The following is an excerpt from "The 25 Most Influential Alumni", featured in the January/February 2019 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Profile written by Rick Beyer ’78.
Even U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall had tears in his eyes that March day in 1818 as Daniel Webster reached the climax of his impassioned four-hour argument. Webster fixed his intense gaze on Marshall and uttered the words every Dartmouth graduate knows: “It is, as I have said, sir, a small school, but there are those who love it.” Trustees of Dartmouth v. Woodward was one of more than 200 cases Webster argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, many of them landmark rulings that shaped our interpretation of the Constitution. But the orator and statesman known as “the godlike Daniel” left a far greater imprint.
A swarthy complexion and jet-black hair earned this Salisbury, New Hampshire, native the nickname “Black Dan.” His titanic ego was evident early—he skipped his Dartmouth graduation because he wasn’t selected as the valedictory speaker. Soon after, he took up the law. Told that the field was too crowded, he allegedly replied: “There’s always room at the top.” That’s certainly where he wound up. “For over a century and maybe more,” current U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts tells DAM, “Daniel Webster represented for Americans what a lawyer was, both good and bad.”
Webster was a prolific Supreme Court advocate, often arguing more than 10 cases a year. The court frequently drew on Webster’s words in decisions that staked out broad powers for the federal government. Today a small bronze statue of him adorns the lawyers’ lounge at the high court. “The gaze on the statue is so stern it always had the effect of scaring me,” says Roberts, who frequently argued cases there before being appointed chief justice. “I suspect Webster had that effect on others in real life.”
Webster reached his greatest heights in the U.S. Senate, where he fought to preserve the union in the face of a growing North-South divide. Today New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sits at Webster’s Senate desk. “It’s humbling to have the desk of someone with such a profound legacy,” she says. “Webster’s great speeches in defense of our union delivered many timeless truths that are just as relevant today as when they echoed through the old Senate chamber.” Webster’s fierce eyes, deep voice, commanding presence, and carefully researched arguments produced a stunning impact. His powerful speeches in Congress and around the country cultivated a national spirit that had barely existed before.
In January 1830, he gave perhaps the most eloquent address in Senate history: his celebrated reply to South Carolina Sen. Robert Hayne, who had proclaimed that states should be able to ignore or “nullify” federal laws they disliked. Webster’s fiery dissent: Nullification would rip the country apart. “Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!” he thundered, earning him the accolade “Defender of the Constitution.” In far-off Illinois, newly minted lawyer Abraham Lincoln was among those he inspired.
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