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His library, amply furnished with works of professional and general literature, his large experience of men and things at home and abroad, and his uncommon amenity of temper, combined to make the period passed by Mr. Webster in his office one of the pleasantest in his life. These advantages, it hardly need be said, were not thrown away. He diligently attended the sessions of the courts and reported their decisions. He read with care the leading elementary works of the common and municipal law, with the best authors on the law of nations, some of them for a second and third time; diversifying these professional studies with a great amount and variety of general reading. His chief study, however, was the common law, and more especially that part of it which relates to the now unfashionable science of special pleading. He regarded this, not only as a most refined and ingenious, but a highly instructive and useful branch of the law. Besides mastering all that could be derived from more obvious sources, he waded through Saunders’s Reports in the original edition, and abstracted and translated into English from the Latin and Norman French all the pleadings contained in the two folio volumes. This manuscript still remains.
Just as he was about to be admitted to practise in the Suffolk Court of Common Pleas in Massachusetts, an incident occurred which came near affecting his career for life. The place of clerk in the Court of Common Pleas for the county of Hillsborough, in New Hampshire, became vacant. Of this court Mr.
. Webster's father had been made one of the judges, in conformity with a very common practice at that time, of placing on the side bench of the lower courts men of intelligence and respectability, though not lawyers. From regard to Judge Webster, the vacant clerkship was offered by his colleagues to his
It was what the father had for some time looked forward to and desired. The fees of the office were about fifteen hundred dollars per annum, which in those days and in that region was not so much a competence as a fortune. Mr. Webster himself was disposed to accept the office. It promised an immediate provision in lieu of a distant and doubtful prospect. It enabled him at once to bring comfort into his father's family, while to refuse it was to condemn himself and them to an uncertain and probably harassing future. He was willing to sacrifice his hopes of professional eminence to the welfare of those whom he held most dear. But the earnest dissuasions of Mr. Gore, who saw in this step the certain postponement, perhaps the final defeat, of all hopes of professional advancement, prevented his accepting the office. His aged father was, in a personal interview with his son, if not reconciled to the refusal, at least induced to bury his regrets in his own bosom. The subject was never mentioned by him again. In the spring of the same year (1805), Mr. Webster was admitted to the practice of the law in the Court of Common Pleas for Suffolk county, Boston. According to the custom of that day, Mr. Gore accompanied the motion for his admission with a brief speech in recommendation of the candidate. The remarks of Mr. Gore on this occasion are well remembered by those present. He dwelt with emphasis on the remarkable attainments and uncommon promise of his pupil, and closed with a prediction of his future eminence.
Immediately on his admission to the bar, Mr. Webster went to Amherst, in New Hampshire, where his father's court was in session; from that place he went home with his father. He had intended to establish himself at Portsmouth, which, as the largest town and the seat of the foreign commerce of the State, opened the widest field for practice. But filial duty kept him nearer home. His father was now infirm from the advance of years, and had no other son at home. Under these circumstances Mr. Webster opened an office at Boscawen, not far from his father's residence, and commenced the practice of the law in this retired spot. Judge Webster lived but a year after his son's entrance upon the practice of his profession; long enough, however, to hear his first argument in court, and to be gratified with the confident predictions of his future
In May, 1807, Mr. Webster was admitted as an attorney and counsellor of the Superior Court in New Hampshire, and in September of that year, relinquishing his office in Boscawen to his brother Ezekiel, he removed to Portsmouth, in conformity with his original intention. Here he remained in the practice of his profession for nine successive years. They were years
of assiduous labor, and of unremitted devotion to the study and practice of the law. He was associated with several persons of great eminence, citizens of New Hampshire or of Massachusetts occasionally practising at the Portsmouth bar. Among the latter were Samuel Dexter and Joseph Story; of the residents of New Hampshire, Jeremiah Mason was the most distinguished. Often opposed to each other as lawyers, a strong personal friendship grew up between them, which ended only with the death of Mr. Mason. Mr. Webster's eulogy on Mr. Mason will be found in one of the volumes of this collection, and will descend to posterity an enduring monument of both. Had a more active temperament led Mr. Mason to embark earlier and continue longer in public life, he would have achieved a distinction shared by few of his contemporaries. Mr. Webster, in the lapse of time, was called to perform the same melancholy office for Judge Story.
