- The Road to Dartmouth
- Scholarly Pursuits
- Writings and Speeches
- Room and Board
- The United Fraternity
- Phi Beta Kappa
- The Dartmouth Gazette
- Political Activity
- A Note on Sources
Writings and Speeches
At Exeter, Webster was never able to make a public address. "I could not make a declamation.
I could not speak before the school" (Lewis 10). This all changed at Dartmouth. By
his Junior year, he was recognized as a premier orator not only by the College, but
by the town of Hanover, which invited him to speak at the 1800 Independence Day celebration.
A combination of factors may have contributed to his growth and development as an orator.
In addition to the coursework required by the College, there was, at the time, mandatory
declamation. The Laws of 1796, still in effect in Webster's
time, read as follows:
It shall be the duty of the student to study the languages, sciences & arts at
the college... All the classes shall attend to composition and speaking as the
authority may direct. Members of the classes in rotation shall declaim before
the officers in the chapel on every Wednesday at two o'clock in the afternoon.
And on the first Wednesday in every month the members of the Senior class shall hold
forensic disputation in the chapel immediately after declamations" (qtd. in Foster 511).
Some of Webster's surviving speeches which are difficult to identify may be from
these mandatory orations. Reverend Elihu Smith, writing in 1852, was highly
complimentary of Webster's ability in regard to declamation. Said he, "He was in
the habit of writing his own declamations for the stage, though not required to do so,
by the laws of the college. He was accustomed to arrange his thoughts in his mind in
his room or private walks, and put them upon paper just beofre the exercise was called
for. When he was required to speak, at two o'clock, he would frequently begin to
write after dinner; and when the bell rung, he would fold his paper, put it into
his pocket, and go in and speak with great ease" (W&S vol. 17 46).
Another element which contributed to Webster's oratory was his membership in the United
Fraternity. The primary activities of this organization were literary pursuits, debate,
and oratory. Webster would excel in all of these, holding the positions
of Inspector of Books in his Freshman year and Orator in his Junior year.
One of his speeches was held in such high esteem that
it was comitted to the record books of the United Fraternity. It was stolen a week
later (Richardson in Hopkins 31).
A Hint to the Ambitious (1798/9)
This short poem is a warning against the dangers of ambition. Webster would clarify his position
later on in his Dartmouth career in his Oration on Ambition.
Oration at Hanover, N.H. (July 4, 1800)
Webster's first notable public address, given in celebration of the Fourth of July. Webster was
invited to address the public by the town of Hanover while still a Dartmouth student of only 18
years of age. Webster invokes the memory of George Washington, who had died earlier that year.
Oration on Ambition (October 6, 1800)
This address was prepared for the United Fraternity. In it, Webster describes the
ubiquitous nature of ambition in the human spirit. He delineates its positive and negative
uses by comparing the conquest-driven ambition of Ceasar to the virtue-guided ambition of
Washington, who Webster idolized.
Would it be advantageous to the United States to extend their territories? (December 25, 1800)
Webster convincingly argues for the acquisition of the Floridas. He reasons that it is vital to United States
interests that the U. S. have rights to the whole of the Mississippi river, predicting the reasons that would
be used for the acquisition decades later.
Ought the Punishment of Death to be Abolished? (1801)
In this speech likely prepared for the United Fraternity, Webster defends the death penalty.
His argument rests on the notion that society would be committing a greater injustice than murder,
both to the criminal and to others, by not punishing by death the most heinous crimes of man.
On the Goodness of God (1801)
This is a rather lengthy speech given by Webster in 1801. It's origins are hazy, but it
was likely given as part of the regular schedule of declamation required of the students.
It includes a great deal of scientific information, reflecting Webster's studies under
Is Deception Ever Justifiable? (May 4, 1801)
This short composition borrows largely from arguments expounded in Aristotle's
"Politics." As such, it is evidence not of Webster's capacity of reason, which
is seen in other writings, but moreso of his ability to concentrate upon and
commit to memory those things that he read.
Funeral Oration on Ephraim Simonds (August, 1801)
Given just before Webster's commencement to honor a fellow student and member of the class of
1801, Ephraim Simonds, who died on June 18, 1801.
The Influence of Opinion (August 25, 1801)
Although Webster did not have the opportunity to deliver the English Oratory at Commencement, he delivered this speech before
the United Fraternity four days before his August 29 graduation.
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