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DANIEL WEBSTER: "GOD-LIKE DANIEL" AT THE BAR




 

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was the most famous lawyer of his day, with an ability for courtroom oratory that became legendary. The "God-Like Daniel, the Defender of the Constitution," as admirers called him, stood at the head of the most eminent Supreme Court bar in our history.

Webster graduated from Dartmouth College, and after clerking in law offices, opened practice in New Hampshire, his home state. By 1816, when he moved to Boston, his outstanding abilities were already carrying him to the pinnacle of the American bar, both as the leading Supreme Court advocate and in the fees he received. His income from practice was soon ranging from $15,000 to $21,000 a year, far more than that of other lawyers. (The amounts would have to be multiplied by at least 500 to obtain the equivalent in present-day dollars.) Despite his income, Webster's extravagance kept him in constant financial difficulties. He was the best example of his own observation: "I can give it as the condensed history of most, if not all, good lawyers that they lived well and died poor."

Webster first appeared before the Supreme Court in 1814 and until his death in 1852 rarely missed a term of the Court, frequently arguing a dozen or more cases a year. He was the Court's biggest draw during his practice there. "It was amusing," the British writer Harriet Martineau wrote in 1835, "to see how the Court would fill after the entrance of Web­ster, and empty when he had gone."

Webster argued the most important Marshall and Taney Court cases. He appeared in both McCulloch v. Maryland, (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden, (1824). In the latter case, particularly, the Marshall opinion, in Webster's words, "follows closely the track of the argument"—notably, "the idea which I remember struck him at the time that by the Constitution, the commerce of the several states has become a unit." Webster's arguments led the Court to adopt essential constitutional doctrines; liberal construction, implied powers, federal tax immunity, and broad commerce power. In this respect, it was Webster who, with Hamilton and Marshall, laid the foundation of our constitutional law.



Perhaps the most famous argument ever made before the Supreme Court was that delivered by Webster for his alma mater, Dartmouth, in 1819. Under its founding charter, the college was to be governed by a board of trustees with power to fill vacancies in their number and to choose and remove college officers. Factionalism, first personal and then political, arose within the college, and a newly elected governor and legislature in New Hampshire took sides against the trustees. A state law was passed increasing the number of trustees and empowering the governor to appoint new trustees and to inspect Dartmouth and report to the legislature concerning it. In effect, the law annulled Dartmouth's original charter and brought the college under the state's control. The old trustees resisted the change, and when William H. Woodward, secretary and treasurer of the college, sided with the state government and new appointees against them, they sued Woodward.

Woodward won in the New Hampshire courts, and the case went to the Supreme Court, with Webster pleading for the original trustees. His words, "It is, Sir, as I have said, a small College. And yet, there are those who love it!" made him known throughout the country and caused Chief Justice Marshall to be filled with emotion, his eyes "suffused with tears."



Marshall's decision, ruling for Webster and the old trustees, held that the New Hampshire law violated the contract clause of the Constitution, which prohibited the states from passing any "law impairing the obligation of contracts." Finding that Dartmouth's original charter was a contract, he established, with his decision, an assurance for all investors in corporate enterprises that the terms on which they had committed their capital could not be unilaterally altered by a state. Before Dartmouth College v. Woodward, there were still relatively few manufacturing corporations in the country. Under the confidence created by Marshall's decision, such corporations proliferated to such an extent that they soon transformed the face of the nation.

Webster's role in all this was graphically put by his co-counsel: "I would have an inscription over the door of [Dartmouth], 'Founded by Eleazar Wheelock; Refounded by Daniel Webster."

 

 


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