The US statesman who out-argued the Devil and his curious career (Column: Bookends)

Among the outstanding American statesmen (and one stateswoman) to never become President, Daniel Webster never let ambition, pride or popularity deflect him from his inalienable political principle: his country’s preservation, even by tactical compromises over policies that might be personally detestable, and negotiations over force. But he is chiefly remembered as a polished, powerful and persuasive orator who once even bested the Devil.

And while Webster (1782-1852), whose 235th birth anniversary falls on January 18, was a prominent lawyer and twice Secretary of State, this particular achievement only came in an iconic story.

Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (first published in a newspaper in 1936, and as a book in 1937) is a typical American adaptation of the “Bargain with the Devil” genre popular across all forms of Western art since “Faust”. However, some motifs about the making of the US, nationalism, rights and justice keep it from being another “tall tale”.

Partly inspired by Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824), it tells about New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, who unwisely makes a deal with the Devil (in the form of the suave Mr Scratch) for a prosperous period in return for his soul. However, when time is running out, he seeks the help of Webster, now a prominent politician, who began life as a lawyer and was keen to help anyone from his New Hampshire.

And Dan’l Webster, as rendered, was no ordinary man for when he “stood up to speak, stars and stripes came right out in the sky, and once he spoke against a river and made it sink into the ground. They said, when he walked the woods with his fishing rod, Killall, the trout would jump out of the streams right into his pockets, for they knew it was no use putting up a fight against him; and, when he argued a case, he could turn on the harps of the blessed and the shaking of the earth underground”.

But even he is hard-pressed and all legal stratagems fail though “he was a great lawyer, Dan’l Webster, but we know who’s the King of Lawyers…”.

Even his trump card, that Stone is an American citizen who may not “be forced into the service of a foreign prince”, is countered, as Scratch says he has been an American earlier — ever since “the first wrong was done to the first Indian”, and “the first slaver put out for the Congo”.

Ultimately, Webster plays his last card, insisting on a trial, and when Scratch points out it is not a case for any ordinary court, offers “let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury”.

Scratch complies, summoning a “jury of the damned” (including Americans who fought for Britain in the Independence War, a Native American chief, colonial governors, a pirate), all evil, but all Americans. Presiding is a judge of the Salem Witch Trials who had never repented his role, like the others.

It still goes hard for Webster, and he is ready to go down fighting before suddenly realising that it is he who is the actual target, and will be in their power if he succumbs to rage. He instead switches to making a gentle but powerful speech about man and his faults, and even how they play their part in the making of a glorious country.

And the jury require no time to decide, finding for the plaintiff, with their foreman observing: “Perhaps ’tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence, but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr Webster.”

Nothing else Benet (1898-1943) wrote in his short career equalled this story, which won the O. Henry Prize, the most prestigious award for short stories, in 1937, inspired an Academy Award-winning Hollywood movie in 1941 and another modernised version (starring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Love Hewitt) in 2003, serials, radio shows, plays (including one by Benet) and countless reference in other works from a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode to a Superman novel.

What of Webster himself? His future is foretold by Mr Scratch, whom he forces to sign a promise not to molest Stone or anyone other New Hampshire man. He is told that he will come close to becoming President but will not make it, have both his sons die in war, and his last great speech will make many of his followers turn against him, questioning his loyalties and calling him names. But Webster is unfazed and kicks the Devil off.

All that came to be pass. Webster declined to accept Vice Presidency under two Presidents who died soon into their terms, his speech for the Compromise of 1850, which averted the Civil War (in which both his sons died) by a decade, earned him both bouquets and brickbats and scuppered his Presidential candidacy in 1852.

But he is ranked an orator to be emulated, one of the five greatest Senators ever and future President John F. Kennedy featured him in his Pulitzer-winning “Profiles in Courage”.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted atvikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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