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15th of December 2018

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'Heirs of the Founders' profiles the 'second generation' of great American leaders

Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun were born during the American Revolution and inherited both the glories and flaws of the United States Constitution. They would spend more than four decades in public life wrestling with the ambiguities of that document: trying to pinpoint the line between federal and states rights, as well as to settle the crucible of slavery, which the Founding Fathers had kicked down the road.

These three were political rock stars: at various times congressmen, senators, presidential candidates, vice presidents, and cabinet members. They presided over war and peace and, boy, could they speechify. Citizens and colleagues packed the galleries of the House and the Senate to hear them talk. Those days are long gone.

In pleading a case before the US Supreme Court, Daniel Webster brought tears to the eyes of Chief Justice John Marshall. Imagine that today, if you can. In other cases Webster argued, his commentary on the Constitution makes for compelling reading.

In his latest historical spellbinder, bestselling author and scholar H.W. Brands profiles this august trio as well as the passions and the politics, high and low, during the decades leading up to the Civil War. There were great debates and duels, done deals and double-dealing, and, as there is today, severe partisanship, which, of course, didn’t end well.

Brand’s epic narrative has a title to match: Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, The Second Generation of American Giants. It is a lively, vivid, and thoroughly researched account of a time when discord gripped the nation and wouldn’t let go. Through it all, this trio managed to agree and disagree civilly.  

Brand quotes his subjects liberally, as is their due. Here is Webster responding to a southern colleague who had spoken of the possibility of a “peaceable separation” of southern states: “Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion!”

Point well taken, although it should be noted that before southern states started flirting with separation, circa 1819, Webster and others in New England were whistling that same separatist tune – as early as 1812, when the war with Britain was damaging the region’s struggling economy.

In a further irony, John Calhoun, then a South Carolina congressman, rose up to defend the union against the mere notion of unpatriotic splintering up north. Calhoun, of course, would soon change his tune and become the chief advocate of the right of his and other states to separate and form their own slaveholding confederacy.

Brands mentions that Calhoun is a Yale graduate, but he neglects to include the controversy surrounding the renaming of Calhoun College in February 2017, one of the university’s residential colleges. The author, however, does document the reasons that protesters found the school’s honoring of Calhoun so appalling.

Calhoun was not simply a slaveowner and advocate for the right of rebellion: He argued that slavery – far from being an unfortunate inheritance and an intractable evil, as many of his southern colleagues readily conceded – was a “positive good” for the enslaved as well as their owners. His rhetoric was white hot: “Be assured that emancipation itself would not satisfy these fanatics … we would soon find the present condition of the two races reversed. They and their Northern allies would be the masters, and we the slaves.”

Henry Clay, on the other hand, spoke more temperately and rather more effectively. He tried and succeeded in keeping the union intact, beginning with his promulgation of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. He, too, was a slaveholder, but he didn’t believe that slavery was a good thing – either for the enslaved or for their owners. He advocated gradual emancipation.

The author deems Clay to be an “emancipationist at heart,” and, indeed, he would provide in his will for the eventual freedom of his slaves and their emigration to Liberia. The hope of many like Clay was that slavery would wither away as it became uneconomical in the South, as it already had in the North. It seemed like a good plan, unless, of course, you were a slave.

The partisanship that metasicized around the issue of slavery would wax intractable, too. There was a time, in the early 1830s, when Virginians held an open and candid debate on whether to continue the “peculiar institution” within its borders. But soon the sides were drawn and moving further apart. The economics weren’t helping: A healthy male slave in 1845 could fetch the equivalent of $30,000 today.

The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly stated that he wouldn’t seek to end slavery in states where it existed, became a causa bella for the South. But back in 1832, President Andrew Jackson was less politic about secession and carried the day.

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When South Carolina claimed the right to nullify federal law and, in theory, to wander away from the Union, Jackson addressed the issue directly: “Be not deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason.” At that time, South Carolina backed away from the brink.

Twenty-eight years hence – when Clay, the Great Compromiser, and his two colleagues were dead – that same state would lead the charge out of the Union, more than two months before Lincoln was inaugurated.

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