Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

at the small number of disputed cases which have arisen, and at the sagacity, forethought, and practical wisdom of the founders of our government, who made such admirable provision foi the harmonious operation of the system.

Still, however, it was impossible that the class of cases provided for by the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States should not present themselves, and no small portion of Mr. Webster's forensic life has been devoted to their investigation. It is unnecessary to state that they are questions of an elevated character. They often involve the validity of the legislative acts and judicial decisions of governments substantially independent, as they may in fact the constitutionality of the acts of Congress itself. No court in England will allow any thing, not even a treaty with a foreign government, or the most undoubted principles of the law of nations, to be pleaded against an act of Parliament. The Supreme Court of the United States entertains the question not only of the constitutionality of the acts of the legislatures of States possessing most of the attributes of sovereignty, but also of the constitutionality of the acts of the national legislature, which possesses those attributes of sovereignty which are denied to the States. These circumstances give great dignity to its deliberations, and tend materially to elevate the character of a constitutional lawyer in the United States.* Professional training in England has not been deemed the best school of statesmanship; but it will be readily perceived, that in this country a great class of questions, and those of the highest importance, belong alike to the senate and the court. Every one must feel that, in the case of Mr. Webster, the lawyer and the statesman have contributed materially to form each other.

Before quite quitting this subject, it may be proper to allude to Mr. Webster's professional labors of another class, in the ordinary State tribunals. Employed as counsel in all the most important cases during a long professional life, it is hardly necessary to say, that his investigations have extended to every department of the law, and that his speeches to the jury and arguments to the court have evinced a mastery of the learning

* "Crescit enim cum amplitudine rerum vis ingenii, nee quisquam claram et inlustrem orationem efficere potest, nisi qui causam parem invenit." The dialogue De Oralorilus, § 37, usually printed with the works of Tacitus.

and a control of the logic belonging to it, which are in most cases to be attained only by the exclusive study and practice of a life. The jurist and the advocate are so mingled in Mr. Webster's professional character, that it is not easy to say which predominates. His fervid spirit and glowing imagination place at his control all the resources of an overwhelming rhetoric, and make him all-powerful with a jury; while the ablest court is guided by his severe logic, and instructed by the choice which he lays before them of the most appropriate learning of the cases which he argues. It happens, unfortunately, that forensic efforts of this kind are rarely reported at length. A brief sketch of an important law argument finds a place in the history of the case, but distinguished counsel rarely have time or bestow the labor required to reproduce in writing an elaborate address either to court or jury. There is probably no species of intellectual labor of the highest order, which perishes for want of a contemporary record to the same extent as that which is daily exerted in the courts of law.

The present collection contains two speeches addressed to the jury by Mr. Webster in criminal trials. One was delivered in the case of Goodridge, and in defence of the persons whom he accused of having robbed him on the highway. This cause was tried in 1817, shortly after the establishment of Mr. Webster at Boston. Rarely has a case, in itself of no greater importance, produced a stronger impression of the ability of the counsel. The cross-examination of Goodridge, who pretended to have been robbed, and who had previously been considered a person of some degree of respectability, is still remembered at the bar of Massachusetts as terrific beyond example, and the speech to the jury in which his artfully contrived tale was stripped of its disguises may be studied as a model of this species of exposition.

Mr. Webster's speech to the jury in the memorable case of John F. Knapp is of a higher interest. The great importance of this case, as well on account of the legal principles involved, as of the depth of the tragedy in real life with which it was connected, has given it a painful celebrity. A detailed history of the case and of the trial, from the pen of the late ingenious and learned Mr. Merrill, will be found prefixed to Mr. Webster's speech, as contained in the fifth volume of this collection. The record of the causes celebres of no country or age will furnish either a more thrilling narrative, or a forensic effort of greater ability. A passage on the power of conscience will arrest the attention of the reader. There is nothing in the language superior to it. It was unquestionably owing to the legal skill and moral courage with which the case was conducted by Mr. Webster, that one of the foulest crimes ever committed was brought to condign punishment; and the nicest refinements of the law of evidence were made the means of working out the most important practical results. But it is time to return to the chronological series of events.

