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CHAPTER XXXIV. CALLED TO THE CABINET.
In the Presidential campaign of 1840, General Harrison, the nominee of the Whig party, swept the country, and was elected amid demonstrations of popular enthusiasm till then unprecedented. As we look back upon this time, uninfluenced by passion, we can only wonder how a man so moderately fitted for the position should have aroused such a furor. That he should have been nominated, while such born leaders and accomplished statesmen as Mr. Webster were passed over, need excite no surprise. In an ideal republic the best man and the wisest statesman would be selected, but there are no ideal statesmen, and are not likely to be. General Harrison was available, and therefore was put forward as the standard-bearer.

I do not mean to say that our nominees have always been mediocre men. James A. Garfield was a trained and experienced statesman, so was James Buchanan (his faults were of a different order), so were the early Presidents, and so have been occasional nominees of both great parties; but, as a rule, public men of the first rank have been passed by for candidates more available.

General Harrison showed this evidence of fitness for his high station, that almost immediately after his election, he indicated a strong desire that Mr. Webster should enter his Cabinet. Modestly distrustful of his own abilities, he wished to strengthen his administration by calling to his councils Mr. Webster and Mr. Clay. He writes thus to Mr. Webster, Dec. 1, 1840:

“Since I was first a candidate for the Presidency, I had determined, if successful, to solicit your able assistance in conducting the administration, and I now ask you to accept the State or Treasury Department. I have myself no preference of either for you, but it may perhaps be more difficult to fill the latter than the former, if you should decline it. It was the first designed for you, in the supposition that you had given more attention to the subject of the finances than Mr. Clay, to whom I intended to have offered the State Department. This, as well as any other post in the Cabinet, I understood, before my arrival here, from an intimate friend of that gentleman, he would decline. This he has since done personally to me.”

Mr. Webster replied that “for the daily details of the Treasury, the matters of account, and the supervision of subordinate officers employed in the collection and disbursement of public moneys,” he did not think himself to be particularly well qualified. He indicated that he would accept the office of Secretary of State.

Mr. Webster no doubt accurately gauged his own abilities. No one could be better fitted for the premiership and the conduct of our foreign relations, as the event proved. At this time especially a strong, judicious statesman of the first rank was required, for the relations between the United States and Great Britain were very delicate and even critical, and a rash hand might easily have plunged the two countries into war. One vexed question related to the boundary between this country and the provinces of Nova Scotia and Canada. This question was complicated by others of a still more irritating character, which space will not allow me to particularize. There was another question also, the long-standing claim of England to impress her own seamen, and to take them out of American vessels sailing on the high seas in time of war, rendering necessary the odious “right of search.”

Mr. Webster was influenced to accept the post of Secretary of State, because he knew these questions ought to be settled, and he felt confident of his ability to settle them. With this view the people cordially agreed, and Gen. Harrison’s choice of the great statesman of New England to take charge of our foreign relations was a very popular one.

Mr. Webster’s retirement from the Senate, and the necessary choice of a successor, gave occasion for a display of magnanimity. His relations with Ex-President John Quincy Adams were not friendly—he felt that he had been very badly treated by Mr. Adams on one occasion—but Mr. Adams, from his prominent position, was likely to be thought of as his successor in the Senate. Upon this subject Mr. Webster writes to a friend: “Some years ago, as you well know, an incident occurred which interrupted intercourse between Mr. Adams and myself for several years, and wounded the feelings of many of my friends as well as my own. With me that occurrence is overlooked and forgotten. I bury all remembrance of it under my regard for Mr. Adams’s talents, character, and public services.... Mr. Adams’s great knowledge and ability, his experience, and especially his thorough acquaintance with the foreign relations of the country, will undoubtedly make him prominent as a candidate; and I wish it to be understood that his election would be altogether agreeable to me.”

Mr. Adams, however, remained in the House of Representatives, and Rufus Choate was selected to succeed Mr. Webster. Massachusetts was fortunate in having three citizens so eminently fitted to do her honor in the national councils.

When the letter announcing Mr. Webster’s resignation of his seat was read in the Senate, Mr. Clay took occasion to pay a glowing tribute to his great eloquence and ability, referring to him as “one of the noblest specimens of American eloquence; one of the brightest ornaments of these halls, of this country, and of our common nature.”

The lamented death of General Harrison, on the 5th of April, after but a single month in office, interrupted official business, and made Mr. Webster’s position still more difficult. John Tyler, Vice-President, succeeding, soon made himself obnoxious to the party that had elected him. All the members of the Cabinet, except Mr. Webster, resigned. Mr. Webster perceived that he could not do so without serious detriment to the national interests, and he remained steadfast, thereby incurring the censure of many, who did not appreciate the patriotism and self-sacrifice that actuated him. The Secretary of State was too astute a politician not to understand that he was periling his own political fortunes, that he was raising up for himself enemies in his own State, and that his adherence to the administration might cost him the promotion which he ardently desired, for he had already fixed his eyes upon the Presidency as an object to which he might legitimately aspire. Nevertheless he adhered and kept his post till his work was done, and he had accomplished for this country what no other hand could probably have done, the peaceful adjustment of her foreign differences.

In the midst of the dissatisfaction a great meeting was held at Faneuil Hall, and Mr. Webster determined to go there and face the anger of his former friends. Whatever might have been the feelings of the packed audience when Mr. Webster rose before them in his magnificent manhood, and his deep, calm eyes fell upon the audience, every head was instantly uncovered in involuntary homage.

In the course of his speech Mr. Webster said: “There are always delicacy and regret when one feels obliged to differ from his friends, but there is no embarrassment. There is no embarrassment, because, if I see the path of duty before me, I have that within me which will enable me to pursue it, and throw all embarrassment to the winds. A public man has no occasion to be embarrassed if he is honest. Himself and his feelings should be to him as nobody and as nothing; the interest of his country must be to him as everything; he must sink what is personal to himself, making exertions for his country, and it is his ability and readiness to do this which are to mark him as a great or as a little man in time to come.

“There were many persons in September, 1841, who found great fault with my remaining in the President’s Cabinet. You know, gentlemen, that twenty years of honest and not altogether undistinguished service in the Whig cause did not save me from an outpouring of wrath which seldom proceeds from Whig pens and Whig tongues against anybody. I am, gentlemen, a little hard to coax, but as to being driven, this is out of the question. I chose to trust my own judgment; and thinking I was at a post where I was in the service of the country, and could do it good, I stayed there, and I leave it to you to-day to say, I leave it to my countrymen to say, whether the country would have been better off if I had left also. I have no attachment to office. I have tasted of its sweets, but I have tasted of its bitterness. I am content with what I have achieved; I am ready to rest satisfied with what is gained rather than to run the risk of doubtful efforts for new acquisitions.”

This is the speech of a strong man—a man not to be turned by obloquy from any step which he has made up his mind to take. I think to-day few would question the good judgment which he displayed in retaining his seat in the Cabinet. He was enabled to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain—known as the Ashburton treaty—which, if not wholly satisfactory to the United States, at any rate harmonized differences to a large extent, and removed any immediate danger of hostilities.

When Mr. Webster felt that his work was fully accomplished, on the 8th of May, 1843, he resigned the premiership, and hastened to his seaside home at Marshfield, there to enjoy the rest which he needed and craved.


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