14
SECRETARY WEBSTER SURVIVES THE WHIG BLOOD BATH

No party ever paid a greater price for victory than the Whigs in 1840 when they elected a president without agreeing on a leader. Harrison, a synthetic creation of Whig publicists, was expected to be an obedient White House ornament while Clay remained in the Senate in almost absolute control over the Whig majority in Congress, and Webster, stronger in ability and reputation than in party power, commanded the top post in the cabinet. Webster's friends assumed that he would dominate the government from inside. "The coming administration will be in fact your administration," wrote Biddle in December, 1840, "it is expected that you shall take the lead." But the Clay Whigs shrugged off this possibility with a smile. Webster had tried to stray in the past but had always come back to the party; he might grumble and sulk but he would follow the party leader. Judge Rowan of Kentucky put the matter neatly when he said, "If the two should go duck hunting together, Mr. Clay would expect Mr. Webster to assume the office of spaniel, to bring out the birds, and the latter would not perceive that there was any degradation in his assumption of such an office." Despite the ability of their leaders, the validity of their program, and the magnitude of their victory, the Whigs were still more prepared to fight each other than to govern the country. The period from 1840 to 1844 was one of the stormiest passages in Webster's career. That he not only survived it, but also accomplished something of enduring value to his country is a tribute to his courage, his ability, and his guile.1

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