Review of “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic History of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, The Second Generation of American Giants” by H. W. Brands

The period from 1815 to 1825 is often referred to (sometimes ironically) in American history as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Maybe. But the next 35 years were anything but. The interim between James Monroe’s presidency and the Civil War was marked by extreme sectional division over many political issues, including protectionism v. free trade; annexation of new territories (Texas, California, and Oregon); and state nullification of federal law. But lurking behind these controversies was the overarching problem of slavery.

The Constitution of 1789 never explicitly mentioned slavery, but that institution was entrenched and enshrined in the very marrow and character of the southern states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, engineered largely by Henry Clay, temporarily settled the issue of where slavery would be permitted in the United States, establishing the Mason-Dixon Line as the boundary between free and slave states. But as a result of the Mexican War of 1846-48, the United States greatly expanded its territory to include Texas, California, and what is now Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. As new states were to be admitted to the Union, would they be free or slave-holding?

H. W. Brands tells the story of a somewhat neglected period of American history in Heirs of the Founders. The subtitle of the book names the three towering figures that dominated the political arena during the period between the last of the Founding Fathers and the Civil War: Henry Clay of Kentucky; John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Curiously, although the three came to be known as the “great triumvirate” and each of them sought the presidency to one degree or another, none of them ever achieved it.

“The Great Triumvirate: Clay, Webster, and Calhoun

Webster was an unsurpassed orator who forcefully advocated for the northern or free states interests on the floor of both the Senate and the House; Calhoun was the most formidable expounder of southern or slave state positions; and Clay was the man most responsible for working out various compromises that held the Union together for 40 years. But in the last of these agreements, the Compromise of 1850, the slave states achieved nearly all they had advocated. Even Webster accepted the expansion of slavery into new states, chastised the North for not cooperating in returning fugitive slaves to their southern masters, and criticized abolitionists and “extremists” for hurting their own cause. Nevertheless, the Compromise lasted only 10 years.

All three of the triumvirate had died by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. Calhoun surely would have supported the South’s secession. Webster probably would have supported the North’s military action to prevent the dissolution of the Union. And Clay would have striven mightily, but most likely unsuccessfully, to preserve the Union.

Brands’ book is part pure history, part biography. Because it deals perceptively with the issue of the extent of federal power and other sectional and ideological debates, it is surprisingly timely.

I listened to the audio version of the book, unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) read capably by Eric Martin.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Published in hardcover by Doubleday Books, 2018 and in audio by Random House Audio, 2018

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