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The Many Homes of Daniel Webster

 

Daniel Webster/ SeacoastNH.com

 

HISTORY MATTERS 

Daniel Webster slept around. You’ll find Webster’s historic homes in Marshfield, MA, Franklin and Portsmouth, NH and beyond. Well known, but little remembered by many -- has NH’s favorite son gone to the devil? We check out Webster’s real estate and reputation. (see below)

 

 

Mr. Webster's Real Estate

READ ALSO: Webster's Portsmouth Houses

Daniel Webster went to Hell to plead a New Hampshire mortgage case. His client, Jabez Stone, mortgaged his soul, however, not his house. Perhaps you read the book in school or saw the film "The Devil and Daniel Webster". In it, Webster defended farmer Stone against Satan himself – and won. 

In 1937 author Stephen Vincent Benet borrowed the plot and most of the title from an earlier story by Washington Irving called "The Devil and Tom Walker". Irving stole the idea from the German legend of Faust about a man who sold his soul to the devil.

"If two New Hampshiremen aren't a match for the devil," Daniel Webster says in the story, "we might as well give the country back to the Indians."

But that was a fable, not fact. The real Daniel Webster (1782- 1852) was among America’s greatest statesmen. An eloquent speaker and senator, he served as secretary of state under three presidents. Webster also ran for president three times without success. Arguably the most famous man in NH history, his statue stands in front of the state capitol. And for nearly a decade, he lived and worked in Portsmouth.

Daniel Webster Birthplace / SeacoastNH.com

A man of many houses

This city boasts a legitimate claim to Webster. He lived and worked here for nearly a decade, occupying at least four Portsmouth houses and a downtown office. But we have stiff competition. Not until Sen. John McCain, has a failed presidential candidate had more houses than Daniel Webster. Everybody wants a piece of Mr. Webster – or at least – they used to. His fame is sharply on the wane.

At least four towns – in NH, NY, Massachusetts and Missouri – are named in his honor. A submarine, an inn where he frequently stayed, a college, numerous schools, a NH highway and mountain, and a memorial in Washington DC also carry his name. Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy where his statue is still the mascot of the debate team. Dartmouth owns at least 50 portraits of its favorite son (Class of 1801). Webster defended the tiny rural NH college in a landmark Supreme Court case. Even the American Eagle (the one with the grim look and thick eyebrows) in the old Muppets TV-show is fashioned after Dan.

Franklin, NH has the most powerful claim. The sickly boy was born there, (formerly Salisbury, NH) on land granted to his grandfather by colonial governor Benning Wentworth. His father, a Revolutionary War vet, built a two-room frame house there. It has been moved several times, but the official Daniel Webster birthplace is back on its original foundation and a public museum.

Daniel’s parents sold the cabin and operated a mill and a tavern nearby, but sold the property to pay for their son’s Harvard tuition. They then purchased a small house in Franklin on lush acreage along the Merrimack River that Daniel later inherited. By 1847, with the completion of the railroad line, Webster could reach "Elm Farm" in Franklin from Boston in just three hours. After his death, the farm became an orphanage for children left homeless after the Civil War. Elm Farm was run by The Sisters of the Holy Cross, then was almost lost to development in 2005. Saved by preservationists, Webster’s farm has been restored as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

Webster Estate in Mansfield, MA / SeacoastNH.com

In his heyday, Daniel Webster was a pop star politician of the Obama caliber, although without the good looks. He could talk up a storm, and advocated a strong union. By 1832, when he bought a farmhouse in Marshfield, MA he was already famous. You can hold a wedding or corporate meeting at the Webster Estate in Marshfield today, but read the fine print. The original house burned in 1879 and was rebuilt by the senator’s daughter in law.

MORE: Webster Farm photos

The Portsmouth years

Portsmouth can only claim the early years. After teaching in Fryeburg and Boston, Webster arrived in the thriving port city in 1807. Already 26 and unmarried, Webster moved temporarily into bachelor’s quarters "near the Buckminster House" at No 1 Islington Street. That site is now a parking lot across from the Portsmouth Academy, now the Discover Portsmouth Center.

