Great generals, inventors, actors, scientists, sports stars, and even criminals often live on in the American folk memory. But, at least since the founding era, unless an American politician reaches the White House, he is almost always doomed to historical oblivion.
Everyone, for instance, has heard of William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–91), who rode through Georgia into immortality in the autumn of 1864. But how many know of his younger brother John (1823–1900)? This Sherman served six years as a Congressman and six terms in the Senate. He was Secretary of the Treasury and of State. He ran for the Republican nomination for president three times (coming close in 1888). He even coined the political term “mending fences,” and was the principal author of the Sherman Antitrust Act. But I expect not one American in a hundred today could identify him.
There are, to be sure, a few exceptions to this rule. Chief Justice John Marshall made the third branch of government the equal of the other two, with boundless constitutional and historical consequences. William Jennings Bryan was a three-time presidential loser with a golden tongue. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s name lives on in both infamy and adjective.
But the most important exceptions to the rule are often referred to as “the great triumvirate”: Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. While none would realize his presidential ambitions, these three men often dominated American politics from the War of 1812 to the Compromise of 1850. It was, admittedly, an era of relatively obscure presidents (with the conspicuous exception of Andrew Jackson, of course). They all sat in both the House and the Senate (and Clay was Speaker). Each served as Secretary of State. Calhoun was also Secretary of War and vice president. In concert some times, in opposition at others, they helped fundamentally to shape the United States’s antebellum history.
These three men are the subject of H. W. Brands’s latest book, Heirs of the Founders. Brands, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Texas, has written or co-written almost thirty books. Twelve of these are biographies, at once scholarly and highly readable, ranging from the life of Benjamin Franklin to that of Ronald Reagan. While each stands alone, read sequentially they constitute a history of this country. Heirs of the Founders is a worthy addition to this already distinguished list.
While none would realize his presidential ambitions, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster often dominated American politics from the War of 1812 to the Compromise of 1850.
Henry Clay (1777–1852) was the oldest of the three. Born in Virginia, his family moved west to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1797, and he became a planter and successful lawyer. He always maintained the outlook of a Westerner, favoring “internal improvements” and further westward expansion. While himself a slaveholder, Clay recognized what an evil system it was and sought its eventual extinction. After serving briefly in the Kentucky legislature, he was appointed to fill a brief vacancy in the U.S. Senate. He was only twenty-nine, below the constitutional age requirement, a fact that no one seems to have noticed at the time.
But Clay disliked the rules of the Senate, with its endless debate. His real home was in the House of Representatives, where he won a seat in the election of 1810. A supremely gifted politician, especially when it came to assembling a majority to pass a bill, he was elected Speaker of the House on his very first day in office, a feat no one has accomplished since or is likely to in the future.
If Clay was a Westerner at heart, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) was a Southerner to his fingertips. Born in Abbeville, South Carolina, he was of Scotch-Irish descent, and he was well endowed with the supposedly belligerent and disputatious nature of that ethnic group. His father was a successful farmer. At first largely self-educated, Calhoun went to Yale at eighteen and flourished there under the presidency of Timothy Dwight, who became his mentor. To be sure, Dwight was sometimes sorely annoyed that Calhoun was perfectly willing to argue with him, but he also recognized Calhoun’s formidable skill in argumentation. This would always be Calhoun’s greatest strength. Unlike Clay, he had little talent for ingratiating himself with others. Calhoun was his class’s valedictorian at Yale in 1804 and then went to Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield Law School, then the only one in the country. (Would-be lawyers at that time usually “read law” in a lawyer’s office until they were thought qualified.)
Back in South Carolina, Calhoun was elected to the House in 1810, the same year as Clay. At first he was closely allied with Clay, favoring a strong national government, westward expansion, and an aggressive foreign policy. Unlike Clay, however, Calhoun strongly supported slavery and was its most eloquent defender throughout his career. As the divide between North and South deepened, Calhoun more and more favored states’ rights over those of the federal government. He also supported low tariffs because the South had little manufacturing to protect.
Daniel Webster (1782–1852) was as much a New Englander as Calhoun was a Southerner. Born in New Hampshire, he was educated at Exeter and Dartmouth (from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa). He read law and was admitted to the bar in 1805.
