(Denver) In the two hundred and thirty years since the First Congress of the United States took up its duties, literally thousands of individuals have served, yet among that multitude there are absolutely none who equaled the dominance, influence, achievement, and national renown of John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.
However with the passage of time and the relative eclipse of History in our schools and colleges there are comparatively few Americans who have much knowledge of what this trio actually did. Therefore there is all the more reason to celebrate the appearance of H.W. Brands superb Heirs of the Founders. Twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Brands, a Professor of History at the University of Texas has produced more than a dozen well-received biographies and histories. Much like the acclaimed Team of Rivals, Brands has delivered 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 forty years they remained at the summit of American politics gathering legions of fervent admirers and bitter enemies as well. All three would serve in both the House and Senate and also as Secretaries of State, and all three 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 made him anathema to the North.
Clay achieved the unrepeatable distinction of being elected Speaker of the House on his first day in office owing to his role as leader of the “War Hawks” who precipitated the War of 1812.
When not legislating Webster 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 College” case 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 spectre 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 has since been regarded as 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 in opposition died during the legislative battle. Webster putting the Union above the vehement opposition of his home state voted with Clay.
Because Civil War finally erupted 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.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington
Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human