle for Milo! In the spring I began the Greek grammar, and at midsummer Mr. Wood said to me: “I expected to keep you till next year, but I am tired of you, and I shall put you into college next month.” And so he did, but it was a mere breaking in; I was, indeed, miserably prepared, both in Latin and Greek; but Mr. Wood accomplished his promise, and I entered Dartmouth College, as a Freshman, August, 1797. At Boscawen, I had found another circulating library, and had read many of its volumes. I remember especially that I found “Don Quixote,” in the common translation, and in an edition, as I think, of three or four duodecimo volumes. I began to read it, and it is literally true that I never closed my eyes till I had finished it; nor did I lay it down for five minutes; so great was the power of that extraordinary book on my imagination….


In March, 1805, I was admitted to practice in the Suffolk Court of Common Pleas. The practice then was for the patron to go into court, introduce the pupil to the judges, make a short speech, commending his diligence, etc., and move for his admission to the bar. I had the honor to be so introduced by Mr. Gore. I remember every word of his speech. It contained a prediction, which I firmly resolved, quantum in me fuerit, should not go entirely unfulfilled.

In January preceding my admission, I was the subject of a great honor. The clerk of the Court of Common Pleas for the county of Hillsborough resigned his place. My father was one of the judges of the court, and I was appointed to the vacant clerkship. This was equal to a Presidential election. The office had an income of fifteen hundred dollars a year. It seemed to me very great, and indeed it was so, rebus consideratis. The obtaining of this office had been a darling object with my father. Its possession would make the family easy, and he hastened to send me tidings that the prize was won. I certainly considered it a great prize, myself, and was ready to abandon my profession for it; not that I did not love my profession; and not that I did not hate the clerkship, and all clerkships; but simply from a desire to reach that high point of terrestrial bliss, at which I might feel that there was a competency for our family, myself included. I had felt the res angustæ till my very bones ached. But Mr. Gore peremptorily shut me out from this opening paradise. When I went to him, with my letter in my hand, to communicate the good news, he said it was civil in their Honors of the Bench, and that I must write them a respectful letter; that they intended it as a mark of confidence in me, and of respect, probably, for my father, and that I was bound to make civil acknowledgments. This was a shower-bath of ice-water. I was thinking of nothing but of rushing to the immediate enjoyment of the proffered office; but he was talking of civil acknowledgment and decorous declension. Finding my spirits, and face too, I suppose, falling, he found out the cause, and went on to speak, in a serious tone, against the policy and propriety of taking such an office. To be sure, his reasons were good, but I was slow to be convinced. He said, I was nearly through my professional preparation, that I should soon be at the bar, and he saw not why I might not hope to make my way as well as others; that this office was in the first place precarious, it depended on the will of others; and other times and other men might soon arise, and my office be given to somebody else. And in the second place, if permanent, it was a stationary place; that a clerk once, I was probably nothing better than a clerk, ever; and, in short, that he had taken me for one who was not to sit with his pen behind his ear. “Go on,” said he, “and finish your studies; you are poor enough, but there are greater evils than poverty; live on no man’s favor; what bread you do eat, let it be the bread of independence; pursue your profession, make yourself useful to your friends, and a little formidable to your enemies, and you have nothing to fear.”

I need hardly say that I acquiesced in this good advice; though certainly it cost me a pang. Here was present comfort, competency, and I may even say riches, as I then viewed things, all ready to be enjoyed, and I was called upon to reject them for the uncertain and distant prospect of professional success. But I did resist the temptation; I did hold on to the hope which the law set before me.