Page images
PDF
EPUB

from a rival, and even an opponent. There is an impression produced by the exertions of commanding talent, even on the mind least prepossessed in favor of the individual by whom it is manifested, which is not easily mistaken. We presume, if those who, from every part of the country, have watched, with the greatest attention and interest, the splendid displays of power, eloquence, and statesmanship, which have been made in the Senate, were called upon to designate the acknowledged leaders, that, after each one, according to his taste, opinions, and sectional prejudices, had named his favorite, it would be found that the second place was accorded to Mr. Webster, by all who did not claim for him the first; which a vast number, unquestionably, in every part of the country, would be found to do.

The position which Mr. Webster fills in the eyes of the country, by this general consent, is the more honorable to him, when it is recollected that it is the victory gained by talent, wholly unaided by those advantages of opportunity, which, to other men, have given official standing, influence, and political power. Mr. Webster came forward at a period when that ascendency, which New England possessed from the early settlement of the colonies, and which was strengthened by her agency in the great triumphs of the revolution, had passed away. Other portions of the country had grown up; the West was settled; the Virginian dynasty was in undisputed possession of the public favor; and new centres of political influence had been established, in which New England was allowed to have no share. Had he been a foreigner, barely naturalized, he would have come forward with less prejudice than as a New Englander of talent and promise. At the early age of thirty, and without preliminary training in the state assemblies, he rose at once, in the Congress of 1812, to an undisputed eminence; and it was said of him, even then, by one of the very few who could have disputed his rank, (Mr. Lowndes,) "that the North had not his equal, nor the South his superior." What might not have been his career, had he sprung from the other side of the Potomac ! He would have succeeded Mr. Monroe, as inevitably as sunrise succeeds the dawn, and would have been thought to sustain, with increased lustre, the line of the great men of Virginia.

It is not merely that Mr. Webster has forced his way to the

exalted position which he occupies in the public mind, against the whole force of this prejudice, (the operation of which is unquestionably a subject of just complaint,) but he has also reared the fabric of his own reputation, without the fair and natural advantage of high official station. It is a somewhat singular fact, that, from the time Mr. Webster first crossed the threshold of public life, to the present hour, he has never owed any thing to executive favor, nor held of any body but the people. To many public men, Congress is the most advantageous theatre. Its action and reaction, its excitement, its collision, its public display, give the fullest scope to talent of the most popular cast. But it may be safely said of Mr. Webster, that even in the Senate of the United States, his powers are beyond his field. Brilliant as is his position, and unsurpassed as is his power, in the senatorial arena, no man can witness, and calmly analyze, the character of his efforts, without feeling that his intellect is above the contentious sphere of the mere partisan warfare, which is often waged, even there. It is impossible to repress the idea, that his largeness of view, his coolness, gravity, sagacity, power of investigation, and his dignified eloquence, could only act to their greatest advantage in a high executive sphere; in the conduct of arduous negotiations with foreign powers; in disposing of great questions of public policy; comprehending within one grand survey the various interests of this mighty country; infusing a lofty patriotism into the people, by public addresses, conceived and executed with real ability, essential force, and good sense, and exhibiting to foreign nations a noble specimen of the sovereignty of intellect. No person would hesitate to admit, that there is nothing preserved in the archives of the Government, from the days of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton down, which is not equalled by the reports of the committees of which Mr. Webster has acted as chairman; and that he would bring to any office known to the Constitution, and to any of its duties, a power, to say the least, never surpassed by any of the justly celebrated men who fill the highest places in our political history, and owe their fame to the opportunities of public appearance afforded by their station. We think it may be said, for instance, without injustice, of Mr. Jefferson, that, unless early placed in eminent station, by executive appointment, he would have filled a much narrower space in the public mind.

Had he been in the minority, he would have been comparatively undistinguished.

