Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Genius of Latitude: Daniel Webster and the Geographical Imagination in Early America

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Genius of Latitude: Daniel Webster and the Geographical Imagination in Early America

Article excerpt

In the foreground of George Healy's painting Daniel Webster Replying to Hayne (1851), off to the far left, is John C. Calhoun, the vice president of the United States and president of the Senate, presiding over what was arguably one of the most famous orations of the nineteenth century. Calhoun sits attentively in the shadowy margins - reflecting, perhaps, rumors that he was directing Hayne's arguments by passing notes during the debate. But it is Webster, stiff as a ramrod in his famous white ascot and framed by the classical Roman columns of the Senate chamber, who commands attention in the scene, much as he did when he rose on January 26, 1830 (see Figure 1). Stating "This is a hall for mutual consultation and discussion; not an arena for the exhibition of champions," Webster deflated his listeners' expectations of a grand rhetorical melee by insisting that the Senate was a rational and republican space. Ironically, he then fulfilled the boast that he had made the preceding night to Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, that he would "grind [Hayne] as fine as a pinch of snuff."1

It is fitting that Webster would open his "Second Reply to Hayne" by defining the space in which the speech was given, for the entire oration strictly delineated national space by dictating what would, for Webster, be the proper political philosophy to uphold the Union. Though much has been made of Webster's adroit exploitation of sectional prejudice to defend unionism, Webster's "Second Reply to Hayne" might also be used as a tutorial in the ways that thinkers in the early republic used the geographic imagination to debate and at times reshape the nation. In his "Second Reply to Hayne," Webster compellingly made geographic space, national vision, and sectional mapping the dominant themes of his oration - a fact that scholars have largely overlooked. As an example of the early American geographic imagination, Webster's spatial mapping and remapping of the Union demonstrates a point made recently by Martin Brückner and Hsuan Hsu. Evoking the spatial theories of Henri Lefebvre, they argued that early Americans used "geography as an interpretive grid" to help define and refine national identity. Moving beyond the boundaries of the early republic, Webster's "Second Reply" serves as a springboard to examine the ways that the representations of the increasingly calcified sectional tensions of the 1820s and early 1830s had profound geographical and political implications that reverberated throughout the continent and across the Atlantic world.2

Central to this reading is Webster's keen awareness of the literary power of political oratory. In the weeks following his "Second Reply to Hayne," for example, he reworked and expanded significant portions of the speech before sending it into print. The speech was reportedly the most-read political oration of nineteenth century, and its popularity meant that Webster could release, later in 1830, an edition of his selected speeches calculated to cement his place as a public figure and defender of both liberty and the Constitution during the run-up to the 1832 presidential elections. Though Webster failed as a presidential candidate, the North American Review would proclaim in 1844 that he was an indispensable American literary voice. Conceding that Webster, "responsible for no book," was not a "literary" man in the typical sense, and careful to avoid construing Webster's oratory as an aesthetic achievement, the reviewer admitted that Webster's imagination worked via "allusion [rather] than by creation; by vivifying and applying old images and forms of expression, [rather] than by creating new." In short, Webster was by no means a poet and, the reviewer maintained, those who would so argue "misconceive both poetry and him."3

Under what terms, then, might Webster's works be put forth as exemplary of American literary form? Certainly, for the early nation, "literature" was a descriptive term covering a broad range of written knowledge, and Webster sought to present himself as the latest in a long tradition of erudite men whose claim to a literary legacy was the combination of oratorical force and the ability to translate that power to the page. …

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