Grover Norquist and Daniel Webster

5 minute read

In a fire-proof vault somewhere in the capital Grover Norquist stores the signed originals of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in which politicians solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases. Reading about this put me in mind of the classic Stephen Vincent Benet short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, in which Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer beset with troubles, signs his soul away to the devil (or Scratch, as he calls himself in the story).

Immediately Stone’s fortunes turn, and he begins a career in politics: [They] asked him to stand for selectman, and he stood for it; there began to be talk of running him for state senate. However as time goes on Stone regrets signing the contract, and pleads with Scratch to be freed from it. He wins a few years reprieve, but he knows eventually he’ll have to face up to the downside of his bargain: By the last months of those years, Jabez Stone’s known all over the state and there’s talk of running him for governor—and it’s dust and ashes in his mouth.

In despair Stone seeks the help of Daniel Webster. Renowned as a great lawyer, Webster was also one of the most important politicians of the first half of the 19th century, serving many years in the House and Senate (representing New Hampshire and then Massachusetts), and also as Secretary of State to three presidents. Webster was an tireless advocate for the manufacturing states of New England and an even more fervent proponent of the American Union—a major theme in the story:

... they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, Dan'l Webster—Dan'l Webster! the ground'll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you'll hear a deep voice saying, Neighbor, how stands the Union? Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he's liable to rear right out of the ground.

With Henry Clay and others Webster founded the Whig Party in opposition to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. Though he spoke against the efforts of John Calhoun and others in the South who promoted the expansion of slavery to the west, shortly before his death in 1852 he supported the Compromise of 1850 that won a few final years of peace. Conflicts over slavery eventually split the Whig Party, and Abraham Lincoln’s newly-formed Republican Party inherited the Whig Party’s Northern voters and its policies of government support for a more modern, market-oriented economy and a vigorous program of government funded internal improvements (including transportation infrastructure and public schools).

In the story Scratch seeks Daniel Webster’s soul to add to his collection (He’d certainly be a prize. I wish we could see our way clear to him.) and proves a formidable opponent to Webster’s effort to free Jabez Stone:

... there wasn’t any doubt as to the deed or the signature—that was the worst of it. Dan’l Webster twisted and turned and thumped his fist on the table, but he couldn’t get away from that. He offered to compromise the case; the stranger wouldn't hear of it. ... He was a great lawyer, Dan'l Webster, but we know who's the King of Lawyers, as the Good Book tells us, and it seemed as if, for the first time, Dan'l Webster had met his match.

Webster calls for a trial before an American judge and an American jury but is taken aback as Scratch summons forth from the dead a collection of the country’s worst villains. (Though not all: I miss General Arnold from the company. Benedict Arnold is engaged upon other business, said the stranger, with a glower.) Angry at the forces arrayed against him, Webster is all ready to bust out with lightnings and denunciations but realizes the trap laid for him: if he fought them with their own weapons, he’d fall into their power. Instead he appeals to his fellow Americans’ better natures and revives their sense of patriotism: He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.

In the end Scratch is foiled, as the judge and jury find for the defendant and the devil’s contract is voided: I’ll have that paper first, if you please, said Dan’l Webster, and he took it and tore it into four pieces. It was queerly warm to the touch. Webster then turns on Scratch himself (… his hand came down like a bear trap on the stranger’s arm. For he knew that once you bested anybody like Mr. Scratch in fair fight, his power on you was gone.) and extracts a promise never to bother Jabez Stone nor his heirs or assigns nor any other New Hampshire man till doomsday.

Before sending Scratch on his way Webster learns of his own fate: He will never be president, and some will repudiate him for the stands he takes. But it does not matter what men say Webster avers, and asks a final question:

I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart? Not while you live, said the stranger, grimly, but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke. Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver! said Dan'l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I'd go to the Pit itself to save the Union! 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...

In Grover Norquist’s fire-proof vault lies the signature of a present-day Daniel Webster. If he came back from the dead, would the original Daniel Webster’s signature be there as well?