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Daniel Webster Offers Guidance for Primaries

By David Shribman

HANOVER, N.H. -- For the next several months New Hampshire will wrestle with what makes a good president. The state's presence at the top of the presidential primaries gives it special prominence, maybe even special perspective. And so, while it ponders the qualities that make for greatness in the chief executive, perhaps it is useful to examine what New Hampshire's greatest native son had to say about the subject.

Daniel Webster spent much of his adult life thinking about the presidency, dreaming about the presidency, angling to win the presidency, moaning about the lesser mortals whom, throughout a lifetime of frustrated ambition, he watched possess the presidency that he believed he earned and deserved. And so it is not surprising to find that the qualities that made for greatness in the presidency comprised the subtheme of a long address he delivered in Albany, N.Y., in May 1851.

Webster was a politician of the old school, uncomfortable with the party system, uneasy with the post-Jackson style of politics that required a presidential candidate to campaign for the office and not simply be invited into the White House out of a sturdy consensus that he was a great man, which of course was the way he regarded himself.

In a letter to Richard M. Blatchford, a banker who was his close friend and one of his financial angels, then-Secretary of State Webster (and former senator) complained of having to travel to upstate New York, first to Buffalo for the opening of the Erie Railroad, saying he saw "four elements of distress in it: 1. Heat. 2. Crowds. 3. Limestone water. 4. The necessity of speech-making."

But Webster, his eyes fixed on the presidency even though the chief executive he served, Millard Fillmore, hadn't made his own intentions clear, went along to Buffalo and then acceded to an appeal from "the young men of Albany" to speak to them shortly thereafter.

Webster, whose support of the Compromise of 1850 in his famous Seventh of March Speech placed him in the position of favoring the Union over abolition, was in eclipse, but also in denial. "Mr. Webster had served his turn," Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in an 1883 biography, "and the men whose cause he had advocated and whose interests he had protected cast him aside."

Even so, Webster delivered a speech, plainly designed to advance his own prospects, that set out what he considered the traits of an ideal president, based on the example of George Washington, whose policies, he said, "alike liberal and just, narrowed down to no sectional interests, bound to no personal objects, held to no locality, but broad and generous and open, as expansive as the air which is wafted by the winds of heaven from one part of the country to another."

This was an era far different from our own, when sectional conflict threatened the unity of the nation and when Webster's support for the Compromise, with its fugitive slave law, made him one of the most controversial figures in the nation. But in his time as in ours, Webster's prescription for the presidency, set out in his description of the first president, had great relevance:

"Washington was cautious and prudent; no self-seeker; giving information to Congress, as directed by the Constitution, on all questions, when necessary, with fairness and frankness, claiming nothing for himself, exercising his own rights, and preserving the dignity of his station, but taking especial care to execute the laws as a paramount duty, and in such manner as to give satisfaction to all just and reasonable men."

That's not a bad job description for what we need now. And the characteristics that follow are a good summation of the way a president and his or her administration ought to approach the American people, in these or any times: "Gentlemen, a patriot president is the guardian, the protector, the friend, of every citizen of the United States. He should be, and he is, no man's persecutor, and no man's enemy, but the supporter and the protector of all and every citizen, so far as such support and protection depend on his faithful execution of the laws."

Almost precisely a year later, at age 70, Webster set out on a fishing expedition to a pond in Plymouth, Mass. He was in a carriage accident that gave him painful injuries and left him disoriented, dizzy and increasingly unsteady, so much so that for a time he could not even sign his name. This accident prompted a swift decline, and he died, disappointed and in some ways defeated, five months later.

Webster never became president, perhaps the greatest American who did not occupy the White House (though Henry Clay is another contender, and so is George C. Marshall). But a man who achieved greatness as secretary of state was right in his conception of greatness in the presidency -- and in his use of overwrought nautical metaphors, as in this passage from the Albany speech:

"His first and highest duty is to preserve the Constitution which bears him, which sustains the government, without which every thing goes to the bottom; to preserve that, and keep it, with the utmost of his ability and foresight, off the rocks and shoals, and away from the quicksands. To accomplish this great end, he exercises the caution of the experienced navigator. He suffers nothing to betray his watchfulness, or to draw him aside from the great interest committed to his care; but is always awake, always solicitous, always anxious, for the safety of the ship which is to carry him through the stormy seas."

Webster and his colleagues Clay and John C. Calhoun spoke in an idiom so unfamiliar to us that it sometimes seems as if it is drawn from a different language. But alone among the great triumvirate of 19th-century leaders -- indeed, alone in his generation -- Webster speaks to us still. It is up to his home state, and the nation, to listen.


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 David Shribman
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