The Great Whig Gathering of 1840. – Speech of Daniel Webster .


"I told ye all,

When first we put this dangerous stone a-rolling,

’Twould fall upon ourselves.

Be advised:

Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot,

That it do singe yourself."



IT was a great day in Saratoga on Wednesday, August 19, 1840, for it beheld the assembling of more than ten thousand people (aside from its own population) gathered from all parts of the surrounding country. It was the year of the great Harrison campaign – "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" – a campaign, perhaps, that in excitement and intensity of feeling has only been equalled in the annals of the Republic by the one of 1800, when New York City decided the fate of John Adams.

It was not positively known until the Monday previous that Daniel Webster would address the people; and when it was so ascertained, notices to that effect were spread abroad. Accordingly, at an early hour on Wednesday an inpouring of the people and farmers from the surrounding country and villages was seen; and about noon hundreds were thronging the streets of Saratoga bearing Whig banners with various emblems and devices.

In the procession, which was formed and paraded through the streets, was a very neat log-cabin, 10 by 30 feet, drawn on wheels by sixteen gray horses, driven by Captain Dexter. On the top was a gallery, to which access was had by steps at the rear, and the inside was furnished with seats. On this gallery and in front were about fifty beaux and belles of the village – now many of them staid matrons – who struck up the Harrison song, which they sung in good style. The cabin was decorated with flags and banners, bearing appropriate mottoes, and the horses each had a small flag on its back. Preceding it, and drawn by six noble bays, similarly attired, was the "ball in motion." This was a huge affair, being about thirty feet in circumference. It was made of canvas, stretched on hoops, painted, and bearing the motto, "Keep the Ball Rolling."

This was in allusion to the remark of Benton in the beginning of the campaign – "Solitary and alone, on the floor of this Senate, I set this ball rolling." And the Whigs kept it agoing, too, in a sense he did not fancy – for in the words of a doggerel at the time:

"They rolled it straight

Through Jersey State,

To Kinderhook it went on ;

It went so quick,

And rolled so slick,

It rolled away from Benton .

The ball was suspended about six feet in the air above the carriage in which were deputations of Whigs.

At noon a heavy thunder-shower took place, which, however, soon passed off, and the weather became most auspicious. At three o’clock the people assembled in mass at "Temple Grove" (where Circular Railroad now is). A stage had been erected and seats prepared, but the immense crowd pressed around to such a degree as to render the place uncomfortable, and many were compelled to leave. It is estimated, however, that at least ten thousand people remained, one-fourth of whom were of the fair sex.

Mr. Webster rose amid loud applause, and had only made a fair beginning of his speech when a crash was heard, and the whole platform, with about fifteen or twenty people, including the speaker, disappeared from view. All had fallen among the broken lumber, and great anxiety was manifested until it was announced that no bones were broken and no person seriously injured. I was then a boy of four years and had been seated on my father’s lap on the stand; and I well recall the sudden transition from light to darkness, and the ludicrous appearance of the persons around me with their hats knocked over their eyes.

Mr. Webster at length made his appearance on a wagon, and after a sportive allusion to the disaster – the caving in of the "platform," etc. – resumed his speech.

"With grave

Aspect he rose, and in his rising seem’d

A pillar of state; deep in his front engraved

Deliberation sate, and public care –

As when of old some orator renown’d

In Athens or free Rome, where eloquence

Flourish’d, since mute, to some great cause address’d

Stood in himself collected, while each part,

Motion, each act, won audience ere the tongue.

Sage he stood,

With Atlantean shoulders, fit to bear

The weight of mightiest monarchies; his look

Drew audience, and attention still as night,

Or summer’s noontide air, while thus he spoke.

"Such an audience," he said, "from every part of the Union had never gathered before." This address was justly regarded, both by friends and foes, as one of this great man’s happiest efforts. It was throughout a dignified appeal to the good sense of his fellow-citizens, whom he addressed as if they were "grave senators," amply able to appreciate his efforts. He spoke with a proper courtesy of the present and former Presidents, but he nevertheless dealt with unsparing severity on their measures. The currency was the prominent theme of his remarks, and he quoted the course of all our former Presidents (and especially President Madison) as entirely adverse to Mr. Van Buren. He spoke in all instances from the text , and held in his hand a paper with the precise language which he examined, compared and contrasted in a most convincing and effective manner.

