Webster, Daniel (1782–1852)

Author:Maurice G. Baxter

Page 2870

As a leading lawyer and politician for forty years, Daniel Webster influenced constitutional development as few others have. When the young New Hampshire representative arrived in Washington in 1813, he immediately became a spokesman for New England interests and remained so until the mid-1820s despite an interruption of congressional service (1817?1823) upon moving to Boston. For most of the time from 1827 to his death in 1852, he was an eloquent nationalist in the SENATE. Except for two periods as secretary of state under Tyler and Fillmore, he spent the last quarter-century of his life in that body, expounding the principles of a perpetual Union and a flexible Constitution. In either role, sectionalist or nationalist, he applied constitutional ideas to political issues with uncommon ability.

During the early years his FEDERALIST partisanship and loyalty to a commercial constitutency led him to oppose Republican policies of embargo and war. Using economic coercion to maintain maritime rights, he believed, intolerably stretched the power to regulate commerce, indeed, it destroyed commerce. And prosecuting an offensive war against Britain caused other constitutional errors: misuse of militia, proposals for federal conscription, encroachment on STATES ' RIGHTS. Though not a delegate to the HARTFORD CONVENTION, Webster approved its resolutions. Later he sought, unconvincingly, to dissociate himself

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from it. His sectionalism persisted when he opposed the postwar trend toward a protective tariff (1816?1824). Again he voiced a strict constructionist interpretation of the COMMERCE CLAUSE to promote low rates desired by merchants and a system of laissez-faire in the first phase of industrialization.

In the late 1820s, he shifted to a nationalist position concurrently with JOHN C. CALHOUN'S shift in the opposite direction. In behalf of rising manufacturers, he joined HENRY CLAY in advocating governmental policies to achieve economic growth and American self-sufficiency. No longer did he oppose use of the commerce power for broad goals. When South Carolina nullified the tariff of 1832, his oratorical duel with Calhoun provided an opportunity to reiterate more comprehensively his constitutional thought, dramatically set forth in his earlier debate with ROBERT HAYNE. Beyond the tariff question, he countered the doctrines of state sovereignty and NULLIFICATION with the concept of a perpetual Union, created by...

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