CHAPTER IV.

The Convention to revise the Constitution of Massachusetts.—John Adams a Delegate. — Mr. Webster's Share in its Proceedings. — Speeches on Oaths of Office, Basis of Senatorial Representation, and Independence of the Judiciary. — Centennial Anniversary at Plymouth on the 22d of December, 1820. — Discourse delivered by Mr. Webster. — Bunker Hill Monument, and Address by Mr. Webster on the Laying of the Corner-Stone, 17th of June, 1825. — Discourse on the Completion of the Monument, 17th of June, 1843.— Simultaneous Decease of Adams and Jefferson on the 4th of July, 1826.— Eulogy by Mr. Webster in Faneuil Hall. — Address at the Laying of the Corner-Stone of the New Wing of the Capitol.— Remarks on the Patriotic Discourses of Mr. Webster, and on the Character of his Eloquence in Efforts of this Class.

In 1820, on the separation of Maine, a convention became necessary in Massachusetts to readjust the Senate; and the occasion was deemed a favorable one for a general revision of the constitution. The various towns in the Commonwealth were authorized by law to choose as many delegates as they were entitled to elect members to the House of Representatives; and a body was constituted containing much of the talent, political experience, and weight of character of the State. Mr. Webster was chosen one of the delegates from Boston; and, with the exception of a few days' service, two or three years afterwards, in the Massachusetts House of Representatives,* this is the only occasion on which he ever filled any political office under the State government either of Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

The venerable John Adams, second President of the United States, was a delegate to this convention from Quincy. He was the author of the original draft of the State constitution in 1780, and although his advanced age (he was now eighty

"Mr. Webster makes the following playful allusion to this circumstance in a speech at a public dinner in Syracuse (New York), in the month of May of the present year: —

"It has so happened that all the public services which I have rendered in the world, in my day and generation, have been connected with the general government. I think I ought to make an exception. I was ten days a member of the Massachusetts legislature, and I turned my thoughts to the search for some good object in which I could be useful in that position; and, after much reflection, I introduced a bill which, with the general consent of both houses of the Massachusetts legislature, passed into a law, and is now a law of the State, which enacts that no man in the State shall catch trout in any other manner than in the old way, with an ordinary hook and line."

six years old) made it impossible for him to take an active part in the proceedings of the convention, he received the honor of a unanimous election as president. He declined the appointment; and Chief Justice Parker was chosen in his place.

The convention of 1820 was no doubt as respectable a political body as ever assembled in Massachusetts; and it is no more than justice to Mr. Webster to say, that, although he had been but a few years a citizen of the Commonwealth, and was personally a stranger to most of his associates, he was among the most efficient members of the body. He was named chairman of the committee to whom the important subject of oaths and qualifications for office was referred, and of the special committee on that chapter of the constitution which relates to the "University at Cambridge." Besides taking a leading part in the discussion of most of the important subjects which were agitated in the convention, he was the authority most deferred to on questions of order, and in that way exercised a steady and powerful influence over the general course of its proceedings. It is believed that on this occasion the practice of considering business in committee of the whole body was for the first time adopted in Massachusetts; that mode of procedure never having obtained in the legislature of the State. The dignified and efficient manner in which the duties of the chair were performed by Mr. Webster, whenever he was called to occupy it, was matter of general remark. It has often been a subject of regret with those who witnessed the uncommon aptitude evinced by him on these, as on similar occasions at Washington, for the discharge of the duties of presiding officer of a deliberative assembly, that he was never, during his Congressional career, called to the important office of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Considering the relation of the House to the political condition of the country, there is no position under the government which bears more directly upon the general character of the public counsels. The place has occasionally, both in former times and recently, been filled with great ability; but it has more frequently happened that speakers have been chosen from considerations of political expediency, and without regard to personal qualifications and fitness for the office. The effect

« ÎnapoiContinuați »