17
WEBSTER AND THE "CONSCIENCE WHIGS"

Late in the winter of 1848, a group of admiring young Whigs visited Webster in Boston. They had come to be instructed and inspired, to be reassured that the leadership of their party would not fall into the hands of Zachary Taylor, the victorious general of the Mexican War, who was being touted for the presidency with the same frenzy that had accompanied the Harrison boom eight years earlier. At first they were let down. Glum and noncommitive, Webster muttered that "the day for eminent men seems to have gone by." Of course, the young Whigs protested, and as the protests mounted, he began to thaw out, and finally gave them what they wanted -- a rousing political speech in which he promised never to support "a swearing, fighting, frontier colonel" as a Whig candidate for president.

Daniel Webster was proud of his own eminence in public life, but during the six years between 1844 and 1850 his determination to continue in politics wavered many times. The generation of distinguished men who had helped to shape his own career -- men like Story, Mason, Clay, Calhoun, and Adams -- was dying off while honor and power were passing into the hands of smaller men. "It mortifies my pride of country," Webster had said after Polk's victory, "to see how the great affair of the President may be disposed off." Although not a melancholy man by temperament, he felt the sense of isolation that is the price old men pay for their longevity in a rapidly changing society -- a sense cruelly intensifed by the death of two of his children in the winter and spring of 1848. The serenity of Marshfield beckoned as never before, but he stayed on in Washington to devote his final years in the Senate

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