During the greater part of Mr. Webster's practice of the law in New Hampshire, Jeremiah Smith was Chief Justice of the State, a learned and excellent judge, whose biography has been written by the Rev. John H. Morison, and will well repay perusal. Judge Smith was an early and warm friend of Judge Webster, and this friendship descended to the son, and glowed in his breast with fervor till he went to his grave.
Although dividing with Mr. Mason the best of the business of Portsmouth, and indeed of all the eastern portion of the State, Mr. Webster's practice was mostly on the circuit. He followed
. the Superior Court through the principal counties of the State, and was retained in nearly every important cause.
It is men: tioned by Mr. March, as a somewhat singular fact in his professional life, that, with the exception of the occasions on which he has been associated with the Attorney-General of the United States for the time being, he has hardly appeared ten times as junior counsel.
Within the sphere in which he was placed, he may be said to have risen at once to the head of his profession; not, however, like Erskine and some other celebrated British lawyers, by one and the same bound, at once to fame and fortune. The American bar holds forth no such golden prizes, certainly not in the smaller States. Mr. Webster's practice in New Hampshire, though probably as good as that of any of his contemporaries, was never lucrative. Clients were not very rich, nor the concerns litigated such as would carry heavy fees. Although exclusively devoted to his profession, it afforded him no more than a bare livelihood.
But the time for which he practised at the New Hampshire bar was probably not lost with reference to his future professional and political eminence. His own standard of legal attainment was high. He was associated with professional brethren fully competent to put his powers to their best proof, and to prevent him from settling down in early life into an easy routine of ordinary professional practice. It was no disadvantage, under these circumstances, (except in reference to immediate pecuniary benefit,) to enjoy some portion of that leisure for general reading, which is almost wholly denied to the lawyer of commanding talents, who steps immediately into full practice in a large city.
Entrance on Public Life. - State of Parties in 1812. - Election to Congress. — Extra
Session of 1813. — Foreign Relations of the Country. — Resolutions relative to the Berlin and Milan Decrees. — Naval Defence. Reelected to Congress in 1814. Peace with England. - Projects for a National Bank. – Mr. Webster's Course on that Question. — Battle of New Orleans. — New Questions arising on the Return of Peace. — Course of Prominent Men of Different Parties. — Mr. Webster's Opinions on the Constitutionality of the Tariff Policy. – The Resolution to restore Specie Payments moved by Mr. Webster. Removal to Boston.
Mr. Webster had hitherto taken less interest in politics than has been usual with the young men of talent, at least with the young lawyers, of America. In fact, at the time to which the preceding narrative refers, the politics of the country were in such a state, that there was scarce any course which could be pursued with entire satisfaction by a patriotic young man sagacious enough to penetrate behind mere party names, and to view public questions in their true light. Party spirit ran high; errors had been committed by ardent men on both sides; and extreme opinions had been advanced on most questions, which no wise and well-informed person at the present day would probably be willing to espouse. The United States, although not actually drawn to any great depth into the vortex of the French Revolution, were powerfully affected by it. The deadly struggle of the two great European belligerents, in which the neutral rights of this country were grossly violated by both, gave a complexion to our domestic politics. A change of administration, mainly resulting from difference of opinion in respect to our foreign relations, had taken place in 1801. If we may consider President Jefferson's inaugural address as the indication of the principles on which he intended to conduct his administration, it was his purpose to take a new departure, and to disregard the former party divisions. “We have,” said he, in that eloquent state paper, “ called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists."
At the time these significant expressions were uttered, Mr. Webster, at the age of nineteen, was just leaving college and preparing to embark on the voyage of life. A sentiment so