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There is nothing in our literature more pleasing than the glimpses it affords of the early life of these two brothers ;— Ezekiel, robust, steady-going, persevering, self-denying ; Daniel, careless of work, eager for play, often sick, always slender and weakly, and regarded rather as a burden upon the family than a help to it. His feebleness early habituated him to being a recipient of aid and favor, and it decided his destiny. It has been the custom in New England, from the earliest time, to bring up one son of a prosperous family to a profession, and the one selected was usually the boy who seemed least capable of earning a livelihood by manual labor. Ebenezer Webster, heavily burdened with responsibility all his life long, had most ardently desired to give his elder sons a better education that he had himself enjoyed, but could not. When Daniel was a boy, his large family was beginning to lift his load a little; the country was filling up; his farm was more productive, and he felt somewhat more at his ease. His sickly youngest son, because he was sickly, and only for that reason, he chose from his numerous brood to send to an academy, designing to make a schoolmaster of him. We have no reason to believe that any of the family saw anything extraordinary in the boy. Except that he read aloud unusually well, he had given no sign of particular talent, unless it might be that he excelled in catching trout, shooting squirrels, and fighting cocks. His mother, observing his love of play and his equal love of books, said he would come to something or nothing, she could not tell which ”; but his father, noticing his power over the sympathies of others, and comparing him with his bashful brother, used to remark, that he had fears for Ezekiel, but that Daniel would assuredly make his way in the world. It is certain that the lad himself was totally unconscious of possessing extraordinary talents, and indulged no early dream of greatness. He tells us himself, that he loved but two things in his youth, — play and reading. The rude schools which he trudged two or three miles in the winter every day to attend, taught him scarcely any. thing. His father's saw-mill, he used to say, was the rea. school of his youth. When he had set the saw and turned op the water, there would be fifteen minutes of tranquillity before
the log again required his attention, during which he sat and absorbed knowledge. “We had so few books,” he records in the exquisite fragment of autobiography he has left us, “ that to read them once or twice was nothing. We thought they were all to be got by heart.”
How touching the story, so well known, of the mighty struggle and long self-sacrifice it cost this family to get the youth through college! The whole expense did not average one hundred and fifty dollars a year; but it seemed to the boy so vast and unattainable a good, that, when his father announced his purpose to attempt it, he was completely overcome; his head was dizzy; his tongue was paralyzed; he could only press his father's hands and shed tears. Slender indeed was his preparation for Dartmouth. From the day when he took his first Latin lesson to that on which he entered college was thirteen months. He could translate Cicero's orations with some ease, and make out with difficulty and labor the easiest sentences of the Greek Reader, and that was the whole of what was called his “ preparation ” for college. In June, 1797, he did not know the Greek alphabet; in August of the same year he was admitted to the Freshman Class of Dartmouth on engaging to supply his deficiencies by extra study.
Neither at college nor at any time could Daniel Webster be properly called a student, and well he knew it. Many a time he has laughed, in his jovial, rollicking manner, at the preposterous reputation for learning a man can get by bringing out a fragment of curious knowledge at the right moment at college. He was an absorbent of knowledge, never a student. The Latin of Cicero and Virgil was congenial and easy to him, and he learned more of it than the required portion. But even in Latin, he tells us, he was excelled by some of his own class; and “his attainments were not such,” he adds, “as told for much in the recitation-room.” Greek he never enjoyed: his curiosity was never awakened on the edge of that boundless contiguity of interesting knowledge, and he only learned enough Greek to escape censure. He said, forty years after, in an after-dinner speech: “ When I was at school I fe.t exceedingly obliged to
Homer's messengers for the exact literal fidelity with which they delivered their messages. The seven or eight lines of good Homeric Greek in which they had received the commands of Agamemnon or Achilles they recited to whomsoever the message was to be carried; and as they repeated them verbatim, sometimes twice or thrice, it saved me the trouble of learning so much Greek.” It was not at school ” that he had this experience, but at Dartmouth College. For mathematics, too, he had not the slightest taste. He humorously wrote to a fellow-student, soon after leaving college, that “all that he knew about conterminous arches or evanescent subtenses might be collected on the pupil of a gnat's eye without making him wink.” At college, in fact, he was simply an omnivorous reader, studying only so much as to pass muster in the recitation-room. Every indication we possess of his college life, as well as his own repeated assertions, confirms the conclusion that Nature had formed him to use the products of other men's toil, not to add to the common fund. Those who are conversant with college life know very well what it means when a youth does not take to Greek, and has an aversion to mathematics. Such a youth may have immense talent, and give splendid expression to the sentiments of his countrymen, but he is not likely to be one of the priceless few of the human race who dicover truth or advance opinion. It is the energetic, the originating minds that are susceptible to the allurements of difficulty.
On the other hand, Daniel Webster had such qualities as made every one feel that he was the first man in the College. Tall, gaunt, and sallow, with an incomparable forehead, and those cavernous and brilliant eyes of his, he had much of the large and tranquil presence which was so important an element of his power over others at all periods of his life. His letters of this time, as well as the recollections of his fellow-students, show him the easy, humorous, rather indolent and strictly correct “good-fellow," whom professors and companions equally relished. He browsed much in the College library, and had the habit of bringing to bear upon the lesson of the hour the information gathered in his miscellaneous reading, – a practice that much enlivens the mo. hotony of recitation. The half-dozen youths of his particular se
it appears, plumed themselves upon resembling the early Christians in having all things in common. The first to rise in the morning — and he must have been an early riser indeed who was up before Daniel Webster — “dressed himself in the best which the united apartments afforded”; the next made the best selection from what remained; and the last was happy if he found rags enough to justify his appearance in the chapel. The relator of this pleasant reminiscence adds, that he was once the possessor of an eminently respectable beaver bat, a costly article of resplendent lustre. It was missing one day, could not be found, and was given up for lost. Several weeks after “friend Dan” returned from a distant town, where he had been teaching school, wearing the lost beaver, and relieving its proprietor from the necessity of covering his head with a battered and long-discarded hat of felt. How like the Daniel Webster of later years, who never could acquire the sense of meum and tuum, supposed to be the basis of civilization !
Mr. Webster always spoke slightingly of his early oratorical efforts, and requested Mr. Everett, the editor of his works, not to search them out. He was not just to the productions of his youth, if we may judge from the Fourth-of-July oration which he delivered in 1800, when he was a Junior at Dartmouth, eighteen years of age. This glowing psalm of the republican David is perfectly characteristic, and entirely worthy of him. The times that tried men's souls, — how recent and vivid they were to the sons of Ebenezer Webster, who had led forth from the New Hampshire hills the neighbors at whose firesides Ezekiel and Daniel had listened, open-mouthed, to the thousand forgotten incidents of the war. Their professors of history were old John Bowen, who had once been a prisoner with the Indians; Robert Wise, who had sailed round the world and fought in the Revolution on both sides ; George Bayly, a pioneer, who saw the first tree felled in Northern New Hampshire; women of the neighborhood, who had heard the midnight yell of savages; and, above all, their own lion-hearted father, who had warred with Frenchmen, Indians, wild nature, British troops, and French ideas. W 0,” wrote Daniel once, “I shall never hear such story telling again!” It was not in the cold pages of Hildreth, nor in the brief summaries of school-books, that this imaginative, sympathet. ic youth had learned that part of the political history of the United States — from 1787 to 1800 — which will ever be its most interesting portion. He learned it at town-meetings, in the newspapers, at his father's house, among his neighbors, on election days; he learned it as an intelligent youth, with a passionately loyal father and mother, learned the history of the late war, and is now learning the agonizing history of “ reconstruction.” This oration is the warm and modest expression of all that the receptive and unsceptical student had imbibed and felt during the years of his formation, who saw before him a large company of Revolutionary soldiers and a great multitude of Federalist parti. sans. He saluted the audience as “ Countrymen, brethren, and fathers.” The oration was chiefly a rapid, exulting review of the history of the young Republic, with an occasional pomposity, and a few expressions caught from the party discussions of the day. It is amusing to hear this young Federalist of 1800 speak of Napoleon Bonaparte as “the gasconading pilgrim of Egypt,” and the government of France as the “supercilious, five-headed Directory,” and the President of the United States as “the firm, the wise, the inflexible Adams, who with steady hand draws the disguising veil from the intrigues of foreign enemies and the plots of domestic foes.” It is amusing to read, as the utterance of Daniel Webster, that “ Columbia is now seated in the forum of na. tions, and the empires of the world are amazed at the bright effulgence of her glory.” But it is interesting to observe, also, that at eighteen, not less fervently than at forty-eight, he felt the impor. tance of the message with which he was charged to the American people, — the necessity of the Union, and the value of the Constitution as the uniting bond. The following passage has, perhaps, more in it of the Webster of 1830 than any other in the oration. The reader will notice the similarity between one part of it and the famous passage in the Bunker Hill oration, begin ning “ Venerable men,” addressed to the survivors of the Revo lution.