July 05, 2021

#08-104: The Devil and Daniel Webster

engraving of a man in tails in front of a crowd; in the foreground another in an old-fashioned judge's wig, a devil whispering in his ear
Daniel Webster argues while the devil influences the judge.

Note: The devil's contracts were always thought to be unbreakable--that is, until he met the formidable American lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster!

Get Ready: What, to you, is the greatest thing about being alive, and human? I mean, what brings you joy? What do you appreciate more than anything?

Every age produces a person or two who stands out from the flock. Such a man was the New Englander Daniel Webster, a congressman, Secretary of State under three U.S. presidents, a presidential hopeful himself, and a lawyer who argued over 200 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the greatest case he ever argued--some say--was not in a regular court of law, but against the devil himself! Eighty-some years after Webster's death, the American writer Stephen Vincent Benét wrote "The Devil and Daniel Webster," in which a fictionalized version of the great man saved the soul of a humble neighbor, one Jabez Stone.

Stone is one of those farmers with the worst of luck. His animals regularly take sick, his crops die, and nothing he does prospers. One day, after a mishap in his fields, he utters the words, "[I]t's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil."

Well, as they say, "Speak of the devil and he will appear." And he does, that very night, and signs Stone to a seven-year contract. During its term the farm will prosper, but at its expiration the devil will come to take his soul.

Every year the devil passes by to check on things, but at the end of the sixth year he stops to talk. This gives Stone the chance to negotiate a three-year extension, but as the end of the full ten years approaches, in a panic the poor farmer goes to the greatest man in those parts: Daniel Webster, who agrees to take his case.

The trial takes place in Jabez Stone's kitchen. Webster tries every trick at his disposal, but in the end he cannot break the contract. So he invokes Stone's right to a trial by jury. "Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury!" he says. "Let it be the quick or the dead; I'll abide the issue!"

So the devil--going by the name of Mr. Scratch--brings forth twelve of the most reprehensible figures in American history. And this is his downfall.

Webster is about to blast them all in a fury when he notices that the madder he gets, the more avidly they lean forward in anticipation, practically "licking their chops." To get angry is to play their game, he realizes, and so instead he appeals to their humanity--something the devil can never understand.

He talks of simple things, "the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child." In the end, the jurymen realize that all men strive for a better life; to deprive Stone of eternal peace--something they will never have--is too great a price to pay for trying to realize his hopes and dreams, by whatever means.

They acquit him.

Webster then wrestles with Scratch, extracting from him a promise never to steal another soul from New Hampshire--but, as the narrator makes clear in the last line, "I'm not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont."


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_and_Daniel_Webster

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. acquit
  2. deprive (of)
  3. extension
  4. extracting
  5. fictionalized
  6. fury
  7. hopeful
  8. humanity
  9. reprehensible
  10. utters

  1. getting by force
  2. one who wishes to become something
  3. the quality of being human
  4. great anger
  5. disgusting
  6. pronounces
  7. made up; invented
  8. declare not guilty
  9. take away (from)
  10. an additional time period

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 5, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. i; 3. j; 4. a; 5. g; 6. d; 7. b; 8. c; 9. e; 10. f