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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

To George Ticknor, After Reading a Life or Byron

By Daniel Webster (1782–1852)

[From The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster. Edited by Fletcher Webster. 1856.]

I HAVE read Tom Moore’s first volume of Byron’s Life. Whatever human imagination shall hereafter picture of a human being, I shall believe it all within the bounds of credibility. Byron’s case shows that fact sometimes runs by all fancy, as a steam-boat passes a scow at anchor. I have tried hard to find something in him to like, besides his genius and his wit; but there was no other likeable quality about him. He was an incarnation of demonism. He is the only man in English history, for a hundred years, that has boasted of infidelity and of every practical vice, not included in what may be termed, what his biographer does term, meanness. Lord Bolingbroke, in his most extravagant youthful sallies, and the wicked Lord Littleton, were saints to him. All Moore can say is, that each of his vices had some virtue or some prudence near it, which in some sort checked it. Well, if that were not so in all, who could ’scape hanging? The biographer, indeed, says his moral conduct must not be judged of by the ordinary standard! And that is true, if a favorable decision is looked for. Many excellent reasons are given for his being a bad husband; the sum of which is, that he was a very bad man. I confess I was rejoiced then, and am rejoiced now, that he was driven out of England by public scorn; because his vices were not in his passions, but in his principles. He denied all religion and all virtue from the house-top. Dr. Johnson says, there is merit in maintaining good principles, though the preacher is seduced into violations of them. This is true. Good theory is something. But a theory of living, and of dying too, made up of the elements of hatred to religion, contempt of morals, and defiance of the opinion of all the decent part of the public, when before has a man of letters avowed it? If Milton were alive to recast certain prominent characters in his great Epic, he could embellish them with new traits, without violating probability. Walter Scott’s letter toward the end of the book, is much too charitable.

WASHINGTON, 8 April, 1833.