Many people believed that Daniel Webster would finally be elected president of the United States. And, indeed, there was no man in all this country who was better fitted for that high position than he.
But it so happened that inferior men, who were willing to stoop to the tricks of politics, always stepped in before him.
In the meanwhile the question of slavery was becoming, every day, more and more important. It was the one subject which claimed everybody's attention.
Should slavery be allowed in the territories?
There was great excitement all over the country. There were many hot debates in Congress. It seemed as though the Union would be destroyed.
At last, the wiser and cooler-headed leaders in Congress said, "Let each side give up a little to the other. Let us have a compromise."
On the 7th of March, 1850, Mr. Webster delivered a speech before the senate. It was a speech in favor of compromise, in favor of conciliation.
He thought that this was the only way to preserve the Union. And he was willing to sacrifice everything for the Constitution and the Union.
He declared that all the ends he aimed at were for his country's good.
"I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union," he said. "Hear me for my cause! I speak to-day out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and harmony, which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all."
He then went on to defend the law known as the Fugitive Slave Law. He declared that this law was in accordance with the Constitution, and hence it should be enforced according to its true meaning.
The speech was a great disappointment to his friends. They said that he had deserted them; that he had gone over to their enemies; that he was no longer a champion of freedom, but of slavery.
Those who had been his warmest supporters, now turned against him.
A few months after this, President Taylor died. The vice-president, Millard Fillmore, then became president. Mr. Fillmore was in sympathy with Daniel Webster, and soon gave him a seat in his cabinet as secretary of state.
This was the second time that Mr. Webster had been called to fill this high and honorable position. But, under President Fillmore, he did no very great or important thing.
He was still the leading man in the Whig party; and he hoped, in 1852, to be nominated for the presidency. But in this he was again disappointed.
He was now an old man. He had had great successes in life; but he felt that he had failed at the end of the race. His health was giving way. He went home to Marshfield for the quiet and rest which he so much needed.
In May, that same year, he was thrown from his carriage and severely hurt. From this hurt he never recovered. He offered to resign his seat in the cabinet, but Mr. Fillmore would not listen to this.
In September he became very feeble, and his friends knew that the end was near. On the 24th of October, 1852, he died. He was nearly seventy-one years old.
In every part of the land his death was sincerely mourned. Both friends and enemies felt that a great man had fallen. They felt that this country had lost its leading statesman, its noblest patriot, its worthiest citizen.
Rufus Choate, who had succeeded him as the foremost lawyer in New England, delivered a great oration upon his life and character. He said: "Look in how manly a sort, in how high a moral tone, Mr. Webster uniformly dealt with the mind of his country.
"Where do you find him flattering his countrymen, indirectly or directly, for a vote? On what did he ever place himself but good counsels and useful service?
"Who ever heard that voice cheering the people on to rapacity, to injustice, to a vain and guilty glory?
"How anxiously, rather, did he prefer to teach, that by all possible acquired sobriety of mind, by asking reverently of the past, by obedience to the law, by habits of patient labor, by the cultivation of the mind, by the fear and worship of God, we educate ourselves for the future that is revealing."