Daniel Webster on Cape Cod and Its People.
1897. New England Magazine 23 (3):323-327

The following letter of Mr. Webster’s was written to Dr. William B. Gooch of West Dennis, Mass., in 1851, and the letter has always remained in Dr. Gooch’s family, hitherto unpublished. Dr. Gooch was a friend and admirer of Mr. Webster through many years. He was the resident physician of West Dennis, having taken up his residence there after returning from the island of San Domingo, whither he had been sent as commercial agent by appointment of Mr. Webster while the latter was Secretary of State. In anticipation of a visit from Mr. Webster, Dr. Gooch asked him if he would be willing to address the residents of West Dennis, to which he consented; but at the last moment he was detained and sent a letter expressing his regret and adding: “I am unavoidably detained in Washington; so please to take my place and read the enclosed address to the gentlemen of your town. The letter, of which a copy follows, was enclosed. It is interesting as showing Mr. Webster’s warm love for the towns and inhabitants of Cape Cod and his understanding of their sterling qualities.

Washington, July 14th, 1851.

To William B. Gooch, M. D., and others, West Dennis, Mass.

Gentlemen:— I have received your friendly letter of the 4th of this month, and am highly gratified with the patriotic sentiments expressed therein. Indeed I should have expected nothing else, because such sentiments are worthy of those Pilgrim Fathers from whom you are descended, as well as of the general character of your community.

It will give me much satisfaction if circumstances should allow me to accept your invitation to pass a day among you. In the meantime I shall be most happy to send to each of you such productions of mine as may fully explain my sentiments in respect to the great questions of the present time. With some of you I have the pleasure of being personally acquainted, as I have often been in your good town of West Dennis, as well as in all the other towns on the Cape; I see also attached to your letter many names not personally known to me, but be longing to families with which I have had acquaintance in former times. I have always found the air of your county delightful in summer, and there are many sea views remarkably fine; and I suppose I ought to confess, also, that in these, my pleasant visits, I did not entirely neglect the streams so highly estimated by the anglers who have thrown the fly in them.

Gentlemen, the nature of your population is somewhat peculiar. I have often been struck by the very great number of sea captains as well as other mariners which the County of Barnstable and the neighboring islands furnish. On the Cape and on the islands I have frequently conversed with persons who seemed as well acquainted with the Gallipagos Islands, the Sandwich Islands and some parts of New Holland as with our counties of Hampshire and Berkshire. I was once engaged in the trial of a cause, in your district, in which a question arose respecting the entrance into the harbor of Owohyhee, between reefs of coral rock guarding it on either side. The counsel for the opposite party proposed to call witnesses to give information to the jury concerning this entrance. I at once saw a smile which I thought I understood, and suggested to the judge that very probably some of the jurors had seen the entrance themselves; upon which, seven out of the twelve jurors rose and said that they were quite familiarly acquainted with it, having seen it often. The occurrence, I dare say, is remembered by that most worthy man and eminent judge, now living, as I am happy to know, and enjoying in advanced life the affection of his friends and the respect of all who know him, — I mean Judge Putnam. This incident shows the nature of the employments pursued by your neighbors and yourselves.

With the more elderly gentlemen of your county I have had the pleasure of frequent conversations concerning early Revolutionary times, and especially respecting that extraordinary man, James Otis. I have been where he lived and examined such of his papers as I could find; but in the latter part of his life he destroyed most of his correspondence. Mr. Tudor has written a very good history of his life, and you all know the emphatic eulogy pronounced on him by the elder Adams, viz., that it was James Otis who set the ball of the Revolution in motion. Warm, eloquent, and highly impassioned in the cause of liberty, his brilliant life was terminated by a stroke of lightning. None were earlier to begin, none more perseveringly maintained, none more zealously struggled to maintain the cause of the Revolution than the people on the Cape. All the region about James Otis’s and the Thomas’s and the other true-hearted patriots of those times, is to me a sort of classic ground. Remote, without large cities, scattered along an extensive coast, there was yet, I think, in no part of the country, a more fervent devotion to the patriotic cause than was manifested by your ancestors.

Gentlemen, I am sure you ascribe quite too much merit to my efforts in behalf of the Union, and of the Constitution. I can only say, I have done what I could, and that I shall not slacken my hand. Perhaps it is natural that you should be attached to free and regular constitutions of government, since all know that the first written constitution in the country, was composed and signed on board of the Mayflower while she was riding at anchor in one of the harbors of the Cape. Your own prosperity, gentle men, the success of all your leading pursuits, the prosperity of your county and of the whole State of Massachusetts are at this moment living monuments of the benefits conferred by the Constitution of the United States and the administration of government under it. Your soil has always been a free soil; as such you and your ancestors have cultivated it for centuries; it needs no new christening; but what the people of Massachusetts wanted, and your county among the rest, before the adoption of the present Constitution, was free seas, free seas on which their industry could be displayed, and their national rights protected.

By the blessing of Providence, they have enjoyed this freedom and this protection for a long course of years, and have flourished and prospered under them beyond all former examples.What if your soil be not of the richest quality, what if it be not fertile like Western New York and the Western States, — I still hardly know a part of the country in which the people enjoy more substantial comfort. I have traversed the whole, from the “outside” in Provincetown to the line of Plymouth without seeing an in stance of ragged poverty or of absolute want. Your labors are on the sea. In a more emphatic sense than can be said of any other people, your home is on the deep. Nevertheless, the home of your families, the home of your affections, the home to which you return with so much gladness of heart, is in the various towns on the Cape, “where all your treasures be.” I trust there is not a man among you who does not feel and see that the prosperity of his labor is mainly connected with the administration of the government of the United States; and therefore I trust that the political air of the Cape will always remain as healthy as its natural atmosphere, and that it will be as free from faction and fanaticism as it is from fogs and vapors.

If your hardy and enterprising young men go eastward, pursuing their employments, to the Bay of Chaleur, the Straits, or the Grand Bank, do not they receive a positive protection and encouragement from the laws of the United States? If they take a wider range and in pursuit of larger objects, coast along Brazil, double the Cape, and thence steer west, or south, or north, or in the vast Pacific, do they not find they are safely covered by the shelter of their flag, which no power on earth ventures to treat with disrespect?

My friends of West Dennis, discourage fanciful ideas, abstract notions, and all ill-considered attempts to reach ends which, however desirable in themselves, are not placed within the compass of your abilities or duties. Hold on, my friends, to the Constitution of your country and the government established under it. Leave evils which exist in some parts of the country, but which are beyond your control, to the all-wise direction of an over-ruling Providence. Perform those duties which are present, plain and positive. Respect the laws of your country. Uphold our American institutions as far as you are able. Consult the chart and the compass, keep an eye on the sun by day and on the constellations, both of the south and the north, by night; and always feeling and acting as if our united constitution of American liberty were in some degree committed to your charge. Keep her, so far as it depends on you, clear of the breakers. Whatever latitudes you traverse, on whatever distant billows you are tossed, let your country retain her hold on your affections. Keep her in your hearts, and let your carol to her ever be:—

“Lashed to the helm,
Should seas o’erwhelm,
I’ll think of thee.”

I am, my friends, with sincere regard, your obliged fellow-citizen and obedient servant,


[DANIEL WEBSTER. From Healy’s painting of “Webster’s reply to Hayne,” in Faneuil Hall, Boston. from a photograph copyrighted by Foster Bros.]

Daniel Webster on Cape Cod and Its People. 1897. New England Magazine 23 (3):323-327