The Washington Post Sunday
Statesmen who steered the 19th century’s great debates
In 2003, H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly headlined “Founders Chic,” about Americans’ misguided reverence for the nation’s first politicians. Decrying a tendency to give the founders greater credit than they deserve, Brands explained that the revolutionary generation, including the founders themselves, understood that while their experiment in self-government was built on reasonably solid ground, much was makeshift. The most glaring shortcomings were the curse of slavery and the uncertainty over who reigned supreme, the nation or the states. Both issues would, in time, threaten the union. In “Heirs of the Founders,” Brands follows the “great triumvirate” of antebellum politics — Henry Clay from Kentucky, John Calhoun from South Carolina and Daniel Webster from Massachusetts — in their 40year struggle, sometimes as allies, more often as adversaries, to settle the vexing problems of slavery and sovereignty.
The three men had much in common, even as their political opinions diverged. They were all born during the revolution and died just before the Civil War. They were lawyers with soaring ambitions and talent to match. They represented their states in the House of Representatives and in the Senate at a time when its members were still chosen by state legislatures rather than elected by the people. All three served as secretary of state (Webster under three presidents), and Calhoun also did duty as war secretary. They each aspired to the presidency; none succeeded, though not for lack of trying. Calhoun was vice president under two different presidents. And all three politicians had a way with words. It is their words, as much as their actions, that take pride of place in the book, as Brands vividly re-creates the delivery of their speeches (complete with cheers, shouts and pregnant silences) and quotes extensively from their essays and letters.
The trio applied their considerable intellects and political skills, not only to their own careers but to the major political and constitutional dilemmas of the day, starting with the War of 1812 and ending with the Compromise of 1850, which kept the nation from disunion. In a fast-paced narrative with snappy short chapters, Brands, the author of 30 books on American history, recounts the three men’s thinking and scheming as they rode the ups and downs of antebellum politics: wars and treaties; protectionism and free trade; free states and slave states; nullification and annexation; abolitionism and fugitive slaves; Texas, California and Oregon, and empire. Every issue raised questions about the extent of federal power and the fate of slavery.
Each of the three statesmen came up with his own answers forged both from principle and from expediency.
Westerner Henry Clay, plain-looking, tall and thin, started out a believer in small government but quickly became a supporter of federal power if it helped preserve the union. Clay claimed to dislike slavery, but the deals he engineered to bridge the gap between North and South ended up supporting the institution, notably the Compromise of 1850, which upheld slavery and committed non-slaveholding states to hunting and returning fugitive slaves. A slave owner himself, Clay advocated gradual emancipation and colonization (strongly opposed by African Americans). In his will he freed the children of his female slaves once they reached their mid-20s and ordered them to move to Liberia.
Described by a British visitor to Washington as looking “as if he had never been born and never could be extinguished,” Southerner John Calhoun transformed from a nationalist who strongly supported the War of 1812 to an ardent sectionalist and a leader of the pro-slavery movement. A slave owner, he was an outspoken white supremacist, famous for his moral defense of slavery as “a positive good” that civilized the enslaved and improved their enslavers. In defense of the institution he clung to a iron line on states’ rights and the right of secession, which increasingly isolated him politically, even to some extent inside the South.
Handsome New Englander Daniel Webster was a brilliant constitutional lawyer and smooth orator who could speak for hours with nary a glance at his notes. When not busy legislating, he argued before the Supreme Court on the need for expanding federal authority, winning several landmark cases. Yet he lacked “true aim,” Brands writes. Aristocratic and conservative, he lived beyond his means, and, because he was always in debt, he was somewhat for sale. A fierce nationalist, he supported Clay’s Compromise of 1850, a stance that cost him dearly in New England.
In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Clay, Calhoun and Webster among five outstanding former senators out of a group of close to 1,000 men (and a handful of women). Sixty years later, these men have lost much of their luster, especially Calhoun. Lake Calhoun in Minnesota recently received a new name, as did Calhoun College at Yale University and Calhoun Lofts at the University of Houston. Elsewhere, the question of what to do with highways and buildings named after the deeply racist Calhoun is being debated.
“Heirs of the Founders” suggests that the American political system was fashioned by two generations of great white men, discounting the influence and roles of ordinary Americans such as farmers, artisans, soldiers, women, slaves, free people of color and Native Americans in shaping the nation. Despite Brands’s unease with the genre, then, one might wonder whether this engaging political biography inadvertently expands Founders Chic.
Marjoleine Kars teaches history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her next book, “Slaves Remastered,” is the story of a massive slave rebellion in Dutch Guiana.