Book Review: Heirs of the Founders

Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants
by H. W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2018 by the author

History is not what you thought,” wrote W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in the “Compulsory Preface” to their classic 1066 and All That. “It is what you can remember.” Those words are as true on this side of the Atlantic as they are in Great Britain, where they were written.

We tend to remember only those things that are memorable. When it comes to history, for most Americans that means wars and crises, the more recent, the more memorable. The decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War are one big nothing. Depending on where you were raised, you might remember the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, or Texas’ War of Independence. But for most of us? Boredom on parade – especially when the presidents of the era generally served only one term (at most) and were mediocre (at best).

Alternate History buffs: What if William Henry Harrison wore a hat and coat at his inauguration, and didn’t catch pneumonia?

In Heirs of the Founders, Brands dives into those decades with a joint political history of three of the greatest Congressmen ever to walk the halls of the Capitol. Kentucky’s Henry Clay, South Carolina’s John Calhoun, and Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster were all widely known and respected for their powers of oratory, and their abilities to get things done.

This is not a biography; other than the usual details of birth and death we are given very little about their personalities and family lives. What we do get is an impressive work on the struggle to keep the Union together while dealing with issues like slavery which threatened to tear it apart.

On the matter of slavery, there’s a strong subtext of how the general attitude towards that “Peculiar Institution” evolved. Early on, it seemed to be generally felt (or hoped) that slavery would die out on its own. It wasn’t very economically efficient, and if the Northern economy could outgrow it, why couldn’t the South? Then after the plantation economy became entrenched, and Northern industries came to rely on the products of slave labor, the argument became one of “What will we do with all the freed Blacks? Maybe we could deport them back to Africa….” That, of course, was a lazy excuse that showed not only a lingering racism but a lack of imagination. Eventually, slavery became the defining factor of the southern states. Any attempt to curtail it was a direct attack on their privileges and sovereignty.

In the Great Triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, it was Calhoun who came to speak for the South, arguing that the power of the young nation rested in the individual states. Webster quickly became a staunch supporter of the Union, and since he represented New England’s loudest abolitionists, the strongest voice against slavery. Clay, the Great Compromiser, used his impressive rhetorical skills to always find a middle path between the extremes – the “Scylla of States’ Rights and the Charybdis of rampant centralism”. It all came to a head in early 1850, when Congress was debating what to do with all that land just obtained from Mexico, and California was asking to be admitted as a state. All three of them would find themselves with one last chance to leave their mark on history.

It’s not a complete history of the era; Brands isn’t interested in the various Indian Wars or the settlement of the West. This is about the careers of three great men, and the unresolved question of whether the states or the federal government would hold primacy of power in the nation. A question which still really hasn’t been resolved completely, but has been settled with a ‘division of power’ that seems to satisfy most people.

This is a work about an era when Congressmen could speak on a subject for hours, and come back the next day to speak again for hours in answer to their critics. When people would drop everything and run to the Senate when they heard that a particular senator was going to speak, and be moved to tears by what they heard. When people used way more than 280 characters to make their point. Drawing on many of the speeches themselves, along with letters and journals, Brands (whose biography of Andrew Jackson was previously reviewed here) presents it with enough drama, both personal and political, to make it captivating. It’s well worth seeking out.

 

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