Daniel Webster: Statesman, Supreme Court star and orator
I must have been asleep during my first year of law school. I studied Constitutional law, learned the cases, and gave it my sophomoric best. Yes, sophomoric, a word based on two Greek roots: "sophis," meaning bright, and "moros," meaning, well, moron. I knew the cases and the law, but I missed their historical context, and my grades reflected it. It didn't dawn on me until I researched Daniel Webster how easy it would have been to merge history with law and political philosophy to get a better perspective and a broader understanding of the great Supreme Court decisions. Take the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, for example. When Robert Fulton placed his first steamship in operation on the Hudson River, he and his backer, Robert Livingston, obtained a monopoly on steamboat navigation in New York waters from the New York state legislature. Thomas Gibbons ignored the law, hired Cornelius Vanderbilt to captain his boats, and in a daredevil game of cat and mouse, Vanderbilt stayed one step ahead of the constabulary as they set out to arrest him and shut down his and Gibbons' shipping business. Ogden, a licensee of Fulton and Livingston, sued Gibbons. Gibbons retained the finest lawyer of his time, Daniel Webster, and Webster took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.