Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Daniel Webster: Conservative Whig

THE WHIGS were the party of legislative leadership, and the principal art of the classic legislator was oratory. The Whigs had many distinguished orators, but by general consent Daniel Webster stood above all the rest. Indeed, there was something spellbinding about Webster, both on and off the public platform, that prompted his admirers to praise which seems extravagant today. Some classed him in the same ranks as Charlemagne, Dante, Hercules, Antaeus, Michelangelo, and Pericles. Others, despairing of human comparisons when trying to describe his prodigious powers, evoked images of Niagara Falls or the groundswell of the ocean. Perhaps the most common epithet applied to Webster in his lifetime was "God-like." 1

Why did people think of Webster in this way? Clearly, much of the man's magnetic appeal was derived from the simple, elemental fact of his appearance. Websterlooked like an extraordinary figure, the very prototype of the born leader. Although, at five feet, ten inches, he was not especially tall, he seemed to tower over more massive men. There was much to be awed by in his countenance: the swarthy complexion that earned him the nickname "Black Dan"; the strong, broad shoulders and cavernous chest; the massive, high-domed head, topped by jet-black hair; the black eyes--blazing, some said, like furnaces--beneath cavernous brows; and the massive yet expressive mouth Thomas Carlyle compared to that of a mastiff. 2 Completing the image of grandeur was the full Revolutionary dress Webster wore on public occasions--dark blue coat with gilt buttons, buff vest, and white neckcloth. Henry W. Hilliard, recalling the first time he saw Webster in the Senate, wrote that "as he sat in his place, surrounded by his peers, it seemed as if the whole

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