New England, with its stony soil and short summers, was the most commercial part of the country, dependent on foreign trade and shipbuilding—and soon on manufacturing—for its prosperity; and Thomas Jefferson hated all things commercial. When Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with Britain and France, hoping to stop their interference with American shipping, political opposition in New England was intense.
A speech Webster made in 1812 against the war that had broken out that year—a war that was very unpopular in New England but had been pushed by both Clay and Calhoun—put Webster on the political map. He was elected to Congress that year from New Hampshire. In 1817 he moved to Massachusetts, and that larger and more important state became his home for the rest of his life.
Just as deal-making was Clay’s greatest talent, and argumentation Calhoun’s, oratory was Webster’s greatest political gift. In an age when oratory was a very popular form of public entertainment, it was a priceless asset. His talent for phrase-making would give him three pages in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Clay gets less than one, Calhoun none). After a brief flirtation with secession during the War of 1812, Webster became the most ardent of unionists, a conviction encapsulated in his most famous phrase: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” His talent for oratory made Webster one of the most formidable (and highly paid) lawyers of his time.
The dominating factors in American politics in the first half of the nineteenth century were slavery and the fragility of the Union itself. For while the American state had been created by the Revolution and its aftermath, the American nation was forged only upon the awful anvil of the Civil War. Threats of secession, by no means all of them from southern states, began as early as the 1790s. Increasingly, the rural, agriculture-based economy of the South diverged from the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing one of the North. And the issue of slavery bit ever deeper, as the South defended the system upon which its way of life depended and the North became ever more opposed to the South’s “peculiar institution.” The abolition movement—which called for the immediate, unconditional freeing of all slaves—sprang up in New England at this time, although Webster did not endorse it, thinking it both impracticable and extreme. Abolitionism deeply frightened the South, where the possibility of a slave revolt was never far from Southern minds.
Clay, Calhoun, and Webster spent their whole political careers dealing with the precarious state of the Union, sometimes threatening secession, sometimes forging compromises to keep the country together. Brands takes us sure-footedly through each crisis of this era. The first great compromise involved the admission of Missouri as a slave state. There were twenty-two states in the Union at that time, eleven slave and eleven free. The rapidly growing population of the northern states had given that section a growing majority in the House of Representatives, so the South was determined to maintain the balance in the Senate. When Missouri applied for statehood, there were many slaves already in the territory and its citizens were in favor of entering the Union as a slave state. But when the House considered a bill allowing Missouri to call a constitutional convention, a New York Congressman called John Tallmadge inserted an amendment that would have forbidden the importation of slaves into the new state and would have freed the children of slaves there when they reached the age of twenty-five. This, of course, caused the bill to stall in the Senate.
Clay, Calhoun, and Webster spent their whole political careers dealing with the precarious state of the Union, sometimes threatening secession, sometimes forging compromises to keep the country together.
In 1820 Henry Clay wrote to a friend, “The Missouri subject monopolizes all our conversation, all our thoughts and for three weeks at least to come will all our time.” But Clay had a plan, which he executed with his usual political deftness. Massachusetts had recently passed a bill allowing its restless northern province of Maine to secede and become a separate state. It would enter as a free state, while Missouri would come in as a slave state. Clay let the Senate take the lead, and it considered a bill to admit Maine and allow Missouri to write a constitution. As a sop to the North, the bill contained a clause suggested by Senator James Taylor of Illinois, saying that latitude 36°30’ would be the northern limit of slavery, with the exception of Missouri. That latitude was the southern boundary of Missouri—except for the “boot heel”—and roughly the latitude where the Ohio River, the traditional boundary between slave and free, flows into the Mississippi. This meant that most of the Louisiana Purchase would be free, but Southern senators knew that the land wasn’t suitable for plantation agriculture anyway, so they weren’t giving much away.
