When he returned to Washington in 1823, the situation was much altered from that which he had left in 1817. In reality there were no parties, or only one; but the all-powerful Republicans who had adopted, under the pressure of foreign war, most of the Federalist principles so obnoxious to Jefferson and his school, were split up into as many factions as there were candidates for the presidency. It was a period of transition in which personal politics had taken the place of those founded on opposing principles, and this “era of good feeling” was marked by the intense bitterness of the conflicts produced by these personal rivalries. In addition to the factions which were battling for the control of the Republican party and for the great prize of the presidency, there was still another faction, composed of the old Federalists, who, although without organization, still held to their name and their prejudices, and clung together more as a matter of habit than with any practical object. Mr. Webster had been one of the Federalist leaders in the old days, and when he returned to public life with all the distinction which he had won in other fields, he was at once recognized as the chief and head of all that now remained of the great party of Washington and Hamilton. No Federalist could hope to be President, and for this very reason Federalist support was eagerly sought by all Republican candidates for the presidency. The favor of Mr. Webster as the head of an independent and necessarily disinterested faction was, of course, strongly desired in many quarters. His political position and his high reputation as a lawyer, orator, and statesman made him, therefore, a character of the first importance in Washington, a fact to which Mr. Clay at once gave public recognition by placing his future rival at the head of the Judiciary Committee of the House.
The six years of congressional life which now ensued were among the most useful if not the most brilliant in Mr. Webster’s whole public career. He was free from the annoyance of opposition at home, and was twice returned by a practically unanimous popular vote. He held a commanding and influential and at the same time a thoroughly independent position in Washington, where he was regarded as the first man on the floor of the House in point of ability and reputation. He was not only able to show his great capacity for practical legislation, but he was at liberty to advance his own views on public questions in his own way, unburdened by the outside influences of party and of association which had affected him so much in his previous term of service and were soon to reassert their sway in all his subsequent career.