Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

tion the right of a State to pass an insolvent law. It was of course a case of high constitutional law, belonging to the same general class with those just mentioned, and relating to the limit of the powers of the several States, in reference to matters confided by the Constitution to the general government. This cause was argued by Mr. Clay and Mr. David B. Ogden of New York for the plaintiffs, and by Mr. Webster and Mr. Henry Wheaton for the defendants in error. In his argument in this case, Mr. Webster maintained the entire unconstitutionality of State bankrupt laws. This was a step in advance of the doctrines laid down by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Sturges and Crowninshield, nor did the court on the present occasion incline to go further than they had done in that case. They were divided in opinion, but a majority of the judges held, that, although it was not competent to a State to pass a law discharging a debtor from the obligation of payment, they might pass a law to discharge him from imprisonment on personal execution. The Chief Justice and Judge Story were the minority of the court, and the opinion of the Chief Justice sustained the principle of Mr. Webster's argument, which is, in fact, usually regarded as not falling below his most successful forensic efforts. The manner in which he meets the argument in favor of a prospective State insolvent law, namely, that such a law cannot impair the obligation of a contract because it is a part of the contract, may be quoted as a specimen of the acutest dialectics brought in aid of the broadest views of constitutional law. In the year 1836, Mr. Webster argued at Washington the great cause of the proprietors of Charles River Bridge. This well-remembered case was a suit in chancery commenced in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, where the bill was dismissed by a decree pro forma, the members of that court being equally divided in opinion. A writ of error was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, on the ground that the rights of the proprietors of Charles River Bridge under their charter had been violated by the legislature, in authorizing the erection of Warren Bridge. The cause was argued at Washington, in 1836, and, having been then held under advisement by the court for a year, was, upon difference of opinion among the judges, ordered to be again argued, which was done in 1837. This was another of the great constitutional cases argued by Mr. Webster before the Supreme Court of the United States. The abstract principles of the case were perhaps as clear as in those to which we have alluded; but there were practical difficulties, no doubt, in their application to restrain the right of a legislature to grant an act of incorporation, in the usual form, for the construction of a new.bridge, on the ground of interference with some prior similar franchise. The opinion of the court, adverse to the complainants, was delivered by Chief Justice Taney. Mr. Justice McLean was clearly of opinion that the merits of the case were with the complainants, but that the Supreme Court of the United States had no jurisdiction over it. Mr. Justice Story dissented from the majority, and sustained the doctrines advanced by Mr. Webster in a very learned and powerfully reasoned opinion. In 1839 the constitutional rights of the Bank of the United States (so called), which was incorporated by the State of Pennsylvania after the termination of the Congressional charter, were drawn in question by a case from the State of Alabama, in which the right of a corporation or a citizen in one State to perform any legal act in another was asserted by Mr. Webster, and his argument was sustained by the court. Not long afterwards the controversy between Massachusetts and Rhode Island relative to their boundary, a controversy running back to the earliest periods of their colonial history, was brought before the Supreme Court, at Washington, and argued by Mr. Webster for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1844 the important case relative to the validity of Mr. Girard's bequest of the greater part of his estate to the city of Philadelphia, for the foundation of a college for orphans, was argued by Mr. Webster before the Supreme Court, at Washington, for the heirs at law. One of the grounds on which the bequest was impeached by them was, the exclusion by the will of all ecclesiastics, missionaries, or ministers, of whatever sect, from all offices in the college, and even from admission within the premises as visitors. So impressive was Mr. Webster's argument upon the importance of making provision for religious instruction in all institutions for education, that a meeting of the citizens of Washington belonging to different religious denominations was held, at which a resolution was passed expressing the opinion entertained by the meeting of the great value of Mr. Webster's argument, “in demonstrating the vital importance of Christianity to the success of our free institutions, and that the general diffusion of that argument among the people of the United States is a matter of deep public interest.” A committee of eight gentlemen of the different denominations of Christians in the city was appointed to wait upon Mr. Webster, and request him to prepare for the press the report of that portion of his argument in which this important topic is treated. In the month of January, 1848, the great Rhode Island case was brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, and argued by Mr. Webster for the chartered government of the State, and against the insurrectionary government, to which an abortive attempt had been made to give the form of a constitution, by a pretended act of the popular will. The true principles of popular and constitutional government are explored with unsurpassed sagacity in this argument. Some copies of the report of it in a pamphlet form reached Europe during the memorable year of 1848, when the Continent was convulsed with revolutionary struggles from one end to the other. It was there regarded as a most seasonable and instructive commentary on the nature of constitutional obligations, and of the rights of the people to modify their institutions of government. - A large portion of the causes argued by Mr. Webster belong to the province of constitutional law, and have their origin in that partition of powers which exists between the State governments and the government of the United States, each clothed with sovereignty in its appropriate sphere, each subject to limitations resulting from its relations to the other, each possessing its legislative bodies, its judicial tribunals, its executive authorities, and consequently armed with the means of asserting its rights, and both combined into one great political system. In such a system it cannot but happen that questions of conflicting jurisdiction should arise. When we consider that the powers of these two orders of government are defined in written constitutions of recent date, and that all the direct precedents of administration must of necessity, at the oldest, be still more recent, we cannot but wonder at the small number of disputed cases which have arisen, and at the sagacity, forethought, and practical wisdom of the founders of our government, who made such admirable provision for the harmonious operation of the system. Still, however, it was impossible that the class of cases provided for by the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States should not present themselves, and no small portion of Mr. Webster's forensic life has been devoted to their investigation. It is unnecessary to state that they are questions of an elevated character. They often involve the validity of the legislative acts and judicial decisions of governments substantially independent, as they may in fact the constitutionality of the acts of Congress itself. No court in England will allow any thing, not even a treaty with a foreign government, or the most undoubted principles of the law of nations, to be pleaded against an act of Parliament. The Supreme Court of the United States entertains the question not only of the constitutionality of the acts of the legislatures of States possessing most of the attributes of sovereignty, but also of the constitutionality of the acts of the national legislature, which possesses those attributes of sovereignty which are denied to the States. These circumstances give great dignity to its deliberations, and tend materially to elevate the character of a constitutional lawyer in the United States." Professional training in England has not been deemed the best school of statesmanship; but it will be readily perceived, that in this country a great class of questions, and those of the highest importance, belong alike to the senate and the court. Every one must feel that, in the case of Mr. Webster, the lawyer and the statesman have contributed materially to form each other. Before quite quitting this subject, it may be proper to allude to Mr. Webster's professional labors of another class, in the ordinary State tribunals. Employed as counsel in all the most important cases during a long professional life, it is hardly necessary to say, that his investigations have extended to every department of the law, and that his speeches to the jury and arguments to the court have evinced a mastery of the learning

