DANIEL WEBSTER moved to Portsmouth in September 1807 after practicing law in Boscawen for nearly two and a half years. He boarded in a private home, and rented two rooms over a dry goods store where he set up his law office.
In May 1808, 26-year-old Webster married 27-year-old Grace Fletcher of Hopkinton. The couple first lived in a rented house on Vaughan Street, and later Webster bought a two-story wooden house two blocks from Market Square.
Over the next four years Webster developed a solid reputation as an effective attorney while earning a respectable living. He continued his engagement with the Federalist Party, which advocated for a strong federal government, the protection of American commerce, and the development of trade and industry.
When the United States declared war on the United Kingdom on June 18, 1812, the Federalist Party stood in opposition. On July 4, 1812, Daniel Webster delivered a powerful speech before the Washington Benevolent Society of Portsmouth condemning President James Madison’s war policy. This group was part of a network of such political clubs organized by the Federalists. Their members were called the “Friends of Peace” due to their opposition to the war. A published version of Webster’s speech was widely distributed.
Webster spoke in front of a large assembly of the Rockingham County Federalists in Brentwood on Aug. 5, 1812. His speech was essentially a dramatic reading of his draft of several resolutions that rebutted President James Madison’s reasons for going to war.
Webster headed the committee to edit and publish the draft into what was called the Rockingham Memorial. This document was eventually signed by more than 1,500 Rockingham County citizens, and sent to the president. Its text was published in newspapers in major American cities and was well-received.
In November 1812, Webster was one of six Federalist Party nominees for New Hampshire for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. The entire slate won, filling New Hampshire’s six seats in the lower house of Congress. President Madison of the Democratic-Republican Party was elected to a second term.
In anticipation of being absent from Portsmouth for long periods of time, in March 1813 Webster took on a law partner, his former clerk, 25-year-old Timothy Farrar, Jr.. Webster was seated as a member of the Thirteenth Congress on May 24, 1813. He returned to Portsmouth on or around July 21, 1813, the day that Grace Webster gave birth to their son Daniel.
On Dec. 22, 1813, Webster was on his way to Washington for the second session of the Thirteenth Congress. That evening fire broke out in a barn on the northwest corner of Church and Court streets in Portsmouth. The fire would spread to consume much of the center of the town.
Embers from the fire drifted in all directions. The Webster home was located on the northwest corner of Court and Pleasant streets, just one block east of the burning barn.
An alarmed neighbor, Mr. Perry, went into the house and grabbed Grace’s hand. He was reported to have said, “My dear madam, don’t be alarmed, but your house is all on fire, and the roof must be falling in by this time.”
She fled the house with her two children, Grace, age 3, and 5-month-old Daniel, and sought refuge with friends.
When U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster arrived in Washington on Dec. 28, 1813, he learned of the loss of his family’s property, and of his cherished law library, which he had kept in the house. All that mattered to him, however, was that his family was safe, and was staying with friends in Portsmouth.
In Grace’s first letter to Daniel in Washington she urged him to remain there for the session. During the winter of 1813-14,Webster gained recognition in Congress as a commanding orator, and he also argued his first case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
He returned to Portsmouth in spring 1814. Later that year he and his family moved from a rented house to their newly built home on High Street. This wooden structure was eventually acquired by the Strawbery Banke Museum, and in 1964 it was moved onto its campus. The restored house is currently leased to a private party.
Next week: The War of 1812 heats up and Webster is reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives.