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Daniel Webster Lost in Portsmouth

Daniel Webster
UNKNOWN NH HISTORY

New Hampshire's best known orator cut his teeth as a lawyer here in Portsmouth, NH. He lived in four houses, got married, kep an office and began his family. But times were tough and fame called him to Massachusetts. Here is the story of how Daniel Webster lived a decade in the state's only seaport, but has been all but forgotten inthe town he once loved.

 

 

READ ABOUT Daniel Webster's Farm 

 

Fresh from Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College, the hick young lawyer from Salisbury, NH arrived in Portsmouth at the peak of its prosperity in 1807. New Hampshire's only seaport was a wealthy bustling town, already nearly 200 years old. The Revolutionary War was no more distant to residents than Viet Nam is to us today. Downtown Portsmouth, with its elegant mansions and 5,000 residents was the ideal spot to open a law office. In his autobiography, America's most famous orator would later recall his nine years here as among the happiest in his life.

Early Daniel Webster from miniature, now lostWebster lived at four locations in the city and set up his law practice just off Market Square. Only 26 when he arrived, Webster was already feeling like an old bachelor and within a year he had purchased a house and married Grace Fletcher of Hopkington. They had two children during their Portsmouth years.

Though his law practice was an immediate success, the Websters, not aggressively social, preferred evenings at home. That may be, some have suggested, because the young Webster was at times haughty, grim and full of himself. It may also be because attorney Webster was rarely at home. Practicing law on the "circuit" court in the early 19th century literally meant following the judge from one rural NH town to the next. Webster was often gone for weeks in all seasons, living at inns and country houses, sharing a room with the attorneys he would face in court the next morning.

On the road, without law books and with only hours to prepare his cases, Webster evolved his dramatic courtroom style. He learned his technique, he said, from renowned Seacoast lawyers. Jeremiah Mason of Portsmouth, a large and threatening man, became his primary sparring partner in the traveling courts and a close friend. Lawyer George Sullivan of Exeter, son of the Revolutionary war hero Gen. Sullivan of Durham, taught Webster grace and a more elegant demeanor.

From NH Supreme Court Judge Jeremiah Smith, Webster learned that even lawyers could be tolerant, friendly and courteous. Most Webster biographers, including Webster himself, agree that he left Portsmouth a much kinder, wiser and seasoned man than when he arrived. He learned to rely on his natural skills and instincts, rather than raw case law and pompous orations. Webster also said he never again found wiser men and better friends than those he met at the NH Bar. Years later, while speaking to former Portsmouth colleagues, this memory brought tears to his eyes.

Tracking the Webster Landmarks

Daniel Webster is Portsmouth's most famous long-term resident. John Paul Jones stayed just 18 months, George Washington visited four days, and Paul Revere barely spent the night. But despite nine years (actually eight years and 11 months) in town, Webster's presence has all but faded from view. One house remains of the four in which he lived, and that one is not currently open to the public. So, while many of the downtown mansions Webster knew well have survived, his presence has faded.

Although he moved from Portsmouth in 1817 to become a life-long resident of Massachusetts, Webster remains identified with the Granite State. His statue stands directly in front of the State House in Concord. The replica of his birthplace in Franklin is a popular tourist site. There is a Daniel Webster Highway in Manchester, a Daniel Webster College. He is a revered alumus of Phillips Exeter Academy, and at Dartmouth College where he fought one of his most famous cases. In the 1937 short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (made into a movie in 1941) author Stephen Vincent Benet has Webster's character exclaiming, "I'd fight 10,000 devils to save a New Hampshire man."

So where are the monuments in Portsmouth? A front-page article in the Portsmouth Herald from 1958 sheds a little light: "In 1932 the committee in charge of commemorating Webster's 150th anniversary came to Portsmouth to put plaques on the houses, but both [Vaughan and High streets] were in such miserable shape that they threw up their hands in horror and gave up the idea entirely...it was decided that since nobody particularly cared, it was better to forget that they ever existed."

Tracking Webster's life here says a lot about the town itself, about its rush to the future and its connections to the past, about business versus history and neighborhoods versus progress.

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