This massive biography leaves no stone unturned in portraying a familiar but little-studied antebellum figure, considered...


DANIEL WEBSTER: The Man and His Time

This massive biography leaves no stone unturned in portraying a familiar but little-studied antebellum figure, considered the young country's best orator. Veteran historian Remini (Henry Clay, 1991; The Life of Andrew Jackson, 1988; etc.) maintains a delicate balance between Webster's (1782-1852) two personas: ""the Godlike Daniel,"" so called for his brilliant public addresses and eulogies of heroes of the American Revolution, and ""Black Dan,"" a tag referring not only to his dark appearance but to his ruthless politicking and ferocious temper. Much of the study of Webster's public life is organized around the famous speeches that defined and shaped his career, including his dual eulogy of presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and his congressional address appealing for early recognition of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, which positioned the congressman and senator for later appointments as secretary of state. Black Dan is more evident in Remini's depiction of the statesman's private life. Besides being alcoholic, Webster had the terrible misfortune of outliving four of his five children, launching three abortive and embarrassing attempts to gain the presidency, and suffering endless financial problems. Remini quite deftly shows why he was known as ""the Great Expounder and Defender of the Constitution,"" depicting Webster as one of the earliest strict constructionists, a man who felt that the Constitution was the defining American document and that the preservation of the Union took precedence over all other policy considerations. Unfortunately, it is here that Webster's political clout was eventually devalued, as he refused to combat the Fugitive Slave Act and chose to accept House Speaker Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise, which perpetuated slavery and did nothing but guarantee the outbreak of war. Remini never properly indicts Webster for this moral lapse, nor does he explain why constitutional amendments to reverse the injustice were not considered. Though Remini's obvious admiration for Webster may sometimes cloud his view, a more complete and engrossing biography could not be produced.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 1997

ISBN: 0393318494

Page Count: 796

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1997