There were giants in the earth in those days, and one of them was Daniel Webster. Nowadays we'd call what he had "star quality" or "charisma," and his stature soon would fade under television exposure and constant scrutiny of his goings-out and comings-in and dealings-double.

He was bigger than life, everybody who knew him said, and a mighty force within our young republic, historians agree, but he didn't die soon enough to secure his place in the front rank of our pantheon.

After a lifetime of championing the indivisible union and fighting slavery, he in 1850--two years before he died at 70--gave one last major speech that dimmed his light forever. He spoke with all his usual brilliance and force, but on behalf of the sordid compromise that embraced the Fugitive Slave Act. It empowered the slavecatchers to roam at will through the free states and required all public authorities to assist them in dragging away the wretched blacks who had, they thought, won their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

This Friday, the 200th anniversary of Webster's birth, the National Portrait Gallery opens an exhibit that takes a subtle and searching look at The God-Like Black Dan," as he was called, among other things. Curators James Barber and Fred Voss have assembled portraits, prints and a few memorabilia of Webster and his circle that may show more than any camera could.

Webster sat for the portrait painters perhaps as often s any man of his day, and the Gallery exhibit includes a round dozen of them. Wildly variant in style and quality, they nevertheless meld into a lasting image of this man who outlived himself. DANIEL WEBSTER -Through November 29 At the National Portrait Gallery (Gallery Place Metro).