Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hoffer's "Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution"

Peter Charles Hoffer, University of Georgia, has published Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution (University Press of Kansas):

Daniel Webster and the Unfinished Constitution reveals Webster as the foremost constitutional lawyer of his day. Peter Charles Hoffer builds a persuasive case that Webster was more than a skilled practitioner who rose rapidly from his hardscrabble New Hampshire origins. Hoffer thoroughly documents the ways in which Webster was an innovative jurist. While Chief Justice John Marshall gets credit for much of our early constitutional jurisprudence, in fact in a series of key cases Marshall simply borrowed Webster’s oral and written arguments.

For Webster, Marshall, and many lawyers and jurists of their day, professions of adherence to the Constitution were universal. Yet they knew that the Constitution could not be fixed in time; its text needed to be read in light of the rapidly transforming early republic and antebellum eras or it would become irrelevant. As Chief Justice Marshall explained in Bank of the United States v. Deveaux (1809): “A constitution, from its nature, deals in generals, not in detail. Its framers cannot perceive minute distinctions which arise in the progress of the nation, and therefore confine it to the establishment of broad and general principles.” But were these “broad and general principles” themselves fixed? For Webster there were landmarks: the Contract Clause and the Commerce Clause. While others were exploring and surveying the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase, Webster set out to map the spaces in the constitutional and legal landscape that were unmarked.
Some encomia after the jump.

–Dan Ernst