As Mr. Webster has enjoyed none of the advantages of executive station, so his system of political action, and his power and influence as a public man, are free from that narrowness and spirit of private arrangement, which grow out of long training in an organized majority. Nothing so effectually breaks down the elements of a public character, naturally promising, or so soon matures the corruption of one naturally weak, as regular promotion, through all the gradations of rank, in an organized and dominant party. The stronger the party is, the more fatal its influence on a true statesman-like generosity of character. The only desire naturally felt by its members, is to keep in the ranks. All generous ambition of personal excellence is subdued; for personal excellence, too strongly marked, is embarrassing, invidious, and dangerous. The successive posts of trust are attained by favor; are secured by the arts of private intercourse; by dutiful attendance on the head of the party; laborious intercourse with its prominent leaders; and a spirit-crushing correspondence with its infinity of village great men. There is no time, no courage, no place, no call for efforts of independent power; and a man reaches, at last, the object, in the regular line of promotion, a wonder to the community, and a still greater wonder to himself. It is, indeed, a noble and heart-stirring spectacle, when a crisis comes on, to see the long array of politicians of this description, crowding together in trepidation, like a fleet of gun-boats, at the sight of an enemy's frigate, waiting for some statesman of the true stamp-self-formed, self-poised—the work and the man of the people, to bear down, in his pride and strength, to meet and vanquish the foe. It is a singular and a most incontestable fact, that the present Administration, but for the voice of Mr. Webster, and those of his friends who rallied under him, would have been left in a state of the most pitiable weakness, in the great war of nullification. But for him, the powerful champions of that doctrine, in the Senate of the United States, would have trampled the policy of the Administration, and with it the supremacy of the Constitution, into dishonorable fragments. One cause of the prodigious power, with which popular revolutions in monarchical

governments move forward, is, that they bring on, by the nature of the case, an instant collision between the men of routine, the men of place, the men raised by favor and trained in the bureaux, with the men of self-formed characters, who come fresh to affairs, urged forward by the noble impulses of duty and patriotism; speaking out of the fullness of generous hearts; assuming the posts of danger or of labor assigned them by the acclamations of the people. Official experience and etiquette, habits of authority, and all the curious network of personal intercourse and correspondence, fly to pieces, before the breath of such men, like cobwebs before a storm. What could the place-men and veteran ministers of Charles I. effect against the great popular spirits of the commonwealth? In lieu of all other capacity, that of a blind and melancholy firmness alone remained,-a principle, at best, not of efficient action, but of heroic sacrifice. What could the accomplished courtiers, who formed the cabinet of Louis XVI., effect against the Mirabeaus and the Lafayettes? or how long would the adroitest chancellor of either of the continental empires, at the present day, stand in a strenuous contest with a powerful mind, in a revolutionary chamber of deputies? The robes of office, worn too long, give a mincing gait to the politician; and it is not the least of Mr. Webster's titles to the sympathy of the people, that they have never, for a moment, impeded the bold strides of his intellect. Nor has he been less a stranger to the emoluments than the honors of executive station. More work has been done by him for the public, since his first entrance upon political life, than by any six official functionaries, of the ordinary class, during the period of an administration; but they have been the voluntary services of a great parliamentary leader, unrewarded with office, and unpaid by gold. Not a dollar has passed, by executive gift, from the treasury into his hands, or those of any person, however remotely connected with him, or in whose interest he might be supposed to be personally concerned.

This is not mentioned as if any discredit attached to the enjoyment of the honors and emoluments of office, when office is worthily obtained, and filled to the advantage of the country. But there is a point on which we feel disposed, for a moment, to dwell, as one of no little importance. We live under a Govern

[blocks in formation]

ment, which, as every one, of course, knows and understands, is popular, organized by popular elections, recurring at short intervals. But the spirit and genius of the Government are still more popular than its form. There are parts of the Government, designed to be removed, by one or two degrees, from immediate popular interference. Such is the provision for the choice of the President by electors; such is the constitution of the Judiciary, holding by a life-tenure; such is the six years' term of the Senate. But it is next to impossible to give to either of these Constitutional provisions any efficacy beyond that which popular sentiment, at the time, accords to it. The intervention of the electoral college is known to be purely nominal. It is profoundly observed, by Mr. Webster, in his Worcester Speech-"We have been accustomed to venerate the judiciary, and to repose hopes of safety on that branch of the Government. But let us not deceive ourselves. The judicial power cannot stand, for a long time, against the executive power. The judges, it is true, hold their places by an independent tenure; but they are mortal. That which is the common lot of humanity must make it necessary to renew the benches of justice. And how will they be filled? Doubtless, Sir, they will be filled with incumbents agreeing with the President in his Constitutional opinions. If the court is felt as an obstacle, doubtless the first opportunity, and every opportunity, will be embraced, to give it less and less the character of an obstacle. Without pursuing these suggestions, I only say, that the country must prepare itself for any change in the judicial department, such as it may deliberately sanction in other departments." Nor is it only in this way, that the principle of popular control over the judiciary is carried out. We have seen, within three years, the mandate of the court rendered nugatory by the steady refusal of the executive, strong in the support of a dominant party, to carry it into effect. The senatorial term presents a barrier somewhat more efficient against rapid fluctuations of what is called the popular will, (that is, small changes of majorities at contested elections,) but passing events teach us how seriously this is menaced.

These reflections all establish our point, that the Government, popular in its theory, popular in its conception, and in the rightful

« PreviousContinue »