Webster married Grace Fletcher of Hopkinton the following year. They set up housekeeping at the Meserve House built in 1760 on Vaughan Street (now Vaughan Mall). Prominent Portsmouth attorney Jeremiah Mason was moving out of the building at the time and likely brokered the arrangement. Although a beautiful tree-lined street in Webster’s day, the area was flattened by urban renewal and is today the parking lot of the Parade Mall.

Daniel Webster House on High Street in Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com

The Websters purchased their first home around 1809. The law practice was bringing in $2,000 a year, four times his earlier income. The house, near the corner of Pleasant and Court streets, was a stone’s throw from the historic Gov. John Langdon mansion. Although sometimes considered haughty and grim, Webster was earning a reputation "riding the circuit", following the judge from town to town where he represented new clients with his powerful speechmaking skills.

Webster was on the rise, but Portsmouth was declining. The War of 1812 was the beginning of the end for seaport trade. Then in 1813 the Webster home was engulfed by flames that devastated the city’s downtown.

The $6,000 Webster home was uninsured. Nearly wiped out by the loss of their home (and Daniel’s beloved library), they moved once again. The Webster’s rented a more modest building on High Street downtown. By now the hick lawyer was a rising star headed to Washington. Grace and Daniel and their two children lived on High Street from 1814 to 1816, but Daniel was moving into politics and would soon jump ship to Boston.

The last surviving Webster House was saved from destruction in 1964 when it was moved to Hancock Street as part of the new Strawbery Banke Museum. It’s original site, once again for poor Daniel, became a parking lot. The museum continues to rent the structure to private tenants.

Lion cutting his teeth

It was during his Portsmouth phase, rubbing elbows with important lawyers and traveling the state, that Daniel Webster sharpened his skills and gained a reputation.

"As a speaker merely, he is perhaps the best at the bar," attorney William Plummer said of Webster. "His language is correct, his gestures good, his delivery slow, articulate, and distinct. [And] he excels in the statement of facts." 

Webster was also changing physically. The handsome dark-haired young man grew sallow, paunchy and balding, with a severe and penetrating gaze. The transformation was striking and friends nicknamed him "the lion" and "Black Dan".

Daniel Webster was elected head of the Portsmouth town council in 1812. He was warden of the Old North Church downtown. At the urging of friends, he served two terms as a representative from NH in Washington DC where he was strongly opposed to "Mr. Madison’s War" with England. By the end of the war, however, Webster was shifting his political views. He was enamored of life in Washington and tired of being a big fish in the small pond called New Hampshire.

Daniel Webster Farm in Franklin, NH / Gail Rousseau photo

A distant ring tone

America has largely forgotten Daniel Webster. His name still rings a bell, but it is a weak and distant tone. A recent Hollywood remake of the film The Devil and Daniel Webster stars Alec Baldwin as Jabez Stone (now a New York novelist rather than a NH farmer) and Anthony Hopkins as Daniel Webster (this time a book publisher). Jennifer Love Hewitt plays the Devil. The film sat on the shelf for three years and was quietly released in 2007 under the title Shortcut to Happiness. Sorry Dan, you’re just not box office any more.

Portsmouth too largely ignores Daniel, perhaps out of spite for his departure to Massachusetts. No plaque marks the site of the office he kept for nearly a decade. The young lawyer maintained a small two-room office within view of Market Square during his entire time here, but historians are fuzzy on exactly where.

The second or third floor site on the west side of the road was likely at #18 or #20 Market Street. The office was up a steep set of stairs over a store. It was described as a very ordinary space with "less furniture and more books than common." Over the years the building has had many tenants, a sporting goods store, a print office, a camera store, video rental shop, and a used clothing boutique, a private condo and storage space. Exactly where the brilliant young lawyer saved the souls of his Portsmouth clients deserves a closer look. The devil, for now, is still in the details.

Copyright © 2009 J. Dennis Robinson at SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

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