Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead–or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunder storm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster–Dan’l Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet. We also looked at the judge who presided over the case, Justice Hathorne. Only one personage remains to examine, Daniel Webster.
Born in 1782 a few months after the American victory at Yorktown, Webster would live to be a very old man for his time, dying in 1852. Webster would serve in the House for 10 years from New Hampshire and 19 years in the Senate from Massachusetts. Three times Secretary of State, he also attempted on three occasions to win the Presidency failing three times, watching as much lesser men attained that office. Like his two great contemporaries, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, his name is remembered while most Americans would be hard pressed to name many of those presidents.
While holding political office he also practiced law, arguing an astounding 223 cases before the United States Supreme Court and winning about half of them.
He was acknowledged to be the finest American orator of his day, a day in which brilliant speech making was fairly common on the American political scene, and his contemporaries often referred to him blasphemously as “the god-like Daniel”. Perhaps the finest example of Webster’s oratory is his Second Reply to Senator Haynes of South Carolina during the debate on tariffs which took place in the Senate in January of 1830. In the background lurked the nullification crisis and possible secession, a crisis which would build over the next three decades and explode into the attempted dissolution of the union in 1860. The ending of this speech was once known by every schoolchild: Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!
The American Union was Webster’s passion throughout his life, he being above all an ardent patriot. He was also an ardent opponent of slavery. However, in 1850 when his opposition to slavery conflicted with what he perceived to be the necessity of a compromise to preserve the Union, he did not hesitate and helped hammer the compromise together. Because it included a stronger fugitive slave act, he was roundly condemned throughout New England, something noted in The Devil and Daniel Webster: