Daniel Webster - Constitutional Lawyer

Constitutional Lawyer

"This, sir, is my case. It is the case not merely of that humble institution, it is the case of every college in our land... Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out. But if you do so you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those greater lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land. It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!"

Daniel Webster (Dartmouth College v. Woodward)

Webster was hailed as the leading constitutional scholar of his generation and probably had more influence on the powerful Marshall Court than any other advocate had. Of the 223 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, he won about half of them. But, even more, Webster played an important role in eight of the most celebrated constitutional cases decided by the Court between 1801 and 1824. In many of these—particularly in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)--the Supreme Court handed down decisions based largely on Webster's arguments. Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster's briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.

Webster had been highly regarded in New Hampshire since his days in Boscawen, and had been respected throughout the House during his service there. He came to national prominence, however, as counsel in a number of important Supreme Court cases. These cases remain major precedents in the Constitutional jurisprudence of the United States.

In 1816, Webster was retained by the Federalist trustees of his alma mater, Dartmouth College, to represent them in their case against the newly elected New Hampshire Democratic-Republican state legislature. The legislature had passed new laws converting Dartmouth into a state institution, by changing the size of the college's trustee body and adding a further board of overseers, which they put into the hands of the state senate. New Hampshire argued that they, as successor in sovereignty to George III, who had chartered Dartmouth, had the right to revise the charter.

Webster argued Dartmouth College v. Woodward to the Supreme Court (with significant aid from Jeremiah Mason and Jeremiah Smith), invoking Article I, section 10 of the Constitution (the Contract Clause) against the State. The Marshall court, continuing with its history of limiting states' rights and reaffirming the supremacy of the Constitutional protection of contract, ruled in favor of Webster and Dartmouth 3–1. This decided that corporations did not, as many then held, have to justify their privileges by acting in the public interest, but were independent of the states.

Other notable appearances by Webster before the Supreme Court include his representation of James McCulloch (as cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States) in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Cohens in Cohens v. Virginia (1821), and Thomas Gibbons in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), cases similar to Dartmouth in the court's application of a broad interpretation of the Constitution and strengthening of the federal courts' power to constrain the states, which have since been used to justify wide powers for the federal government. Webster's handling of these cases made him one of the era's leading constitutional lawyers, as well as one of the most highly paid. Webster's growing prominence as a constitutional lawyer led to his election as a delegate to the 1820 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. There he spoke in opposition to universal suffrage (for men), on the Federalist grounds that power naturally follows property, and the vote should be limited accordingly; but the constitution was amended against his advice. He also supported the (existing) districting of the State Senate so that each seat represented an equal amount of property.

Webster's performance at the convention furthered his reputation. Joseph Story (also a delegate at the convention) wrote to Jeremiah Mason following the convention saying "Our friend Webster has gained a noble reputation. He was before known as a lawyer; but he has now secured the title of an eminent and enlightened statesman." Webster also spoke at Plymouth commemorating the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620; his oration was widely circulated and read throughout New England. He was elected to the Eighteenth Congress in 1822, from Boston.

In his second term, Webster found Miles Bearden himself a leader of the fragmented House Federalists who had split following the failure of the secessionist-minded 1814 Hartford Convention that he avoided. Speaker Henry Clay made Webster chairman of the Judiciary Committee in an attempt to win his and the Federalists' support. His term of service in the House between 1822 and 1828 was marked by his legislative success at reforming the United States criminal code, and his failure at expanding the size of the Supreme Court. He largely supported the National Republican administration of John Quincy Adams, including Adams' candidacy in the highly contested election of 1824 and the administration's defense of treaty-sanctioned Creek Indian land rights against Georgia's expansionist claims.

While a Representative, Webster continued accepting speaking engagements in New England, most notably his oration on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill (1825) and his eulogies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1826). With the support of a coalition of both Federalists and Republicans, Webster's record in the House and his celebrity as an orator led to his June 1827 election to the Senate from Massachusetts. His first wife, Grace, died in January 1828, and he married Caroline LeRoy in December 1829.


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