* “Crescit enim cum amplitudine rerum visingenii, nec quisquam claram et inlustrem orationem efficere potest, nisi qui causam parem invenit.” The dialogue De Oratoribus, A 37, usually printed with the works of Tacitus.

and a control of the logic belonging to it, which are in most cases to be attained only by the exclusive study and practice of a life. The jurist and the advocate are so mingled in Mr. Webster's professional character, that it is not easy to say which predominates. His fervid spirit and glowing imagination place at his control all the resources of an overwhelming rhetoric, and make him all-powerful with a jury; while the ablest court is guided by his severe logic, and instructed by the choice which he lays before them of the most appropriate learning of the cases which he argues. It happens, unfortunately, that forensic efforts of this kind are rarely reported at length. A brief sketch of an important law argument finds a place in the history of the case, but distinguished counsel rarely have time or bestow the labor required to reproduce in writing an elaborate address either to court or jury. There is probably no species of intellectual labor of the highest order, which perishes for want of a contemporary record to the same extent as that which is daily exerted in the courts of law. The present collection contains two speeches addressed to the jury by Mr. Webster in criminal trials. One was delivered in the case of Goodridge, and in defence of the persons whom he accused of having robbed him on the highway. This cause was tried in 1817, shortly after the establishment of Mr. Webster at Boston. Rarely has a case, in itself of no greater importance, produced a stronger impression of the ability of the counsel. The cross-examination of Goodridge, who pretended to have been robbed, and who had previously been considered a person of some degree of respectability, is still remembered at the bar of Massachusetts as terrific beyond example, and the speech to the jury in which his artfully contrived tale was stripped of its disguises may be studied as a model of this species of exposition. Mr. Webster's speech to the jury in the memorable case of John F. Knapp is of a higher interest. The great importance of this case, as well on account of the legal principles involved, as of the depth of the tragedy in real life with which it was connected, has given it a painful celebrity. A detailed history of the case and of the trial, from the pen of the late ingenious and learned Mr. Merrill, will be found prefixed to Mr. Webster's speech, as contained in the fifth volume of this eollection. The

« AnteriorContinuar »