The Devil and Daniel Webster

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The distressing spectacle in Washington, D.C., — with some Republican senators saying ‘President Trump has abused his office, but so what?’ – has made us think they never read “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

To our readers, and to the Republican Senators in Washington DC, the Boulevard Sentinel offers this synopsis of The Devil and Daniel Webster (from Wikipedia):

Farmer Jabez Stone, from the small town of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, is plagued with unending bad luck, causing him to finally swear “it’s enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil!” Stone is visited the next day by a stranger, who later identifies himself as “Mr. Scratch“, and makes such an offer in exchange for seven years of prosperity. Stone agrees.

After seven years, Mr. Scratch comes for Stone’s soul. Stone bargains for an additional three years; after the additional three years pass, Mr. Scratch refuses any further extension. Wanting out of the deal, Stone convinces famous lawyer and orator Daniel Webster to accept his case.

At midnight of the appointed date, Mr. Scratch arrives and is greeted by Webster, presenting himself as Stone’s attorney. Mr. Scratch tells Webster, “I shall call upon you, as a law-abiding citizen, to assist me in taking possession of my property,” and so begins the argument. It goes poorly for Webster, since the signature and the contract are clear and Mr. Scratch will not compromise.

In desperation Webster thunders, “Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince. We fought England for that in ’12 and we’ll fight all hell for it again!” To this Mr. Scratch insists on his citizenship, citing his presence at the worst events in the history of the U.S., concluding, “though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”

Webster demands a trial as the right of every American. Mr. Scratch agrees after Webster says that he can select the judge and jury, “so long as it is an American judge and an American jury.” A jury of the damned then enters, “with the fires of hell still upon them.” They had all done evil, and had all played a part in the formation of the United States:

After five other unnamed jurors enter (Benedict Arnold being out “on other business”), the judge enters last – John Hathorne, the infamous and unrepentant executor of the Salem witch trials.

The trial is rigged against Webster. He is ready to rage, without care for himself or Stone, but he catches himself: he sees in the jurors’ eyes that they want him to act thus. He calms himself, “for it was him they’d come for, not only Jabez Stone.”

Webster starts to orate on simple and good things – “the freshness of a fine morning…the taste of food when you’re hungry…the new day that’s every day when you’re a child” – and how “without freedom, they sickened.” He speaks passionately of how wonderful it is to be human and to be an American. He admits the wrongs done in the course of American history but points out that something new and good had grown from them and that “everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.” Humankind “got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey,” something “no demon that was ever foaled” could ever understand.

The jury announces its verdict: “We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone.” They admit, “Perhaps ’tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence,[2] but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.” The judge and jury disappear with the break of dawn. Mr. Scratch congratulates Webster, and the contract is torn up. The devil has overreached himself, agreeing to a jury trial out of pride in his unbreakable contract. But by doing so, he has put his contract within the reach of the Common Law used in America, under which a jury can enter whatever verdict it likes, regardless of the law. Webster’s eloquence in swaying this supposedly unswayable jury is remarkable, but would have gone to no effect without the devil’s pride-induced mistake in giving Webster a chance.

Webster then grabs the stranger and twists his arm behind his back, “for he knew that once you bested anybody like Mr. Scratch in fair fight, his power on you was gone.” Webster makes him agree “never to bother Jabez Stone nor his heirs or assigns nor any other New Hampshire man till doomsday!”

Mr. Scratch offers to tell Webster’s fortune in his palm. He foretells (actual) events in Webster’s future, including his failure to become President (an actual ambition of his), the death of Webster’s sons (which happened in the American Civil War) and the backlash of his last speech, warning “Some will call you Ichabod” (as in John Greenleaf Whittier‘s poem in reaction to Webster’s controversial Seventh of March speech supporting the Compromise of 1850 that incorporated the Fugitive Slave Act, with many in the North calling Webster a traitor).

Webster takes the predictions in stride and asks only if the Union will prevail. Scratch reluctantly admits that, although a war will be fought over the issue, the United States will remain united. Webster then laughs, “And with that he drew back his foot for a kick that would have stunned a horse. It was only the tip of his shoe that caught the stranger, but he went flying out of the door with his collecting box under his arm.” It is said that the devil never did come back to New Hampshire again.

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1 thought on “The Devil and Daniel Webster

  1. Excellent and timely story, thank you. Vox clamantis in deserto.

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