ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. — Few people could draw a crowd like Daniel Webster.
On a hot afternoon in July 1840, the great orator and U.S. senator attracted more than 15,000 people to the Whig Party’s Vermont state nominating convention. Even Elton John last summer couldn’t match that; his sold-out concert drew 10,500 fans to the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Webster’s venue: an open field at 2,400 feet in the Green Mountains.
“They had people walking over from the Arlington side of the mountain and also from Wardsboro on the other side,” said Tyler Resch, an author of 12 books on Vermont history and a librarian at the Bennington Museum. “They had counters, so the 15,000 figure has been verified. Webster was a nationally famous orator, and he drew those kind of numbers when he spoke.”
The wide-open field where Webster spoke is now a much smaller clearing just off Kelly Stand Road about 10 miles east of Arlington and smack dab in the middle of the Green Mountain National Forest. The actual spot, now marked by a simple plaque embedded in a large rock in the clearing, is in the town of Stratton. It is also a few hundred yards east of where the Appalachian Trail (also called the Long Trail in Vermont) cuts across Kelly Stand Road on its way north to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Click here to read Gazette’s history writer Bill Buell’s Landmarks story about The West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vt.
“It’s hard to go there now and imagine what it must have been like,” said Dave Hardy, director of field programs for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club. “Maybe if you imagined every tree there was a person. But in 1840, a lot of those trees were cleared out and people were pasturing sheep there. It was a wide-open location where people would go and listen to great men bloviate for a whole day. Daniel Webster was famous for his skills.”
Resch, a former editor at the Bennington Banner, said there was very little newspaper coverage of Webster’s speech. The Vermont Gazette, a Democratic newspaper, only mentioned the occasion in derision.
“Webster was stumping for the Whig presidential ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and naturally, a Democratic newspaper didn’t care what he had to say,” said Resch. “They satirized the event and referred to it as the ‘Stratton Fiasco.’ They ridiculed it and said it was a waste of time.”
Perhaps the Gazette should have been a bit gentler. Hiland Hall, also a subject of the paper’s scorn on the occasion of Webster’s speech, was a U.S. congressman from Bennington and a Whig who took exception to the Gazette’s coverage.
“He wasn’t the kind of person to take ridicule sitting down, so he got together with a bunch of other Whigs and by next February the Vermont State Banner, the ancestor to today’s Bennington Banner, was formed,” said Resch. “I think it eventually put the Gazette out of business.”
What did Webster say that day? According to Resch, we will never know for sure, but with the help of Malvine Cole, a former member of the Vermont state legislature in the 1960s and 1970s, we have an idea.
“There’s no record because the Gazette only derided the event and gave no account of what Webster actually said,” said Resch. “But in 1965, Malvine Cole put together a little booklet on the event, having found an account of a Webster speech in Saratoga Springs just a few weeks later. She surmised that he pretty much said the same thing here as he did in Saratoga, and that’s probably pretty safe to say. I’m sure he was praising Harrison and talking up Hiland Hall. The whole event in Stratton was to help make sure Hall got re-elected to Congress.”
Webster, a New Hampshire native and lawyer who served as U.S. senator from Massachusetts, became secretary of state to Harrison, to whom he had lost the Whig nomination, and also made unsuccessful presidential bids in 1836 and 1848.
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