Many in the House were adamant about keeping the Tallmadge Amendment. Indeed, they strengthened it by requiring the children of slaves in Missouri to be free at birth. Clay knew that that amendment would be a dead letter in the Senate, but he allowed it to pass. As speaker, he had the power to appoint the House members of the reconciliation committee to merge the Senate and House bills, and he packed it with House members willing to compromise. They agreed with the Senate to drop the Tallmadge Amendment and keep Taylor’s line. As Brands explains, “The South got Missouri with slaves and the lower portion of the Louisiana Purchase; the North got Maine and upper Louisiana. And Henry Clay got a solution to the slave question he hoped would last for decades.”
The election of 1824 was the most contentious in American history, except, perhaps, for that of 1876. Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral votes and Clay had finished fourth, knocking him out of contention when the election went to the House. Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, who then made him Secretary of State. Jackson called that a “corrupt bargain.” John C. Calhoun was elected vice president (and would serve also under Jackson, who decisively defeated Adams in 1828, making Calhoun the only vice president to serve under two presidents).
The nullification crisis of 1832–33 revolved around the tariff issue. The very high tariff of 1828—dubbed in the South, with that region’s gift for political theater, the “Tariff of Abominations”—caused John C. Calhoun to propound the doctrine of nullification, whereby a state could decide on its own that a federal law was unconstitutional and leave it unenforced within its borders. Although the tariff of 1832 reduced rates somewhat, it was not enough to satisfy Calhoun, who resigned as vice president in order to enter the Senate and lead the fight against it. (The vice president is the president of the Senate, where he can break tied votes, but does not participate in debates.) South Carolina passed an act of nullification, and Jackson threatened to invade the state to enforce the federal law. Only when Congress passed the tariff of 1833, lowering tariffs substantially, did South Carolina back down. It was the closest any state would come to secession until the Civil War.
The Texas annexation and the subsequent Mexican War were popular in the South, which hoped to extend slave territory westward. These were supported by both Clay and Calhoun. But they were far less popular in the North and were vehemently opposed by Webster.
The compromise of 1850, which undid the Missouri Compromise, was the final battle for these now-aged warhorses. (Indeed, Calhoun was dying of tuberculosis.) The North and South had been fighting over slavery in the territories newly acquired from Mexico. The South, of course, wanted slavery to be allowed. The North, increasingly antagonistic to slavery, did not. With the war hardly begun, Rep. David Wilmot tried to attach an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have outlawed slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. It failed in the Senate, despite repeated attachments to other bills. Another congressman suggested simply extending the 36°30’ line of the Missouri Compromise all the way to the West Coast. The California gold rush forced the issue, as thousands poured into that territory and demands for statehood rose. Finally the outlines of a compromise emerged, crafted, as usual, by Henry Clay, again in the Senate at this point, with the help of the freshman Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. California would be admitted as a free state, unbalancing the Senate. The Utah and New Mexico territories were established and the citizens there, and later in other territories, could decide for themselves whether or not slavery would be allowed, a doctrine called “popular sovereignty.” Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico (and the federal government assumed the state’s debt). The slave trade, but not slavery itself, was banned from the District of Columbia, and a new, far stricter fugitive slave act would be passed.
The Constitution’s Article IV mandated the return of fugitive slaves, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was largely toothless. By the 1840s, several hundred slaves a year were escaping to the North and Canada, principally from the border states. Under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, local officials were required, on penalty of a $1,000 fine and prison, to arrest an alleged runaway, who was not entitled to a jury trial or even to testify. Citizens who aided the escape of a slave could also face fines and prison.
John C. Calhoun, too weak to speak in the Senate, nonetheless retained his powers of argumentation. He wrote a blistering denuciation of the Compromise, read in the Senate by a fellow senator, before dying on March 31, 1850. Clay and Webster were both in favor, and the Compromise came into effect in September of that year. But Webster’s stance in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act, deeply unpopular in the North, ruined his chances of getting the Whig nomination in 1852. The act was effective, as measured by the fact that the price of slaves in the border states rose 30 to 40 percent in the next few years. But more and more northern juries refused to convict under the act regardless of the evidence. The road to the Civil War now lay open, and Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster would not be around any longer to forge an alternate path.
American history of the first half of the nineteenth century often gets less attention than the thrilling years of the Civil War and the Gilded Age. H. W. Brands shows us, in Heirs of the Founders, why that should not be.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 65
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