“Who, too deep for his
hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing while they thought of dining.”
Webster never sinned by over refinement or over ingenuity, for both were utterly foreign to his nature. Still less did he impair his power in the Senate as Burke did in the Commons by talking too often and too much. If he did not have the extreme beauty and grace of which Burke was capable, he was more forcible and struck harder and more weighty blows. He was greatly aided in this by his brief and measured periods, and his strength was never wasted in long and elaborate sentences. Webster, moreover, would never have degenerated into the ranting excitement which led Burke to draw a knife from his bosom and cast it on the floor of the House. This illustrates what was, perhaps, Mr. Webster’s very strongest point,—his absolute good taste. He may have been ponderous at times in his later years. We know that he was occasionally heavy, pompous, and even dull, but he never violated the rules of the nicest taste. Other men have been more versatile, possessed of a richer imagination, and more gorgeous style, with a more brilliant wit and a keener sarcasm, but there is not one who is so absolutely free from faults of taste as Webster, or who is so uniformly simple and pure in thought and style, even to the point of severity.
[Footnote 1: A volume might be written comparing Mr. Webster with other great orators. Only the briefest and most rudimentary treatment of the subject is possible here. A most excellent study of the comparative excellence of Webster’s eloquence has been made by Judge Chamberlain, Librarian of the Boston Public Library, in a speech at the dinner of the Dartmouth Alumni, which has since been printed as a pamphlet.]
It is easy to compare Mr. Webster with this and the other great orator, and to select points of resemblance and of difference, and show where Mr. Webster was superior and where he fell behind. But the final verdict must be upon all his qualities taken together. He had the most extraordinary physical gifts of face, form, and voice, and employed them to the best advantage. Thus equipped, he delivered a long series of great speeches which can be read to-day with the deepest interest, instruction, and pleasure. He had dignity, grandeur, and force, a strong historic imagination, and great dramatic power when he chose to exert it. He possessed an unerring taste, a capacity for vigorous and telling sarcasm, a glow and fire none the less intense because they were subdued, perfect clearness of statement joined to the highest skill in argument, and he was master of a style which was as forcible as it was simple and pure. Take him for all in all, he was not only the greatest orator this country has ever known, but in the history of eloquence his name will stand with those of Demosthenes and Cicero, of Chatham and Burke.