Although little is known about this full-length portrait of Daniel Webster by James Henry Wright, it was probably based on one of the many daguerreotypes or engravings of Webster that were in circulation during the 19th century. It is signed but undated. On September 21, 1944, Senator Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, Senate majority leader and chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, introduced a resolution authorizing acceptance of the Webster portrait as a gift from Lester Martin, a prominent textile industrialist and philanthropist in New York City. The resolution was adopted by unanimous consent.
Wright, who maintained a studio at 835 Broadway, was a popular 19th-century New York artist specializing in portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes. Between 1842 and 1860 he exhibited in New York City at the National Academy of Design and at the American Art Union. Other Wright portraits include prominent mid-19th-century Americans, among them General Winfield Scott and Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College.
One of the nation's greatest orators, Daniel Webster was both a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a U.S. representative from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, and gained national prominence as an attorney while serving five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He successfully argued several notable cases before the Supreme Court of the United States that helped define the constitutional power of the federal government. In Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the Court declared in favor of Webster's alma mater, finding private corporation charters to be contracts and therefore protected from interference by state legislative action. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court upheld the implied power of Congress to charter a federal bank and rejected the right of states to tax federal agencies. Webster also argued the controversial Gibbons v. Ogden case, in which the Court decided that federal commerce regulations take precedence over the interstate commerce laws of individual states.
After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1827, Webster established his oratorical reputation in the famous 1830 debate with Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina over the issue of states' rights and nullification. Defending the concept of a strong national government, Webster delivered on January 26 and 27 his famous reply to Hayne. “We do not impose geographical limits to our patriotic feeling,” he insisted, arguing that every state had an interest in the development of the nation and that senators must rise above local and regional narrow-mindedness. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, he warned, and any doctrine that allowed states to override the Constitution would surely lead to civil war and a land drenched with “fraternal blood.” The motto should not be “Liberty first, and Union afterwards,” Webster concluded, but “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” Within weeks of the debate, Webster had become a national hero. His Senate oration was in greater demand than any other congressional speech in American history. Webster then served a distinguished term as secretary of state from 1841 to 1843, negotiating the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled a dispute over the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. He later returned to the Senate, where he championed American industry and opposed free trade.
If Webster's impassioned oratory was legendary, it was intensified by his unforgettable physical presence. Dark in complexion, with penetrating eyes–often likened to glowing coals–he had an electrifying effect on anyone who saw him. Nineteenth-century journalist Oliver Dyer wrote: “The God-like Daniel . . . had broad shoulders, a deep chest, and a large frame. . . . The head, the face, the whole presence of Webster, was kingly, majestic, godlike.” 
Increasingly concerned with the sectional controversy threatening the Union, Webster supported Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850. On March 7, 1850, he delivered one of his most important and controversial Senate addresses. Crowds flocked to the Senate Chamber to hear Webster plead the Union's cause, asking for conciliation and understanding: “I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. . . . I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” Webster's endorsement of the compromise–including its fugitive slave provisions–helped win its eventual enactment, but doomed the senator's cherished presidential aspirations. Webster became secretary of state again in 1850, and he died two years later at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
1. Oliver Dyer, Great Senators of the United States Forty Years Ago (1848 and 1849) (1889; reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1972), 251-253.