Hugh J. Hastings, at one time editor and proprietor of the Albany Knickerbocker, and subsequently of the New York Commercial Advertiser, was full of valuable reminiscences. He began life in journalism as a very young man under Thurlow Weed. This association made him a Whig. Very few Irishmen belonged to that party. Hastings was a born politician and organized an Irish Whig club. He told me that he worshipped Daniel Webster.
Webster, he said, once stopped over at Albany while passing through the State, and became a guest of one of Albany's leading citizens and its most generous host and entertainer. The gentleman gave in Webster's honor a large dinner at which were present all the notables of the capital.
Hastings organized a procession which grew to enormous proportions by the time it reached the residence where Mr. Webster was dining. When the guests came out, it was evident, according to Hastings, that they had been dining too well. This was not singular, because then no dinner was perfect in Albany unless there were thirteen courses and thirteen different kinds of wine, and the whole closed up with the famous Regency rum, which had been secured by Albany bon-vivants before the insurrection in the West Indies had stopped its manufacture. There was a kick in it which, if there had been no other brands preceding, was fatal to all except the strongest heads. I tested its powers myself when I was in office in Albany fifty-odd years ago.
Hastings said that when Webster began his speech he was as near his idol as possible and stood right in front of him. When the statesman made a gesture to emphasize a sentence he lost his hold on the balustrade and pitched forward. The young Irishman was equal to the occasion, and interposed an athletic arm, which prevented Mr. Webster from falling, and held him until he had finished his address. The fact that he could continue his address under such conditions increased, if that was possible, the admiration of young Hastings. Webster was one of the few men who, when drunk all over, had a sober head.
The speech was very effective, not only to that audience, but, as reported, all over the country. Hastings was sent for and escorted to the dining-room, where the guests had reassembled. Webster grasped him by the hand, and in his most Jovian way exclaimed: "Young man, you prevented me from disgracing myself. I thank you and will never forget you." Hastings reported his feelings as such that if he had died that night he had received of life all it had which was worth living for.
I do not know what were Mr. Webster's drinking habits, but the popular reports in regard to them had a very injurious effect upon young men and especially young lawyers. It was the universal conversation that Webster was unable to do his best work and have his mind at its highest efficiency except under the influence of copious drafts of brandy. Many a young lawyer believing this drank to excess, not because he loved alcohol, but because he believed its use might make him a second Webster.
Having lived in that atmosphere, I tried the experiment myself. Happily for me, I discovered how utterly false it is. I tried the hard liquors, brandy, whiskey, and gin, and then the wines. I found that all had a depressing and deadening effect upon the mind, but that there was a certain exhilaration, though not a healthy one, in champagne. I also discovered, and found the same was true with every one else, that the mind works best and produces the more satisfactory results without any alcohol whatever.
I doubt if any speaker, unless he has become dependent upon stimulants, can use them before making an important effort without having his mental machinery more or less clogged. I know it is reported that Addison, whose English has been the model of succeeding generations, in writing his best essays wore the carpet out while walking between sentences from the sideboard where the brandy was to his writing-table. But they had heroic constitutions and iron-clad digestive apparatus in those times, which have not been transmitted to their descendants.