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

§ 4. Webster’s Permanence

Burke was a literary man as well as an orator and a statesman; Webster, as has just been said, was not a literary man at all. He was an orator pure and simple; his speeches, good, bad, or indifferent, are speeches—never essays or anything but speeches—and yet upon all alike is the literary touch. In all, certainly in all the great speeches, is the fine literary quality, always felt, never seen, ever present, never obtrusive. He had the combination of Shakespeare’s Brutus or Antony, of Demosthenes or Cicero, and when he rose to his greatest heights he reached a place beyond the fear of rivalry. The practical proof and exhibition of this fact is apparent if we turn to any serious and large debate in Congress, for there we shall find Webster quoted, as he is in every session, twenty times as often as any other public man in our history. He said many profound, many luminous, many suggestive things; he was an authority on many policies and on the interpretation of the Constitution. But there have been others of whom all this might be said—there were kings before Agamemnon—but they are rarely quoted, while Webster is quoted constantly. He had strong competitors in his own day and in his own field, able, acute, and brilliant men. He rose superior to them, it appears, in his lifetime; and now that they are all dead Webster’s words are familiar to hundreds while his rivals are little more than names. So far as familiarity in the mouths of men goes, it is Eclipse first and the rest nowhere. That which has made this possible is his rare combination of speech and literature; it is the literary quality, the literary savour which keeps what Webster said fresh, strong, and living. When we open the volumes of his speeches it is not like unrolling the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, to find within a dry and shrivelled form, a faint perfume alone surviving faintly to recall the vanished days, as when

  • Some queen, long dead, was young.
  • Rather it is like the opening of Charlemagne’s tomb, when his imperial successor started back before the enthroned figure of the great emperor looking out upon him, instinct with life under the red glare of the torches.

    Let us apply another and surer test. How many speeches to a jury in a criminal trial possessing neither political nor public interest survive in fresh remembrance seventy years after their delivery? One can hardly think of jury speeches of any kind which stand this ordeal except, in a limited way, some few of Erskine’s, and those all have the advantages of historical significance, dealing as they do with constitutional and political questions of great moment. But there is one of Webster’s speeches to a jury which lives to-day, and no more crucial test could be applied than the accomplishment of such a feat. The White murder case was simply a criminal trial, without a vestige of historical, political, or general public interest. Yet Webster’s speech for the prosecution has been read and recited until well-nigh hackneyed. It is in readers and manuals. and is still declaimed by schoolboys. Some of its phrases are familiar quotations and have passed into general speech. Let us recall a single passage:

  • He has done the murder. No eye has seen him; no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe.
  • Ah, gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the guilty can bestow it and say it is safe.… A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, everything, every circumstance connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul can not keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or, rather, it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labours under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him, and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed; it will be confessed. There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.
  • Those are words spoken to men, not written for them. It is a speech and nothing else, and yet we feel all through it the literary value and quality which make it imperishable. If now we go back to Webster’s earlier days we can trace throughout his speeches, once he had escaped from the flowers of eloquence which burdened his youth, the literary touch appearing with increasing frequency until it came continually, quite naturally and without effort. As the sureness of the literary touch increased, so did the taste become refined until it was finally almost unerring.