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EBENEZER WEBSTER, the father of the subject of the present sketch, was an independent and frugal farmer, who enjoyed the confidence and respect of his fellow-citizens, and for some time served them both in a military and civil capacity. During the Seven Years War, he distinguished himself as a soldier in the ranks of Sir Jeffrey Amherst, and General Wolfe ; and was present at the battles of Bennington and White Plains, in the war of the Revolution. At the time of his death, in 1806, he had occupied for several years, the position of judge of the Court of Common Pleas, for the county of Rockingham, in New Hampshire. He was twice married. His second wife, the mother of Ezekiel and Daniel Webster, was Abigail Eastman, a woman of Welsh extraction, and “like the mothers of so many men of eminence, she was a woman of more than ordinary intellect, and possessed a force of character which was felt throughout the humble circle in which she moved. She was proud of her sons and ambitious that they should excel. Her anticipations went beyond the narrow sphere in which their lot seemed to be cast, and the distinction attained by both, and especially by the younger, may well be traced in part to her early promptings and judicious guidance."
Daniel Webster was born in the town of Salisbury, New Hampshire, on the eighteenth day of January, 1782. His early opportunities for education were exceedingly limited. The village school, kept during the few months of winter, by persons illy qualified for the task, was the scene of his youthful instruction, and thither be daily went, on foot, trusting for an occasional ride with the miller or the blacksmith, whose course lay in the same direction with his own. These advantages Mr. Webster enjoyed much more than his older brothers; partly because he evinced a greater desire for learning, and partly because his father thought he was of too frail & constitution for any robust employment. “But Joe, his eldest half brother, who was somewhat of a wag, used to say that 'Dan was sent to school, in order that he might know as much as the other boys.'” As soon as he was able to read, which must have been when he was very young, for he says, in his letter to Master Tappan, “I have never been able to recollect the time when I could not read the Bible,” he manifested an ardent desire for books, and owing to the scarcity of them in the neighborhood of his father's house, he read the old ones over and over, till he had committed most of their contents to memory. Before he was fourteen years of age, he could repeat the whole Essay on Man, and at a subsequent period he committed to memory Watts’ Psalms and Hymns.
In the spring of 1796, Mr. Webster left his father's house and went to Exeter, where he entered Phillips Academy, at that time the only institution in the State, with the exception of Dartmouth College, above the rank of a district school. Here he remained only a few months, but during that brief period, receiving the aid and encouragement of the celebrated Joseph Stevens Buckminster, who was a member of the senior class of the Academy, he made rapid advancement in his studies. A singular fact of his connection with this school has been related by Mr. Webster himself. “I believe," says he, “I made tolerable progress in most branches which I attended to while in this school; but there was one thing I could not do. I could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the school. The kind and excellent Buckminster sought especially to persuade me to perform the exercise of declamation, like other boys, but I could not do it. Many a piece did I commit to memory, and recite and rehearse in my own room, over and over again; yet when the day came, when the school collected to hear declamations, when my name was called, and I saw all eyes turned to my seat, I could not raise myself from it. Sometimes the instructors frowned, sometimes they smiled. Mr. Buckminster always pressed and entreated, most winningly, that I would venture. But I never could command sufficient resolution." *
At the termination of his studies in Exeter, Mr. Webster returned to Salisbury, and shortly after was placed under the instruction of the Rev. Samuel Woods, in Boscawen, to prepare for College. While with Mr. Woods he applied himself with the greatest zeal to his studies, and “learned all that his preceptor could teach.” He read Virgil and Cicero, and at the same time devoted much of his leisure to reading and the study of general literature. Here, for the first time, he met Don Quixote in English. “I began to read it," he said, in a conversation with Mr. March, "and it is literally true that I never closed my eyes till I had finished it; nor did I lay it down any time for five minutes; so great was the power (f this extraordinary book on my imagination."
In August, 1797, Mr. Webster entered the freshman class of Dartmouth College. Here he devoted himself attentively to the prescribed studies, at the same time spending many of his hours in general reading; especially in English history and literature. He took part in the publication of a college periodical, often contributing original articles to its pages, besides making selections for it from the current books and magazines. During his college life he maintained a high reputation among his classmates for wit and talent. “It is, known,” says Mr. Ticknor, “in many ways, that by those who were acquainted with him at this period of life, he was already regarded as a marked man, and that to the more sagacious of them the honors of his subsequent career have not been unexpected.” In the intervals of his student life, he was engaged in teaching school, not only for the purpose of providing a means of his own support, but to aid his elder brother, who was at that time preparing to enter college.
Mr. Webster graduated in August, 1801, and immediately commenced the study of law in the office of Mr. Thompson, a neighbor of his father. Here he continued until "he felt it necessary to go somewhere and do something to earn a little money.” To this end he took charge of an academy at Fryeburg, in Maine. In September, 1802, he returned to his legal studies with Mr. Thompson, where he remained until the spring of 1804. He now went to Boston and obtained admission as a student in the office of Christopher Gore, at that time one of the principal lawyers, and among the most eminent men of the State. With Mr. Gore he remained until his admission to the bar in March, 1805. About this time he received a letter from his father, in which he was informed that the appointment of clerk in the Court of Common Pleas, for the county of Hillsborough, in New Hampshire, had been procured for him, and he was advised to hasten home and take possession of the office. His father considered the appointment as a very favorable position, but Mr. Webster, before deciding to accept it thought it most proper to consult with his preceptor, Mr. Gore. The case being laid before him, that gentleman suggested that should he accept the office, he would probably remain a mere clerk of the court all his life, and advised him to refuse it. He accordingly declined, and soon after opened an office at Boscawen, not far from his father's residence, where he commenced practice. His personal appearance at this period of his life, has been described by one who was present at the trial of one of his first cases, as "a tall, gaunt young man, with rather a thin face, but all the peculiarities of feature and complexion by which he was distinguished in later life. The case alluded to, was concerning the property of a certain sheep, of the value of thirty shillings or thereabouts; and was tried in a long hall, before a justice of the peace, and the assembled idlers of the village. The case was argued at great length, and though Mr. Webster, who had not yet become known, did not seem to attract any great attention, he spoke and reasoned after the same fashion, with the same plainness, point and force, for which he has since been so much celebrated." +
* Reminiscences of Congress, by Charles W. March, page 12. + Sketches of the American Bar. Knickerbocker. May, 1833.