J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

“A Right to Life, to Food, and to Freedom”

To observe the holiday, here’s a legend from the childhood of American statesman Daniel Webster. He was born in New Hampshire in 1782, the baby of his family. I’ve found versions of this tale in print as early as 1852, the year Webster died; apparently it first appeared in the Boston Traveller newspaper.

This text comes from an 1895 edition of Sheldon’s Primary Language Lessons.


Daniel Webster’s father was a poor farmer, and besides Daniel he had an older son, Ezekiel [born 1780]. Both boys used to help in the farm work.

One day Ezekiel set a trap to catch a woodchuck which had for a long time been stealing his breakfasts from the garden of the Websters. At last the woodchuck was caught.

“Now,” cried Ezekiel, “you’ve done harm enough to die, Mr. Woodchuck; and die you shall!”

Daniel, who had a kind heart, begged his brother not to kill the poor thing, but to take him into the woods, and let him go. Ezekiel would not relent; and so, as they could not.agree, the two lads went to their father, and asked him what should be done.

“Well,” said old Mr. Webster, “here is the prisoner; let us try him for his life. You, Ezekiel, shall be lawyer against him; and you, Daniel, shall be lawyer for him. You may both speak. I will be the judge.”

Ezekiel began. He spoke about the harm the woodchuck had done in the garden. He told how much time and trouble it took to catch him. He asked if the prisoner would not surely take to his bad habit again if they should let him go. And he ended with these words: “The woodchuck must die; and, to pay for what he has stolen, let us sell his skin!”

Daniel was very much afraid that his brother had won the case. But, seeing the poor prisoner trembling, the boy’s breast swelled with pity. Looking the judge full in the face with his deep black eyes, Daniel began:—

“The woodchuck has a right to life, to food, and to freedom. God made him to live in the bright sunshine, in the free fields and woods.

“He is not like the cruel fox, for he kills nothing. Has he taken anything but the corn he needed to keep him alive? And is not grain as sweet to him as the food on mother’s table is to us?

“You can’t say he has broken the laws, as men often do: he has done only what it is his nature to do. How, then, can you blame him? Look at the poor, dumb, trembling creature, and answer me this: Do you dare take away that life which you can never give back?”

Daniel paused. There were tears in his father’s eyes,—tears that rolled down his sunburnt cheeks. The plea for mercy had touched the old man’s heart, and, forgetting that he was the “judge,” he started up, and cried in a loud voice, “Zeke, Zeke, you let that woodchuck go!”
Boston 1775 takes no responsibility for the accuracy of legends involving woodchucks.

(Photograph of the Daniel Webster Birthplace above by Chip Griffin, available via Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)


Anita said...

Would he have been against abortion?

pilgrimchick said...

That is a great story! I work with some people who may be interested in it--I'll be sure to pass it on.

J. L. Bell said...

A modern American politics shows, being against abortion and being against capital punishment are two very separate issues for many folks. And this story takes us into animal-rights issues as well.

Charles Bahne said...

John, you offer a link to the "American Creation" website which discusses the history of Groundhog Day -- a great post. They note, correctly, that Groundhog Day is based in part on the Celtic/pagan celebration of Imholc.

Imholc was one of 4 "cross-quarter" days, days which are halfway between solstices and equinoxes, that is, in halfway through each of the astronomical seasons. Two of the other cross-quarter days have also merged with modern-day observances: May Day at the beginning of May, and Hallowe'en at the end of October. In New England, of course, Hallowe'en has also assumed elements of the observance of Guy Fawkes Day, a few days away in the calendar.

Donald C. Carleton, Jr. said...

Could this be in part inspiration for Stephen Vincent Benet's Devil and Daniel Webster (substituting poor NH farmer for the woodchuck)!

J. L. Bell said...

A scholar named James A. S. McPeek has indeed suggested that this legend (reprinted in many school readers in the late 1800s) was unconscious inspiration for Benet.

But here’s where it gets weird. McPeek saw a version of the story, titled “The Captive Woodchuck,” that did not name Webster. The boys involved are named Daniel and Ezekiel, but there’s no overt link to the famous lawyer.

It’s possible that Benet saw one of the versions that did name Webster, and McPeek simply missed that.