Daniel Webster, Autobiography

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Daniel Webster and his older brother Ezekiel were the youngest boys in a family of ten children. Their father was a farmer and judge in Salisbury, New Hampshire, respected but by no means wealthy, who had had already assisted his older children to acquire land and set up their households. In rural New England it was often customary for a younger son to stay with his parents, work alongside his father, and ultimately inherit the family farm. However, both Daniel and Ezekiel wanted an education beyond farming. In this recollection, the now famous Daniel described how the two youngest Webster sons found their way to education and a choice of careers.

Transcription of Primary Source

I do not remember when or by whom I was taught to read; because I cannot and never could recollect a time when I could not read the Bible. I suppose I was taught by my mother, or by my elder sisters. My father seemed to have no higher object in the world, than to educate his children, to the full extent of his very limited ability. No means were within his reach, generally speaking but the small town schools. These were kept by teachers, sufficiently indifferent, in the several neighborhoods of the township, each a small part of the year. To these I was sent, with the other children.

When the school was in our neighborhood, it was easy to attend; when it removed to a more distant district* I followed it, still living at home…When it removed still further, my father sometimes boarded me out*, in a neighboring family, so that I could still be in the school. A good deal of this was an extra care, more than had been bestowed on my elder brothers, and originating in a conviction of the slenderness and frailty of my constitution, which was thought not likely ever to allow me to pursue robust occupation.

In these schools, nothing was taught but reading and writing; and, as to these, the first I generally could perform better than the teacher, and the last a good master could hardly instruct me in; writing was so laborious, irksome, and repulsive an occupation to me always. My masters used to tell me, that they feared, after all, my fingers were destined for the plough−tail…

I recollect no great changes happening to me till I was fourteen years old. A great deal of the time I was sick, and when well was exceedingly slender, and apparently of feeble system. I read what I could get to read, went to school when I could; and when not at school, was a farmer’s youngest boy, not good for much, for want of health and strength, but was expected to do something. Up to this period, I had no hope of any education beyond what the village school−house was to afford. But now my father took an important step with me. On the 25th day of May, 1796, he mounted his horse, placed me on another, carried me to Exeter, and placed me in Phillips Academy…

At the winter vacation, December 1796, or January, 1797, my father came for me, and took me home. In February, 1797, my father carried me to the Rev. Samuel Wood’s, in Boscawen, and placed me under the tuition of that most benevolent and excellent man. It was but half a dozen miles from our own house. On the way to Mr. Wood’s, my father first intimated to me his intention of sending me to college. The very idea thrilled my whole frame. He said he then lived but for his children, and if I would do all I could for myself, he would do what he could for me. I remember that I was quite overcome, and my head grew dizzy. The thing appeared to me so high, and the expense and sacrifice it was to cost my father, so great, I could only press his hands and shed tears…

I entered Dartmouth College, as a Freshman, August, 1797…Of my college life, I can say but little…I was graduated, in course, August, 1801…

I must now go back, a little, to make mention of some incidents connected with my brother, Ezekiel Webster. He was almost two years older than myself, having been born March 11, 1780. He was a healthy, strong−built robust boy. His intellectual character, as it afterwards developed itself, was not early understood, at least in its full extent…The older brothers were married and settled. My father’s plan was that this brother should remain with him. This was the domestic state of things, when I went to college in August, 1797. But I soon began to be uneasy about my brother’s situation. His prospects were not promising, and he himself saw and felt this, and had aspirations beyond his condition…In the Spring of 1799, at the May vacation, being then [a] Sophomore, I visited my family, and then held serious consultations with my brother…

He had thought of going into some new part of the country. That was discussed and disagreed to. All the pros and cons of the question of remaining at home were weighed and considered, and when our council broke up, or rather got up, its result was that I should propose to my father, that he, late as it was, should be sent to school, also, and to college. This, we knew, would be a trying thing to my father and mother, and two unmarried sisters. My father was growing old, his health not good, and his circumstances far from easy. The farm was to be carried on, and the family taken care of; and there was nobody to do all this, but him, who was regarded as the main stay, that is to say, Ezekiel. However, I ventured on the negotiation, and it was carried, as other things are often, by the earnest and sanguine* manner of youth. I told him that I was unhappy at my brother’s prospects. For myself, I saw my way to knowledge, respectability, and self protection; but as to him, all looked the other way; that I would keep school, and get along as well as I could—be more than four years in getting through college, if necessary, provided he also could be sent to study. He [my father] said…that to carry us both through college would take all he was worth; that for himself he was willing to run the risk, but that this was a serious matter to our mother and two unmarried sisters; that we must settle the matter with them, and if their consent was obtained, he would trust to Providence, and get along as well as he could. The result was, that, in about ten days, I had gone back to college, having first seen my brother take leave of the meadows, and place himself in school, under a teacher in Latin. Soon after−wards he went to Mr. Wood’s, and there pursued the requisite studies, and my father carried him, with me, to college in March, 1801, when he joined the then Freshman class.

