About Grace Webster (Fletcher)
Daniel Webster was twice married. It is of his first wife, who was the mother of all his children, that I write today.
In colonial times the clergy were the aristocracy of New England. Their incomes were indeed exceedingly small, compared with those of our day; but, as they were generally men of learning, virtue, and politeness, and as all the people were religiously disposed, they were held in the highest respect, and exercised great influence. Small as their revenues were (seldom more than five hundred dollars a year), they generally lived in very good style, and, in many instances, accumulated property. Their salaries were increased by the bountiful gifts of the people, and they usually had a piece of land sufficient for the keeping of a cow and a horse, and for the raising of their vegetables. Besides this, all the minister's family assisted in its support; the sons tilled the garden and took care of the animals; the daughters assisted their mother in spinning the wool for the clothing of the household. Peter Parley, whose father was a New England clergyman of the olden time, mentions in his "Recollections," that for fifty years the salary of his father averaged three hundred dollars a year, upon which, with the assistance of a few acres of land, he reared a family of eight children, sent two sons to college, and left at his death two thousand dollars in money.
The family of the clergyman was expected to be, and usually was, the model family of the parish. The children generally had the benefit of their father's instruction, as well as access to his little library; and, if his daughters did not learn French nor play the piano, they had the benefit of hearing intelligent conversation and of associating with the best minds of their native village.
Grace Fletcher, the wife of Daniel Webster, was the daughter of Elijah Fletcher, a clergyman of New Hampshire, where she was born in the year 1781. Though her father died at the early age of thirty-nine, when Grace was but five years of age, he is still remembered in New Hampshire for his zeal and generosity. He was particularly noted for his patronage of young students, many of whom he prepared for college. After his death his widow married the minister of Salisbury, New Hampshire, the town in which Daniel Webster was born, in which he grew up to manhood, and in which he first established himself in the practice of the law. Thus it was that she became acquainted with her future husband. Daniel Webster was only one year older than herself. They attended the same church; they went to school together; they met one another at their neighbors' houses; and this early intimacy ripened at length into a warmer and deeper attachment.
Notwithstanding his extraordinary talents, and the warmth of his temperament, Daniel Webster did not marry until he was twenty-six years of age. Few young men have had a harder struggle with poverty, and no one ever bore poverty more cheerfully. After practicing law awhile near his father's house in Salisbury, he removed, in 1808, to Portsmouth, which was then the largest and wealthiest town in New Hampshire, as well as its only seaport. A lady, who lived then in the town, has recorded, in the most agreeable manner, her recollections of the great orator at that period. She was the minister's daughter. It was a custom in those days for strangers to be shown into the minister's pew. One Sunday her sister returned from church, and said that there had been a remarkable person in the pew with her, who had riveted her attention, and that she was sure he had a most marked character for good or for evil. At that time Webster was exceedingly slender, and his face was very sallow; but his noble and spacious forehead, his bright eyes deep set in his head, and the luxuriant locks of his black hair, together with the intelligent and amiable expression of his countenance, rendered his appearance striking in the extreme. In a few days the stranger was at home in the minister's family, and there soon formed a circle round him of which he was the life and soul.
"I well remember," says this lady, "one afternoon, that he came in when the elders of the family were absent. He sat down by the window, and, as now and then an inhabitant of the town passed through the street, his fancy was caught by their appearance and his imagination excited, and he improvised the most humorous imaginary histories about them, which would have furnished a rich treasure for Dickens, could he have been the delighted listener instead of the young girl for whose amusement this wealth of invention was expended."
Another of his Portsmouth friends used to say that there never was such an actor lost to the stage as he would have made, had he chosen to turn his talents in that direction.
The young lawyer prospered well in this New Hampshire town, and he was soon in the receipt of an income which for that day was considerable. In June, 1809, about a year after his arrival, he suddenly left Portsmouth, without having said a word to his friends of his destination. They conjectured, however, that he had gone to Salisbury to visit his family. He returned in a week or two, but did not return alone. In truth, he had gone home to be married, and he brought back his wife with him. She was a lady most gentle in her manners, and of a winning, unobtrusive character, who immediately made all her husband's friends her own. The lady quoted above gives so pleasant a description of their home and character, that I will quote a few sentences from it:
"Mrs. Webster's mind was naturally of a high order, and whatever was the degree of culture she received, it fitted her to be the chosen companion and the trusted friend of her gifted husband. She was never elated, never thrown off the balance of her habitual composure by the singular early success of her husband, and the applause constantly following him. It was her striking peculiarity that she was always equal to all occasions; that she appeared with the same quiet dignity and composed self-possession in the drawing-room in Washington, as in her own quiet parlor. It was only when an unexpected burst of applause followed some noble effort of her husband that the quickened pulse sent the blood to her heart, and the tears started to her eyes. Uniting with great sweetness of disposition, unaffected, frank, and winning manners, no one could approach her without wishing to know her, and no one could know her well without loving her. When Mr. Webster brought this interesting companion to Portsmouth, the circle that gathered around them became more intimate, and was held by more powerful attractions. There certainly never was a more charming room than the low-roofed simple parlor, where, relieved from the cares of business, in the full gayety of his disposition, he gave himself up to relaxation."
