A Note on Daniel Webster

I’ve been amused at comments on this blog that seek to offer an explanation as to my interest in Ben Carson’s use (and perhaps misuse) of Daniel Webster, and his confusing Noah and Daniel Webster (all understandable errors given the context). Must it be because somehow I want to take Dr. Carson to task?

Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in Daniel Webster.

In 1986 I delivered my first paper at a professional conference–the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, which met that year in Knoxville. I was by far the junior member of the panel, and I spoke on Daniel Webster … specifically, “The Constitution as Symbol and Sentiment: The Case of Daniel Webster.” The conference took place at the University of Tennessee. I was then working there as an assistant editor for The Papers of Andrew Johnson.

The opportunity before me was a stroke of good fortune and professional kindness. It so happened that Milton M. Klein, a rather distinguished historian of the Constitution and New York colonial politics, worked at a desk in the Johnson Papers Project, which was housed in the basement of the university library. One day Milton got a call about the conference, asking him to put together a panel where he would speak. Milton looked up, covered the phone receiver, and asked if I had something I could present. Note he did not ask me whether I wanted to present–he knew the opportunity that he was affording me. Without missing a beat, I said that I could present something on Daniel Webster. Milton smiled, returned to the caller, and said that he could form a panel, and he already knew one person who would be on it–me.

Now, what could I say about Daniel Webster that had not been said before? Good question. I had read several studies of Webster’s life in politics since my time as an undergraduate, including books by Robert Dalzell and Sydney Nathans, and a short biography by Richard Current and a somewhat longer one by Irving Bartlett. And, of course, Webster had attended my prep school, Exeter, and I’d been a part of the Daniel Webster Debating Society, which met up on the top floor of Phillips Hall, one of Exeter’s major classroom buildings. But it’s one thing to read about someone, another thing to write about that person, and still another to conduct original research in an effort to say something new about that person.

That did not deter me, although perhaps it should have. After thinking for a while, I came up with an approach to Webster that argued that his interest in positioning himself as the nation’s foremost explicator of the Constitution was also a means to make his claim that he was most fit for the nation’s highest office because he was also best equipped to understand, interpret, and explicate the nation’s cornerstone document as the generation of the Founders left the scene. At a time when much of American politics was framed in conversations about what the Constitution meant and what it allowed (and prohibited), Webster offered an understanding of fitness for high office that stood in contrast to the drive toward party organizations and popular elections that characterized the age in which he lived. His peers might be politicians, but Webster hoped to be a statesman, complete with oratorical flourishes that moved the heart and soul just as much as his arguments were designed to persuade the mind.

That worked. And so I went into the library, read Webster’s speeches, and wrote my paper.

It was a morning panel on the last day of the conference, but as there was no book exhibit, the room was packed, and I mean packed, with people standing in the back. One of the other presenters was Jacob E. Cooke, one of Milton’s friends who had worked on the papers of Alexander Hamilton as well as having written his own biography of the first secretary of the treasury. My paper was last, and I rushed through it, the first of several times that I learned the wisdom of making papers shorter and to refrain from reading lengthy quotations. However, it appears that I still “delivered” the paper, because someone made the comment that I did Webster proud by sounding like him (as if anyone present had ever heard him).

When the session was over, one historian made his way to the front to chat with me for a moment. It was Daniel Walker Howe, who had written a book on the Whigs that included a useful chapter on Webster. To my mind Howe was already a presence, and I could not understand why he wanted to talk to me. He had liked the paper, he remarked: was this the start of a longer study that would reinterpret Webster?

If I blushed, I hope he didn’t notice, because to have Daniel Walker Howe ask me that question was about as good as it could get for me. I shyly–yes, shyly–responded that I was not sure what I would do with what I had found. Pleased beyond measure, I left the room, walked outside, and then fell in with several people who were looking for lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut. Only when we said down did I realize that Gordon Wood was part of the party–Wood, whose massive The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 happened to be the first history book I read in my first year at the University of Virginia.

So it was a good conference.

Nearly three years later I travelled to Toronto to give a revised (and much tightened) version of the paper at another conference. That conference met at the rather well-known Royal York Hotel, a building I had seen on TV but never in person. That would have been the highlight of the trip, but for me it was a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame … and the remark of a Canadian with whom I was discussing hockey that I knew too much about the game to be an American, and that I could pass for a Canadian. I’m not sure any praise has ever made me happier.

The Webster paper appeared two years later in a journal. It must have been worth someone’s attention, because the entry for Webster in the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress cites it. References to the article still pop up from time to time, most recently in a paper written in 2013.

And that, folks, is why I was interested in what Ben Carson said. He was trying to understand Daniel Webster and the Constitution, just like I had. When people questioned the quote, I went to work, with the results you saw in two blog entries. That others think differently … well, as I said today, “Forgive us if we don’t recognize ourselves in your projected fantasies … and forgive us, too, if we suggest that those fantasies tell us so much more about you than about us.”

11 thoughts on “A Note on Daniel Webster

  1. John Kirn October 14, 2015 / 6:11 am

    Nice story Brooks. It’s always fun to look back and remember how giants in the profession captivated and influenced us as young historians. Receiving a nice comment at a conference or simply being footnoted in a book could keep me going for weeks. Your story also helps us to connect with you and where you’re coming from. Save it for your memoirs.

  2. Charles Persinger October 14, 2015 / 6:54 am

    Apparently, you have to be critical of a liberal in the same breath or you’re a biased liberal…

  3. OhioGuy October 14, 2015 / 7:08 am

    Brooks, this is a most interesting personal story and fully explains your interest in Dr. Carson’s confusion about the writings of Noah Webster versus Daniel Webster. I’m not sure why some were so quick to assign you ulterior motives. I’m really glad you shared this information about your early years as an historian. As an aside, I have a friend who was at Exeter about the same time as you were. He would have been a class or two ahead of you. By private communication I’m going to send you his name to see if you might know him.

  4. Jimmy Dick October 14, 2015 / 10:44 am

    Wonderful explanation. I would love to meet Gordon Wood. His writing changed my focus on historical studies to the Revolution and Early Republic. I love how we historians will list heroes like Wood, Howe, Foner and everyone that isn’t a historian will wonder what sport we are talking about.

  5. Phil LeDuc October 14, 2015 / 11:40 am

    Thanks for such a wonderful story. I once attended a dinner where Gordon Wood sat at the same table as me. If a diehard basketball fan would be in awe of having Michael Jordan at his/her table, that was the way I felt at having Gordon Wood at mine. And he was a very friendly guy too.
    Thanks again.

  6. Mark October 16, 2015 / 12:42 am

    I already said what is fairly obvious, that either Webster would be interesting in and of themselves. I think the reason you feel that I’ve questioned your interest in the Carson-Webster thing is because I questioned your lack of interest in analysis, certainly in what I thought was the original question (which is also interesting in and of itself, and to which I gave my analysis before the update), to which you retorted that I couldn’t deal with “scrutiny” of Carson. The question raises itself over the disparity.

    • John Foskett October 16, 2015 / 3:15 pm

      All your bases are belong to us.

  7. Mike October 19, 2015 / 11:28 am

    I too first met Howe at SHEAR. Friends of mine invited him into my room to share some bourbon in the middle of the day. Needless to say, it was the highlight of the meeting for me.

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