The Devil And Daniel Webster Summary

Stephen Vincent Benét

The Devil And Daniel Webster

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The Devil And Daniel Webster Summary

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The Devil and Daniel Webster is a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét. It first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on the 24th of October, 1936. It was later published in book form by Farrar & Rinehart in 1937. That same year, it won the O. Henry Award. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker. Benét also adapted it into a folk opera, the music for which was composed by Douglas Stuart Moore, who won the Pulitzer Prize. Major themes include patriotism, slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and the Devil.

Jabez Stone is a farmer from the small town of Cross Corners, New Hampshire. He has extremely bad luck, and is tempted to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for some good fortune. The next day a stranger visits, and calls himself Mr. Scratch. Scratch offers Stone seven years of prosperity in return for his soul; Stone agrees.

Seven years pass, and Mr. Scratch comes back. Stone bargains for another three years, which pass in turn. Scratch refuses him any more extensions, so Stone takes his case to the famous lawyer, Daniel Webster. Midnight comes, and Scratch arrives. Webster introduces himself as Stone’s attorney. Scratch calls on Webster to obey the law, who finds he can’t do much. The contract was clear and Scratch will not compromise. Webster desperately yells about Stone’s American citizenship, arguing that an American citizen cannot be forced to serve a foreign prince. Mr. Scratch claims his own citizenship as well, boasting of his presence at all of the most terrible events in US history.

Webster claims the right to a trial, like every other American, but Scratch is allowed choose the judge and jury, as long as they are American. Scratch agrees, and a jury of the damned enters. They are: Walter Butler, a loyalist;Simon Girty, a loyalist;King Philip (Wampanoag chief Metacomet); Governor Thomas Dale; Thomas Morton, a rival of the Plymouth Pilgrims; the pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard; and Reverend John Smeet. Five other unnamed jurors enter, and we are told that Benedict Arnold is out on other business. The judge enters last: John Hathorne, the unrepentant executor of the Salem witch trials.

The trial is rigged, and Webster is angry. He catches the jurors waiting for him to burst out, and calms himself. Webster begins to speak about simple and good things, including the feeling of a fresh, fine morning; the taste of food when you are very hungry; and how every day is a new day when you are a child. He says that without freedom, they sickened. He talks about the wonders of being human and the wonders of being American. Webster admits America has done wrong at certain points in its history but also points out that every time this happened, something new and good grew out of the bad. Webster says that everyone played a part in it, even the traitors. Webster says that no matter the demon, he may never understand what it is to partake in the great journey that is being human and American, even though they were tricked and trapped many times.

It is time for the jury to make its decision. They announce their verdict, and say they find for the defendant, Jabez Stone. They admit that, although the evidence does not exactly agree with Stone’s side of things, the case was won as a result of Webster’s eloquence. As the first rays of sunshine break the horizon, the jury and judge disappear. Mr. Scratch congratulates Webster, and then tears up the contract.

Webster suddenly grabs Mr. Scratch’s arm, and makes him swear to never again bother Jabez Stone, his heirs or assign. He also says not to bother any other New Hampshire man until doomsday, a rather large request.

Scratch then turns to Webster and offers to read his future from the palm of his hand. Scratch predicts that Webster will soon meet failure in his goal to become President. He says that Webster’s sons will die, and there will be a backlash against his last speech. This is in reference to Webster’s controversial Seventh of March Speech, that supported the Compromise of 1850, which incorporated The Fugitive Slave Act. Scratch predicts actual events in the life of the real David Webster, including his ambitions of becoming President, his sons dying in the war, and the fact that, as a result of the previously mentioned Seventh of March Speech, many of those in the North thought Webster a traitor.

In the story, however, Webster takes all of this in stride and asks if the Union will prevail. Scratch admits that there will be a war but the United States will remain united. Webster laughs, and then draws back his foot and kicks Mr. Scratch, who flies out of the door. The legend goes that the Devil never did go back to New Hampshire.

Jabez Stone moves from New Hampshire to North Carolina, where he marries and has three children named Samantha, Alex, and Alfie.