DANIEL WEBSTER by Irving H. Bartlett
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A fallen angel,"" Whittier called him. This substantial, accessible biography by a 19th-century specialist accomplishes its aim of showing both the grounds for the stunning popular esteem Daniel Webster gained early on, and the flaws that skewed his ambition and weakened his stature even before he shocked New England by supporting the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. More fully than other recent writers, who have focused on Webster's years in the Senate and State Department, Bartlett examines his youth. A tavernkeeping father gave the New Hampshire farm boy an education at Phillips Exeter (where he was too shy for public speaking) and Dartmouth (where he first displayed his Olympian style and penchant for luxurious debt). Bartlett thinks Webster developed a psychological dependency on his father which kept him from full use of his undoubted brilliance and bears on what his enemies called his ""very elastic moral principles."" By the standard of the age, however, Webster's political and financial conflicts of interest were striking in degree, not in kind, as Bartlett underscores. And it was a principled conservatism that restrained him on the slavery issue, the same conservatism that made him the embodiment of the Union and the Constitution for two still centrifugally disposed generations. Bartlett's animated review of Webster's public career shows that, however embroiled in narrow disputes, Webster was a prime creator of American nationalism; rather glibly, he adds that Webster's Haws, his quest for power and wealth, were America's flaws. More significant is the book's emphasis that Webster was idolized for his simplicity, dignity, and majestic serenity, not simply his dynamism; and most striking, perhaps, after Bartlett's scrutiny of the inner and outer man, is Webster's own apparently total lack of self-examination. A broadly aimed, many-sided, satisfying contribution.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1978
ISBN: 0393009963
Publisher: Norton