In due time a daughter was born to them, the little Grace Webster who was so wonderfully precocious and agreeable. Unhappily, she inherited her mother's delicate constitution, and she died in childhood. Three times in his life, it is said, Daniel Webster wept convulsively. One of these occasions was when he laid upon the bed this darling girl, who had died in his arms, and turned away from the sight of her lifeless body. All the four children of Mrs. Webster, except her son Fletcher, appear to have inherited their mother's weakness.
Charles, a lovely child, both in mind and in person, died in infancy. Her daughter Julia, who lived to marry the son of a distinguished family in Boston, died in her thirtieth year. Edward, her third son, served as major in the Mexican war, and died in Mexico, aged twenty-eight. Fletcher, the most robust of her children, commanded a regiment of the Army of the Potomac, and fell in one of its disastrous conflicts.
Beyond the general impressions of her friends, we know little of the life of this estimable woman. She lived retired from the public gaze, and the incidents of her life were of that domestic and ordinary nature which are seldom recorded. In this dearth of information, the reader will certainly be interested in reading one of her letters to her husband, written soon after the death of their little son Charles. It shows her affectionate nature, and is expressed with all the tender eloquence of a bereaved but resigned mother. The following is the letter:
"I have a great desire to write to you, my beloved husband, but I doubt if I can write legibly. I have just received your letter in answer to William, which told you that dear little Charley was no more. I have dreaded the hour which should destroy your hopes, but trust you will not let this event afflict you too much, and that we both shall be able to resign him without a murmur, happy in the reflection that he has returned to his heavenly Father pure as I received him. It was an inexpressible consolation to me, when I contemplated him in his sickness, that he had not one regret for the past, nor one dread for the future; he was patient as a lamb during all his sufferings, and they were at last so great, I was happy when they were ended.
"I shall always reflect on his brief life with mournful pleasure, and, I hope, remember with gratitude all the joy he gave me; and it has been great. And oh! how fondly did I flatter myself it would be lasting.
"It was but yesterday, my child, thy little heart beat high;
And I had scorned the warning voice that told me thou must die."
"Dear little Charles! He sleeps alone under St. Paul's. Oh, do not, my dear husband, talk of your own final abode; that is a subject I never can dwell on for a moment. With you here, my dear, I can never be desolate! Oh, may Heaven in its mercy long preserve you! And that we may ever wisely improve every event, and yet rejoice together in this life, prays your ever affectionate….G. W."
Mrs. Webster lived but forty-six years. In December, 1827, Mr. Webster, being then a member of Congress, started with his wife for the city of Washington. She had been suffering for some time from a tumor, of a somewhat unusual character, which had much lowered the tone of her system. On reaching New York she was so sick that her husband left her there and proceeded to Washington alone. Having little hope of her recovery, he had serious thoughts of resigning his seat, in order to devote himself exclusively to the care of his wife, especially as he thought it probable that she would linger for many months. But he had scarcely reached Washington when ho was summoned back to New York by the intelligence that her disease had taken a dangerous turn. He watched at her bedside for three weeks, during which her strength insensibly lessened and her flesh wasted away, though she suffered little pain. I have before me four little notes which the afflicted husband wrote on the day of her death, which tell the story of her departure in an affecting manner:
"Monday Morning, January 21st.
"Dear Brother, - Mrs. Webster still lives, but is evidently near her end. We did not expect her continuance yesterday from hour to hour. Yours, affectionately, D. W."
This was written at daylight in the morning. At nine o'clock, he wrote to an old friend:
"Mrs. Webster still lives, but cannot possibly remain long with us. We expected her decease yesterday from hour to hour."
At half-past two that afternoon he wrote:
"Dear Brother, - Poor Grace has gone to Heaven. She has now just breathed her last breath. I shall go with her forthwith to Boston, and, on receipt of this, I hope you will come there if you can. I shall stay there some days. May God bless you and yours."
At the same hour he wrote the following note to the lady quoted above:
"My Dear Eliza, - The scene is ended, and Mrs. Webster is gone to God. She has just breathed her last breath. How she died, with what cheerfulness and submission, with what hopes and what happiness, how kindly she remembered her friends, and how often and how affectionately she spoke of you, I hope soon to be able to tell you; till then, adieu."
Her husband mourned her departure sincerely and long. And well he might, for she was his guardian angel. After her death he was drawn more and more into politics, and gave way at length to an ambition for political place and distinction, which lessened his usefulness, impaired his dignity, and embittered his closing years.
Upon the summit of a commanding hill, in Marshfield, which overlooks the ocean, is the spot prepared by Daniel Webster for the burial-place of his family. There his own remains repose, and there, also, those of three of his children. There, too, he erected a marble column to the memory of their mother, which bears the following inscription:
Wife of Daniel Webster:
Born January The 16th, 1781;
Died January The 21st, 1828.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Source: "People's Book of Biographies", by James Parton, 1868
Grace Webster's Timeline
January 16, 1781
Hopkinton, Massachusetts, United States
May 29, 1808
Salisbury, Massachusetts, United States
April 29, 1810
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, United States
July 23, 1813
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, United States
January 16, 1818
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
July 20, 1820
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
December 31, 1821
Boston, Massachusetts, United States