Three titans of antebellum America

In the 230 years since the First Congress of the United States took up its duties, thousands of individuals have served.  Yet among all that multitude, none equaled the early 19th-century dominance, influence, achievement, and national renown of John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.       

However, with the passage of time and the woeful eclipse of history in our schools and colleges, few Americans today have even the slightest knowledge of what this trio actually did.  All the more reason to celebrate the appearance of H.W. Brands’ superb new book, Heirs of the Founders.  

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Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has produced more than a dozen well-received biographies and histories.  Here, much like Doris Goodwin’s acclaimed Team of Rivals,he delivers a masterful multi-person biography that combines good scholarship and good writing to brilliantly illuminate a critical but lesser known period in American history.                                

Born within five years of each other (1777-1782), destined to die within two years of each other (1850-1852), all three men stepped upon the national stage at the time of the War of 1812, and would play highly significant roles in the unfolding of that seminal event.                                                                                                      

For the next forty years they remained at the summit of American politics, gathering legions of fervent admirers and bitter enemies alike.  All would serve in both the House and Senate and also as Secretary of State.  And all would ardently yearn to be President, but be repeatedly passed over in favor of less controversial men.

Calhoun came closest to that ultimate prize.  A very able Secretary of War under Monroe, he twice won election as Vice-President but his emergence as the champion of the South—advocating nullification and slavery—made him anathema to the North and West.                                              

Clay achieved the unrepeatable distinction of being elected Speaker of the House on his first day in Congress, owing to his role as leader of the "War Hawks" who precipitated the War of 1812.                                                                                       

Webster, when not legislating, gained renown as the greatest lawyer and orator-in the land.  His several triumphs before the Supreme Court included a legendary summation in the landmark Dartmouth Collegecase of such brilliance and emotion that it left Chief Justice John Marshall openly weeping.                                      

Sometimes the three were allies; sometimes opponents—depending on the issue. However the central drama in these remarkable lives was the looming catastrophe of secession and civil war, the issue that an aged and alarmed Jefferson described as like "a fire bell in the night".                                                                  

Believing that the preservation of the Union demanded compromise, Clay as Speaker of the House navigated treacherous political waters and masterfully brokered the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Maine to the Union as a free state to balance Missouri admission as a slave state.                                                            

The rising storm however would not for long be abated.  In January 1830 an event occurred which dramatically illustrated the growing tensions throughout the nation.

Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina delivered a sensational speech accusing the North of tyranny on tariffs and hypocrisy on slavery, in which he directly invoked the specter of disunion and civil war.  All knew that the inspiration for the speech was Vice-President Calhoun, who by Senate rules was forbidden to speak on his own behalf.            

A few days later Webster spoke in reply, giving what some have called the greatest speech in American political history, ending with the ringing declaration "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"                                    

The growing sectional conflict would be the deeper context for all the contentious issues of the next twenty years—tariffs, the national bank, Texas annexation, the Mexican War, but above all slavery.

In 1850 demands for California statehood precipitated a crisis much as Missouri had done thirty years earlier. Once again Clay—now seventy-three and wracked by consumption— managed to construct a complex compromise that infuriated Southern zealots and Northern abolitionists alike, but succeeded in commanding a majority.  

Calhoun, implacably opposed, died during the legislative battle. Webster, putting the Union above the vehement opposition of his home state, voted with Clay.                           

Because the Civil War finally erupted in spite of all efforts to avert it, some would call Clay and Webster failures.  Yet others can say that by their heroic efforts the "irrepressible conflict" was deferred until a time when there was a unified political party—the Republicans—and a President of transcendent conviction—Abraham Lincoln—who would resolutely battle to preserve the Union.  

Also during that long deferral the growing population and industrial might of the North, would aggregate the resources so essential to victory in that desperate struggle that could easily have gone a different way.

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Such was the denouement of America’s antebellum struggle to live up to its ideals, and the three titans who personified that struggle, in H.W. Brands’ gripping Heirs of the Founders.

Bill Moloney covers national and international politics, past and present, for the America blog. His columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.