Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution
Peter Charles Hoffer
Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution reveals Webster as the foremost constitutional lawyer of his day. Peter Charles Hoffer builds a persuasive case that Webster was more than a skilled practitioner who rose rapidly from his hardscrabble New Hampshire origins. Hoffer thoroughly documents the ways in which Webster was an innovative jurist. While Chief Justice John Marshall gets credit for much of our early constitutional jurisprudence, in fact in a series of key cases Marshall simply borrowed Webster’s oral and written arguments.
For Webster, Marshall, and many lawyers and jurists of their day, professions of adherence to the Constitution were universal. Yet they knew that the Constitution could not be fixed in time; its text needed to be read in light of the rapidly transforming early republic and antebellum eras or it would become irrelevant. As Chief Justice Marshall explained in Bank of the United States v. Deveaux (1809): “A constitution, from its nature, deals in generals, not in detail. Its framers cannot perceive minute distinctions which arise in the progress of the nation, and therefore confine it to the establishment of broad and general principles.” But were these “broad and general principles” themselves fixed? For Webster there were landmarks: the Contract Clause and the Commerce Clause. While others were exploring and surveying the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase, Webster set out to map the spaces in the constitutional and legal landscape that were unmarked.
“Peter Charles Hoffer takes the reader on a fascinating tour of a central figure in early American constitutional development. Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution details the constitutional, political, and historical significance of Webster’s speeches and writings in ways that highlight how that the Massachusetts Whig, allied with John Marshall and Joseph Story, helped convert an ambiguous constitution into the fundamental law of the United States.”
—Mark A. Graber, regents professor, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
“Peter Charles Hoffer has produced an original, impressive, scrupulously researched book on Daniel Webster’s successful presentations of fundamental constitutional cases before the US Supreme Court and the important part they played in shaping not only the decisions of the Court but also the way subsequent generations have interpreted the federal Constitution. Hoffer’s new book offers a timely perspective on Webster and his commitment to the rule of law.”
—Daniel Walker Howe, professor emeritus of history, University of California, Los Angeles
“Peter Charles Hoffer provides a cogent and insightful look at Daniel Webster’s constitutional thinking. For anyone interested in how the ‘unfinished Constitution’ was fleshed out by its first generation of lawyers, legislators, and judges, this is a must-read.”
—H. Robert Baker, author of Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution
“Peter Hoffer’s thoughtful analysis of the constitutional jurisprudence of Daniel Webster emphasizes his importance in American constitutional development. Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution traces Webster’s views of federalism, law versus partisan politics, and the balance between government power and individual liberty as he worked them out in appellate argument and Senate floor debates with Robert Hayne and John Calhoun. This welcome contribution to our constitutional discourse will be valuable to all readers, from undergraduates encountering these ideas for the first time to veteran scholars and lawyers.”
—William M. Wiecek, Chester Adgate Congdon Professor of Public Law and Legislation Emeritus, Syracuse University College of Law
“Peter Charles Hoffer provides an intensive focus on Daniel Webster as both the ‘defender of the Constitution’—a familiar role for the great New England orator—and as a consistent, persuasive constitutional theorist. Webster outlined a constitutional jurisprudence for the young republic that interweaved his conceptions of federal supremacy, the place of law as a trump to politics, and the priority of protecting private rights into law, and Hoffer thoroughly and engagingly demonstrates how Webster advocated for this legal theory against increasingly countervailing forces. The shifting fortunes of Webster’s impassioned arguments in court illustrate the innumerable changes to American life brought about by Jacksonian democracy, antebellum sectionalism, and marketplace competition. That Hoffer uses his tight focus on Webster’s constitutional jurisprudence to both give coherence to Webster’s life work as legal advocate as well as to chart the larger themes of Jacksonian America makes this book both illuminating and highly useful to students of law in antebellum America.”
—Kate Elizabeth Brown, author of Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law
Peter Charles Hoffer provides an insightful and timely study of how Webster’s analysis of three key constitutional issues is relevant to today’s constitutional conflicts: the relationship between law and politics, between public policy and private rights, and between the federal government and the states, all of which remain contentious in our constitutional jurisprudence and crucial to our constitutional order.