The little story of Seth Peterson was happily given as an illustration of the delusions and erroneous maxims of Benton, Buchanan, and other political economists of that day. Seth was a neighbor of Mr. Webster, and a hardy Yankee of amphibious habits – half farmer and half fisherman – with plenty of the "poor man’s blessings." As he and Mr. Webster were alone in a little boat returning from fishing, and while pulling at the oars, he would sometimes give his views of national policy. He had heard of the new notion among political men – that low prices were as good for the poor man as high, provided the necessaries of life were reduced in a proportionate degree. "Now," said Seth, "if everything which the poor man wants could be reduced in exact proportion to the reduction of his wages, and remain so, he would not suffer by the change. But I have only one thing to sell, and that is my labor . I have many things to buy, and I find the reduction does not reach all the articles which I want. My interest therefore induces me to be in favor of high wages." "This," said Mr. Webster, "is practical wisdom, which is far better than the theories of politicians. The reasoning of my friend Seth comprised the whole question in the best possible form." The rise and progress of the war against the United States Banks was then given by the speaker in detail.

Toward the latter part of Mr. Webster’s speech occurred this eloquent paragraph, having particular reference to Saratoga:

"Fellow-citizens of the County of Saratoga! In taking leave of you, I cannot but remind you how distinguished a place your county occupies in the history of the country. I cannot be ignorant that, in the midst of you, are many at this moment who saw in this neighborhood the triumph of republican arms in the surrender of General Burgoyne. I cannot doubt that a fervent spirit of patriotism burns in the breast of their children. They helped to save their country amidst the storms of war. They will help to save it , I am fully persuaded, in the present severe civil crisis. Fellow-citizens! I verily believe it is true that of all who are left of us from the Revolution, nine-tenths are with us in the approaching contest. If there be a Revolutionary officer or soldier who has joined in the attacks of General Harrison’s military character, I have not met with him. It is not, therefore, in the County of Saratoga that a cause sustained by such means is likely to prevail."

This speech – acknowledged to be one of the greatest, if, indeed, not the greatest of Webster’s speeches – occupied more than three hours in its delivery, and the assembled thousands testified, in the most expressive manner, their respect for this stalwart champion of the Constitution. In one part of his speech, the most honorable to his pure and manly feelings, the tears coursed down his cheeks, and his language was scarcely audible – and at that moment some thousands of sympathetic bosoms heaved in unison with the moving spirit – a silence, meanwhile, deep and expressive, reigning throughout that vast multitude.

Such a day had never before been known in Saratoga, and was for many after years long remembered. {About a week subsequent to this meeting, another one of a similar character was held in the sister village of Glen’s Falls – the log-cabin occupying the precise spot where the Soldier’s Monument now stands. "The gathering on that occasion," writes Dr. A.W. Holden to the author, "I distinctly remember as being immense – estimated all the way from ten to twenty thousand. The delegations came in from the border and some from the interior towns of Washington and Saratoga Counties, with a huge ball rolling on to represent the cumulative and irresistible movement. Fort Ann – a large boat, full-rigged and manned as a frigate, a live coon on the top-mast; Whitehall – a huge log-cabin on wheels, with the inevitable barrel of hard cider; Argyle – a wagon decorated with other emblems and devices, and filled with girls gaily dressed and faces beaming with enthusiasm, holding in their hands flags, mottoes, insignia, as ‘terrible as an army with banners.’ This large assemblage was accompanied by bands of music, a piece of artillery, etc., and all the usual adjuncts of such an occasion. So great was the gathering that in the afternoon other stands were made, when other speakers held forth to the delight and entertainment of admiring crowds. Bands of singers with the voices of Stentors, ‘throats of brass and adamantine lungs,’ diversified the affair with stirring campaign songs and burlesque choruses. Such, in very brief, was the great campaign gathering of 1840.}



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