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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans

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DANIEL WEBSTER

[299] DANIEL WEBSTER was born on a farm in New Hampshire. He was the youngest of a family of ten children, and, as a child, was frail and delicate. For this reason, he was much petted by his parents and brothers and sisters, and was allowed to run free in the forests and fields near his home, in the hope that this freedom and exercise would bring him strength of body.

His mother and sisters taught him to read. In after years, he said he could not remember the time when he could not read the Bible. He had a very retentive memory.

His voice was musical, and when he read aloud, he gave great pleasure to those who heard him. Often, the men who came to his father's mill would get him to read to them while they waited for their meal to be ground. Sometimes the farmers, passing the house where he lived, stopped for an hour or two to rest their horses, and then they always sent for the boy, and generally they would say, "Daniel, read us something from the Bible."

Daniel had a brother, named Ezekiel, two years [300] older than himself, of whom he was very fond. This brother always watched over the delicate boy, and kept him from too much exertion. The father told Ezekiel to let Daniel help him, especially in the light work of the farm. Once, the boys' father returned home from a trip, and asked Ezekiel what he had been doing.

"Nothing, sir," replied the boy.

The father then asked Daniel what he had been doing.

"I have been helping Zeke, sir," said Daniel, with a smile.

One day, when Daniel was at the village store, he saw a handkerchief for sale, on which was printed a copy of the Constitution of the United States. He resolved to be the owner of that handkerchief, and saved enough pennies to buy it. When at last he bought it, he did not rest until he had learned the whole great document by heart. In after years, he became its most able exponent and defender.

Webster's father was poor, and with but little learning himself. He was wise enough, however, to know the value of education. He told his son he intended to send him to college. Webster was so anxious to go that, for a moment, he could not speak for emotion. He afterwards said, "A warm [301] glow ran all over me, and I laid my head on my father's shoulder and wept."

He became one of the greatest orators this country has produced, but, at first, he was much frightened when he stood before an audience. At school the boys made fun of him and of his clothes. Such ridicule caused him to be sensitive.

He said of this time, "Many a piece did I commit to memory, and rehearse it in my room over and over again. But when the day came, and all my companions were on hand, gazing at me, and I was required to stand before them, I was so frightened that I could not utter a word."

After leaving college, Webster began his law career in his native state. He moved to Boston later on, where he built up a large practice. He was soon called into political life, and spent thirty years in the service of his state. He was a close student of the Constitution, an orator of tremendous force, and a profound thinker on all political questions of his day.

Webster overcame the weakness of his boyhood days, and grew into a vigorous man. His appearance was noble, sturdy, and dignified. His eyes were dark, and his brow was massive. People said, "When Webster walks the streets of Boston, he makes the buildings look small." Once he [302] visited Europe, and some one, passing him in the street, remarked, "Surely, there goes a king." A great wit, looking at his dignified appearance, declared, "He is a small cathedral by himself." Some one else said, "I hardly believe any man can be as great as Mr. Webster looks."

He is best known for his wonderful oration in defense of the powers of the Constitution to maintain an unbroken union of the states. A great debate was held in the Senate of the United States on the subject, and against Webster was Robert Y. Hayne, of South Carolina, who spoke on the right of a state to declare null and void within its borders any act passed by Congress.

Hayne made a great argument, and Webster replied to him the next day. He had but one night for preparation, but he remarked to a friend, "That is enough. All my life I have been making ready for this occasion." On the morning of his reply, he said, "The people shall learn this day, before the sun goes down, what I understand the Constitution to be."

When he spoke, the galleries were crowded, the senators were all in their places, and every one realized a crisis was at hand. Webster took four hours, delivering one of the greatest speeches of his life.

[303] At the laying of the corner-stone of Bunker Hill monument, he delivered another great oration. Thousands of persons were present, and the crowd pressed forward so eagerly that they came near carrying away the platform on which the speakers were sitting.

Webster appealed to them to stand back. "We cannot, Mr. Webster," they cried; "it is impossible." "Impossible!" thundered the great orator, "I tell you that nothing is impossible on Bunker Hill."

The people, moved by his eloquent words, rolled back like waves from the shore.


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