BENEATH THE COONSKIN CAP A Conservative Philosophy for Americans
Webster's apparent capitulation to the mindless Whiggery of 1840 is a colorful episode to relate, but what are we to make of it in terms of his credibility as a statesman and serious political thinker? How can we reconcile the venerator of Washington and guardian of the people with the stump politician who helped the whooping, hollering Whigs put a nonleader like Harrison into the White House?
Some historians have accepted the Webster of 1840 at face value and have treated him as an example of the way in which the "neo-Federalism," which originally gave shape and substance to the Whigs, was replaced by a political philosophy based "not on ideas but on subterfuges and sentimentalities." From this perspective, Webster emerges as "the greatest intellectual casualty of the new Whig line," a kind of worn-out political hack whose ideas, embellished with "huge gobs of senatorial rhetoric," are useless for the understanding of society.1
It is tempting to subscribe to this point of view. There is a lot about Webster's public and private life that is not attractive and cannot be explained away simply by the fact that, like other politicians, he frequently found himself forced to do one thing while saying something else. Still, we do not get far in understanding Webster by dismissing him as an intellectual fake. The truth is that the man who took his place in Harrison's cabinet in 1841 had clearly qualified himself for high public office, not only on the basis of his practical experience in Congress, but also as the most articulate spokesman for a peculiarly American kind of conservatism.