Being graduated in August, 1801, I immediately entered Mr. Thompson’s office, in Salisbury, next door to my father’s house, to study the law. There I remained till January following, viz *: January, 1802. The necessity of the case required that I should then go somewhere and gain a little money. I was written to, luckily, to go to Fryeburg, Maine, to keep school. I accepted the offer, traversed the country on horseback, and commenced my labors…I stayed in Fryeburg only till September…I resumed my place in Mr. Thompson’s office…

…From September, 1802, to February or March 1804, I remained in Mr. Thompson’s office, and studied the law. He was an admirable man, and a good lawyer himself; but I was put to study in the old way, that is, the hardest books first, and lost much time…Why disgust and discourage a boy, by telling him that he must break into his profession, through such a wall as this? I really often despaired. I thought I never could make myself a lawyer, and was almost going back to the business of school−keeping…

In the winter of 1804, it had become necessary for either my brother or myself to under−take something that should bring us a little money…To find some situation for one or the other of us, I set off in February, and found my way to Boston. My journey was fortunate. Dr. Perkins had been in the instruction of a school, in Short street: he was about leaving it, and proposed that my brother should take it. I hastened home…and he readily seized the opportunity of employment in Boston. This broke in upon his college life, but he thought he could keep up with his class…His success was good, nay great; so great, that he thought he could earn enough to defray, in addition to debts and other charges, the expense of my living in Boston, for what remained of my term of study. Accordingly, I went to Boston, in July, to pass a few months in some office…

Mr. Gore had just then returned from England, and renewed the practice of law. He…as yet had no clerk… A young man, as little known to Mr. Gore as myself, undertook to introduce me to him!…I was from the country, I said; had studied law for two years, had come to Boston to study a year more…and all I ventured to ask, at present, was that he would keep a place for me in his office…

Mr. Gore heard me with much encouraging good−nature…Mr. Gore said… he did not mean to fill his office with clerks, but was willing to receive one or two, and would consider what I had said…He talked to me pleasantly, for a quarter of an hour; and when I rose to depart, he said: “My young friend, you look as though you might be trusted. You say you came to study, and not to waste time. I will take you at your word. You may as well hang up your hat, at once; go into the other room; take your book and sit down to reading it, and write at your convenience to New Hampshire for your letters [of recommendation].” I was conscious of making a good stride onward, when I had obtained admission into Mr. Gore’s office…In March, 1805, I was admitted to practice in the Suffolk Court of Common Pleas…

In January preceding my admission, I was the subject of a great honor. The clerk of the Court of Common Pleas for the county of Hillsborough resigned his place. My father was one of the judges of the court, and I was appointed to the vacant clerkship. This was equal to a Presidential election. The office had an income of fifteen hundred dollars a year…The obtaining of this office had been a darling object with my father. Its possession would make the family easy, and he hastened to send me tidings that the prize was won. I certainly considered it a great prize, myself, and was ready to abandon my profession for it…But Mr. Gore peremptorily shut me out from this opening paradise…He said, I was nearly through my professional preparation, that I should soon be at the bar, and he saw not why I might not hope to make my way as well as others; that this office was in the first place precarious, it depended upon the will of others; and other times and other men might soon arise, and my office be given to somebody else. And in the second place, if permanent, it was a stationary place; that a clerk once, I was probably nothing better than a clerk, ever… “Go on,” said he, “and finish your studies; you are poor enough, but there are greater evils than poverty; live on no man’s favor; what bread you do eat, let it be the bread of independence; pursue your profession, make yourself useful to your friends, and a little formidable to your enemies, and you have nothing to fear.”

I need hardly say that I acquiesced in this good advice; though certainly it cost me a pang. Here was present comfort, competency, and I may even say riches, as I then viewed things, all ready to be enjoyed, and I was called upon to reject them for the uncertain and distant prospect of professional success. But I did resist the temptation; I did hold on to the hope which the law set before me.

One very difficult task remained, however, to be performed; and that was to reconcile my father to my decision.


  • boarded me out − paid for meals and lodging
  • more distant school district − Webster attended a “traveling school.” The town hired one teacher who moved from district to district to teach terms of school sequentially. These schools were replaced by “district schools” each staffed by a teacher and in session for two terms a year; one in the summer and one in the winter.
  • sanguine − having blood as the predominating bodily humor; also : having the bodily conformation and temperament held characteristic of such predominance and marked by sturdiness, high color, and cheerfulness; confident, optimistic
  • viz − abbreviation for “videlicet,” meaning: that is to say, namely

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Private Correspondence of Daniel Webster
6−7, 9−14, 17−22
The excerpts above are from an autobiography written in 1829.
Daniel Webster, Author; Fletcher Webster, Editor
Little, Brown and Company
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village