"Lucifer, the Fallen Angel" - John Greenleaf Whittier's Assessment
I have mixed feelings about this particular choice by John Kennedy for his seven leading Senatorial examples of courage in PROFILES IN COURAGE. Not so much that Daniel Webster's action in the Compromise of 1850 was not outstandingly courageous, but it opens up a discussion about whether he really suffered as a result.
You see, President (then Senator) Kennedy suggested that real courage by a political figure is shown when you stand up for principle in the face of popular anger. Edmund Burke made a famous comment about this, in describing how he viewed his duty to his constituents in Parliament in the 1770s. Burke's quote (is that an elected official owes his constituents the wisdom of his experience in making a choice that he or she feels is right, even if the constituents disagree.
But what always got me about the examples he chose, and the television series, was that the end results did not necessarily follow the theme of principle versus political expediency. Plenty of people are elected for pursuing a popular set of policies for years, but the population switches, and their viewpoint is now disqualified and they are out of office.
Look at the isolationists who controlled Congress in 1920 - 1941, mostly from the South and West. They were riding massive approval rates in election after election. Then came Pearl Harbor. Suddenly isolationism suggested pro-Fascist views. Many Senators were defeated by angry voters at home who voted for them previously.
Furthermore, Kennedy's approach suggested that standing up for principle led to political oblivion. Actually it did not always do so. Of the seven leading figures in the book, only Edmund Ross (a Republican who supported President Andrew Johnson against removal from office) really fell into oblivion (he was made territorial governor of New Mexico years later).
Daniel Webster is best recalled by most people as the great orator Senator, whose ringing declaration of nationalism, "Liberty and Union, Now and forever, One and Inseparable!", to Senator Robert Hayne in 1832 remains on our conscience. He is also recalled by the story THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER by Steven Vincent Benet, with the great film version ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY that starred Edward Arnold as a splendid Webster, and Walter Huston as "Mr. Scratch". He was the spokesman for the Northeast business community, and was (with Calhoun, Clay, and Benton) one of the leading four Senators from 1821 - 1850.
Like Calhoun and Clay (but remarkably unlike Benton, who despised pandering for the office), Webster wanted to be President. Calhoun would serve seven controversial years (under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson) as Vice President, before resigning). Clay would run for President three times - twice as a nationally supported candidate, but lose (to Adams, Jackson, and Polk). Webster was one of four Whigs regionally nominated in 1836 to run against Van Buren (who defeated them all). He did serve as Secretary of State under William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settling the Maine - Canadian border in the Aroostook area in 1843. Hardly a bad career at all.
But Webster (here played by Martin Gabel) was caught by the Compromise of 1850 situation in a mirror-image reversal of Benton's. Like Benton a strong nationalist, Webster came from a state with a growing electorate taking a side in the slavery issue - but Massachusetts favored abolitionism more and more. Webster had been in conferences with Clay (the author of the new Compromise) and Stephen Douglas (leader of those Democrats seeking a Compromise). This was to get California into the Union, but reassure the slave holders that their rights to property were upheld. This included the Fugitive Slave Act, wherein escaping slaves had to be returned from Northern states to the South. Webster thought it was a fair bargain, but people like Whittier (whose assessment of Webster, in a contemporary poem, is in the "Summary Line") condemned him as a regional traitor and turncoat. This was especially true after he delivered his last great Senatorial speech, the Seventh of March Speech (delivered on March 7, 1850), which supported the compromised agreement. Webster's local reputation went into the mud.
And here is the problems with the episode, and Kennedy's assessment. Webster died two years later. In the meantime, it is true he was no longer in the Senate. But - when Zachary Taylor died, his Vice President Millard Fillmore took over. Fillmore offered Webster his old post of Secretary of State again, and Webster was in that post when he died. He even received some electoral votes, posthumously, in the 1852 Presidential election. Again, he was hardly suffering from his political principles as Kennedy leaves us to believe.
Martin Gabel was a forceful little actor with a great speaking voice. He does show the turmoil and pressures that Webster faced, and that the episode suggests (falsely) crushed him. As for Whittier, his poems about New England life are more popular than his political poetry - if and when people read him. Most of Webster's attackers are long since forgotten by history.
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