The period upon which he then entered, and during which he withdrew from active public service to devote himself to his profession, was a very important one in his career. It was a period marked by a rapid intellectual growth and by the first exhibition of his talents on a large scale. It embraces, moreover, two events, landmarks in the life of Mr. Webster, which placed him before the country as one of the first and the most eloquent of her constitutional lawyers, and as the great master in the art of occasional oratory. The first of these events was the argument in the Dartmouth College case; the second was the delivery of the Plymouth oration.
I do not propose to enter into or discuss the merits or demerits of the constitutional and legal theories and principles involved in the famous “college causes,” or in any other of the great cases subsequently argued by Mr. Webster. In a biography of this kind it is sufficient to examine Mr. Webster’s connection with the Dartmouth College case, and endeavor, by a study of his arguments in that and in certain other hardly less important causes, to estimate properly the character and quality of his abilities as a lawyer, both in the ordinary acceptation of the term and in dealing with constitutional questions.
The complete history of the Dartmouth College case is very curious and deserves more than a passing notice. Until within three years it is not too much to say that it was quite unknown, and its condition is but little better now. In 1879 Mr. John M. Shirley published a volume entitled the “Dartmouth College Causes,” which is a monument of careful study and thorough research. Most persons would conclude that it was a work of merely legal interest, appealing to a limited class of professional readers. Even those into whose hands it chanced to come have probably been deterred from examining it as it deserves by the first chapter, which is very obscure, and by the confusion of the narrative which follows. Yet this monograph, which has so unfortunately suffered from a defective arrangement of material, is of very great value, not only to our legal and constitutional history, but to the political history of the time and to a knowledge of the distinguished actors in a series of events which resulted in the establishment of one of the most far-reaching of constitutional doctrines, one that has been a living question ever since the year 1819, and is at this moment of vast practical importance. Mr. Shirley has drawn forth from the oblivion of manuscript a collection of documents which, taken in conjunction with those already in print, throws a flood of light upon a dark place of the past and gives to a dry constitutional question the vital and human interest of political and personal history.