The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVI. Webster

§ 1. Webster not a Writer

WE may take it for granted that Webster knew well how large a place he would fill in the history of his time. He was singularly free from small vanities and petty conceit but he was too great a man not to be conscious of his own intellectual power or of the part which he had played in his day and generation. His feeling about himself comes out in the famous passage of the Seventh of March speech when he asked: “What States are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be?” A remarkable question that last one! With the exception of Washington and Lincoln, who in our history could have solemnly put it forth in a public speech without being laughed at and ridiculed? Yet Webster uttered the words in a speech in the Senate, and a political opponent said that the tone of that question made him shudder as if some dire calamity were at hand. Laughter and ridicule fled before this naked assertion of a personality, and men not only shrank from the visions which it conjured up but accepted it as very solemn and entirely natural. The power of the orator was one reason, no doubt, for the impression, but the greatness of the man himself was the controlling cause.

Yet despite this just sense of his place in the history of his time and of his own greatness, Webster would have been profoundly surprised to find himself included as a marked figure in the history of our literature. Except for a fragment of an autobiography and some private letters he never wrote anything in the literary sense. In his day public men did not turn to the newspaper or the magazine for an opportunity to express their views upon public questions. The age of pamphlets, so much used by the framers of the Constitution and the founders of our government, had passed away. That of the magazine and the review had not arrived. Men in public life trusted to their speeches in Parliament or Congress or before the people, almost as in the days of Fox and Pitt, to make their arguments and opinions known, and they would have thought any other course hardly consistent with their dignity. Moreover, Webster did not give his leisure, as many statesmen have done, to writing memoirs or history or to the discussion in book form of some question which interested him. The reason was simple. When Webster was not in office or when he had an interval between the sessions of Congress, he gave his time to the practice of his profession, and great cases before the courts absorbed all his energy.