Daniel Webster eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 281 pages of information about Daniel Webster.

CHAPTER VIII.

SECRETARY OF STATE.—­THE ASHBURTON TREATY.

There is one feature in the history, or rather in the historic scenery of this period, which we are apt to overlook.  The political questions, the debates, the eloquence of that day, give us no idea of the city in which the history was made, or of the life led by the men who figured in that history.  Their speeches might have been delivered in any great centre of civilization, and in the midst of a brilliant and luxurious society.  But the Washington of 1841, when Mr. Webster took the post which is officially the first in the society of the capital and of the country, was a very odd sort of place, and widely different from what it is to-day.  It was not a village, neither was it a city.  It had not grown, but had been created for a special purpose.  A site had been arbitrarily selected, and a city laid out on the most magnificent scale.  But there was no independent life, for the city was wholly official in its purposes and its existence.  There were a few great public buildings, a few large private houses, a few hotels and boarding houses, and a large number of negro shanties.  The general effect was of attempted splendor, which had resulted in slovenliness and straggling confusion.  The streets were unpaved, dusty in summer, and deep with mud in winter, so that the mere difficulty of getting from place to place was a serious obstacle to general society.  Cattle fed in the streets, and were milked by their owners on the sidewalk.  There was a grotesque contrast between the stately capitol where momentous questions were eloquently discussed and such queerly primitive and rude surroundings.  Few persons were able to entertain because few persons had suitable houses.  Members of Congress usually clubbed together and took possession of a house, and these “messes,” as they were called,—­although without doubt very agreeable to their members,—­did not offer a mode of life which was easily compatible with the demands of general society.  Social enjoyments, therefore, were pursued under difficulties; and the city, although improving, was dreary enough.

Society, too, was in a bad condition.  The old forms and ceremonies of the men of 1789 and the manners and breeding of our earliest generation of statesmen had passed away, and the new democracy had not as yet a system of its own.  It was a period of transition.  The old customs had gone, the new ones had not crystallized.  The civilization was crude and raw, and in Washington had no background whatever,—­such as was to be found in the old cities and towns of the original thirteen States.  The tone of the men in public life had deteriorated and was growing worse, approaching rapidly its lowest point, which it reached during the Polk administration.  This was due partly to the Jacksonian democracy, which had rejected training and education as necessary to statesmanship, and had

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Daniel Webster from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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