Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster were born during the American Revolution and were heirs to the best and the worst of the U.S. Constitution. “The Great Triumvirate,” as they came to be known, dominated U.S. politics for four decades, from the 1800s to the 1850s. At various times they were congressmen, senators, presidential candidates, vice presidents and cabinet members. These three titans confronted the great political issues of their time: The War of 1812, the division of federal and states’ rights, the internal controls of banks, tariffs and slavery.
H. W. Brands draws on the personal papers and public addresses of these three eminent rivals to express his account of U. S. history in the first half of the 19th century. All were recognized for their legal and oratorical acumen. Brand sets the context of their well crafted speeches and then allows them to speak for themselves in the Senate, the Executive Branch or wherever their political endeavors take them.
John Calhoun is remembered for arguing a strong states’ rights position, called nullification. The South Carolinian was President Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President. Calhoun insisted each state had the right to void any federal legislation it opposed and, as a last resort, to secede from the union. Jackson wholeheartedly disagreed and strident debate often ensued between the president and his understudy.
Henry Clay effectively used derision to criticize Calhoun for leading South Carolina “to the brink of armed conflict with the national government.” He ridiculed Calhoun by claiming his nullification threats “created no more intimidation than the sight of a regiment of 1,000 5-year-old boys with gaudy plumes and tiny muskets, marching up to assault a corps of 50,000 grenadier’s, six feet high.”
New Englander Daniel Webster’s speechifying is exemplified by his response to South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne’s attack on The Tariff of 1828. Designed to protect industry in the northern United States, this bill was labeled the "Tariff of Abominations" by its southern detractors because of its effects on the antebellum Southern economy. A gallery observer wrote that Webster’s speech was received “as the Israelites gazed at Moses, emerging from the dark clouds and thick smoke of Sinai, his face all radiant with the breath of divinity.” Webster’s speech is touted by many historians as the greatest political speech in U.S. history.
“Heirs of the Founders” contributes to the understanding of the regional and sectional differences that would lead to the Civil War. It is a spirited, thoroughly researched account of a time when the young nation was trying to address many unresolved issues of the Constitution. Through it all, this august trio debated, argued and compromised civilly and successfully avoided war between the states using oratory and compromise. The three skilled antebellum solons all died between 1850 and 1852 and
the third generation of political leaders was less successful. Some historians claim it is not coincidental that after these skilled leaders left the political arena the United States plummeted into the Civil War.
The author’s organization and easy-to-read prose makes this book an engrossing and educating historical read. Given the regional and ideological divides that plague the United States today and the current debate on the limits of power of the federal government, this book is particularly timely.