Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Daniel Webster

Introduction

Webster was appointed Secretary of State by President William Henry Harrison on March 5, 1841. He entered duty the next day and completed his tenure on May 8, 1843, during the administration of President John Tyler.

Webster returned to the position when he was appointed by President Millard Fillmore on July 22, 1850. Webster officially entered duty as Secretary of State for his second tenure on July 23, 1850, and left the position on October 24, 1852.

During his two tenures as Secretary of State, Webster focused his considerable legal talents on strengthening the U.S. Government and expanding foreign trade.

Daniel Webster, 14th & 19th Secretary of State

Daniel Webster, 14th & 19th Secretary of State

Rise to Prominence

Webster was born into a family of frontier farmers in Salisbury, New Hampshire. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, began teaching school and studying law, and joined the Massachusetts bar in 1805.

Webster practiced law for several years in New Hampshire before winning political office in 1813. He served as a Representative from New Hampshire until 1817. Webster’s gift for law and oratory made him an influential attorney, and he became involved in a number of landmark Supreme Court cases.

After relocating to Boston, Massachusetts, he became a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts in 1823 and served until 1827. That year he became a U.S. Senator and served until 1841. Webster became nationally famous for his defense of the Union during the states’ rights Nullification Crisis. He returned to the U.S. Senate from 1845 to 1850.

Influence on American Diplomacy

Webster’s major task during his first appointment as Secretary of State was to negotiate a number of longstanding disputes with Great Britain. He helped achieve the landmark Anglo-American Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. The treaty settled the Maine boundary, increased U.S. involvement in suppressing the African slave trade, and included an extradition clause that would become a model for future treaties. The agreement also ushered in an era of rapprochement between the two nations, allowing the U.S. Government to focus on westward expansion.

Webster extended diplomatic protection to U.S. missionaries abroad, and he arrogated the Monroe Doctrine to the Hawaiian Islands.

He resigned from the Secretaryship in 1843 due to financial difficulties and a disagreement with President Tyler over the annexation of Texas, a move stridently opposed by Webster.

After President Fillmore brought Webster back as Secretary of State in 1850, Webster dedicated significant attention to domestic affairs such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law.

Undiplomatically, he created a rift with the Austrian Empire with his so-called Hülseman note (named for J.G. Hülseman the Austrian Chargé to the United States). Webster intended to explain U.S. support for Hungarian independence, but his note starkly criticized European monarchism.

In somewhat of a contrast, he later defended the Spanish Crown’s right to protect its Cuban colony against U.S. filibustering expeditions.

Webster continued to take steps toward improving Anglo-American relations. He successfully advised the British Government to cede its protectorates and some geographical claims in Central America. However, he found no success with the Mexican Government, which blocked the U.S.-backed construction of a railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Webster died while serving as Secretary of State and working on a number of prescient matters, including the drive to expand U.S. trade in Asia.

Bibliography

  • Bartlett, Irving H. Daniel Webster. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
  • Baxter, Maurice. One and Inseparable: Daniel Webster and the Union. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1984.
  • Corey, Albert B. The Crisis of 1830-1842 in Canadian-American Relations. New York: Russell and Russell, 1970.
  • Fuess, Claude M. Daniel Webster. 2 vols. New York: Little, Brown, 1930. Reprint. 1968 (Da Capo).
  • Jones, Howard. To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 1783-1843. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
  • Manning, William R., ed. Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Canadian Relations, 1784-1860. Millwood: Kraus Reprint, 1975.
  • Pletcher, David. The Diplomacy of Annexation; Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973.
  • Remini, Robert. Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
  • Shewmaker, Kenneth E. “'Congress Can Only Declare War' and 'the President Is Commander in Chief': Daniel Webster and the War Power.” Diplomatic History 12 (October 1988): 383-410.
  • ______. “Daniel Webster and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1850-1852.” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 303-315.
  • Shewmaker, Kenneth E., Kenneth R. Stevens, and Anita McGurn, eds. The Papers of Daniel Webster, Diplomatic Papers. 2 vols. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983-1988.
  • Born 1782
    Died 1852

Career Overview

  • Non-career appointee
  • State of Residence
    Massachusetts

  • Secretary of State
    Appointed: March 5, 1841
    Entry on Duty: March 6, 1841
    Termination of Appointment: May 8, 1843

  • Secretary of State
    Appointed: July 22, 1850
    Entry on Duty: July 23, 1850
    Termination of Appointment: October 24, 1852