The extravagant admiration which Mr. Webster excited among his followers has undoubtedly exaggerated his greatness in many respects; but, high as the praise bestowed upon him as an orator has been, in that direction at least he has certainly not been overestimated. The reverse rather is true. Mr. Webster was, of course, the greatest orator this country has ever produced. Patrick Henry’s fame rests wholly on tradition. The same is true of Hamilton, who, moreover, never had an opportunity adequate to his talents, which were unquestionably of the first order. Fisher Ames’s reputation was due to a single speech which is distinctly inferior to many of Webster’s. Clay’s oratory has not stood the test of time; his speeches, which were so wonderfully effective when he uttered them, seem dead and cold and rather thin as we read them to-day. Calhoun was a great debater, but was too dry and hard for the highest eloquence. John Quincy Adams, despite his physical limitations, carried the eloquence of combat and bitter retort to the highest point in the splendid battles of his congressional career, but his learning, readiness, power of expression, argument, and scathing sarcasm were not rounded into a perfect whole by the more graceful attributes which also form an essential part of oratory.
Mr. Webster need not fear comparison with any of his countrymen, and he has no reason to shun it with the greatest masters of speech in England. He had much of the grandeur of Chatham, with whom it is impossible to compare him or indeed any one else, for the Great Commoner lives only in fragments of doubtful accuracy. Sheridan was universally considered to have made the most splendid speech of his day. Yet the speech on the Begums as given by Moore does not cast Webster’s best work at all into the shade. Webster did not have Sheridan’s brilliant wit, but on the other hand he was never forced, never involved, never guilty of ornament, which fastidious judges would now pronounce tawdry. Webster’s best speeches read much better than anything of Sheridan, and, so far as we can tell from careful descriptions, his manner, look, and delivery were far more imposing. The “manly eloquence” of Fox seems to have resembled Webster’s more closely than that of any other of his English rivals. Fox was more fertile, more brilliant, more surprising than Webster, and had more quickness and dash, and a greater ease and charm of manner. But he was often careless, and sometimes fell into repetitions, from which, of course, no great speaker can be wholly free any more than he can keep entirely clear of commonplaces. Webster gained upon him by superior finish and by greater weight of argument. Before a jury Webster fell behind Erskine as he did behind Choate, although neither of them ever produced anything at all comparable to the speech on the White murder; but in the Senate, and in the general field of oratory, he rises high above them both. The man with whom Webster is oftenest compared, and the last to be mentioned, is of course Burke. It may be conceded at once that in creative imagination, and in richness of imagery and language, Burke ranks above Webster. But no one would ever have said of Webster as Goldsmith did of Burke:—