Book Review: 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
Dr. Brands’ coverage of the period from about 1800 to the outbreak of the Civil War in the late 1850s is a rich story. The founding generation of Washington, Jefferson, et al has passed on, and the next generation of American statesmen was rising to the fore. This was an era of in-person public speaking, with printed repeats of these oratories available shortly after and discussed widely. Words mattered; and the way they were delivered was important. Three men prominently represented the key parts of the country at the time: Webster from the North(east) , Calhoun from the South(east), and Clay from the West (west of the Appalachians but east of the Mississippi). They each had eyes on the Presidency but none achieved their goal.
Initially, the Presidency was occupied by a Virginian or New Englander. That was the case from George Washington in 1776 up to and including John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams in 1837, with each Virginian serving two terms, almost automatically, and the Massachusetts father and son one term each. After that period of nearly pre-set clear-cut national leaders, things became complex and tense as the matter of slavery became more and more a cleaver in the middle of everything as the new nation careened westward. Following Andrew Jackson’s term (1929-1837), ten American presidents (from Van Buren to and including James Buchanan), from 1837 through 1861, were four year (or less) presidents. Only Abraham Lincoln was elected twice, and he of course tragically did not serve his full term. This period of uncertainty and chaos was for the most part riven by the question of slavery interleaved with rapid land expansion of the new country.
In 1803, the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase by President Jefferson included land acquired from France that would become all or parts of fifteen US states and two Canadian provinces. Nearly the entire middle of the country became new territories, not states at the time, sparsely occupied by Native Americans and a very few French trappers. The Independence of Texas from Mexico in 1835 followed by the annexation of Texas in 1845 by the rapidly growing US added a large area south and west of the Louisiana acquisition. Later, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 followed and the US, which had successfully invaded and captured nearly all of Mexico including Mexico City, added as a forced settlement the entire remaining Southwestern area of the country, then settled by a few Spanish padres and missions as well as Native Americans. All of these new areas, initially thought to be sparsely settled territories, became prime areas of attention when gold was discovered in California in 1848-1855 and rapid settlement there and in Texas took place.
The most divisive decisions regarding the new territories, as they became potential states to be added, was whether they would be added where slavery was permitted, or prohibited. The book covers these battles in the legislature. Frankly the book is difficult to read, both due to the subject matter, and also because Brands uses many direct quotes from the spoken and written records of the day. The arguments of “States Rights” were entangled with the fundamental issue of whether the US Constitution called for more of a decentralized Federation (hence the term Confederacy favored by the South) or a Union under a strong federal system.
Economic drivers were different in the various portions of the early Union. Manufacturing and commerce dominated in the North and East; in the South agriculture was king and manual work in vast areas of agricultural and cotton cultivation were done by slaves. These were the official reasons for the severe differences. But the underlying cause was slavery and the fundamental rationalizing approach in the South, where Calhoun and others described slavery as a protective and beneficent social structure, was deeply embedded. Their argument was that black descendants of those brought to the country, enslaved by force, needed the system, and the white race must both protect them and be protected from them.
Dr. Brands’ book covers a great deal of bitter conflicted and complex history. At times, it seems disjointed as he moves back and forth between the three major figures. In addition, a related and jarring story of Solomon Northup, an educated free black man from New England who is tricked while visiting Washington DC, taken prisoner and transported in chains to a buyer in the South, is included in two somewhat separate portions of the book. The horror story and memoir of his experiences that Northup recounted after he finally escaped and was legally freed was read widely as “Twelve Years as a Slave” and had a major influence on the abolitionist movement in the North.
The speeches by John Calhoun are hard to read and hard to digest. Today the reasoning seems archaic and twisted. But this fundamental combination of fear and economic need produced a complex gap and a cultural struggle between the North and South that led, inevitably to a tragic Civil War. Today the difference between a strong union as opposed to a more decentralized confederacy does not appear to have been fully resolved at times. H.W. Brands concludes at the end of his book that this struggle “originated with the founders. It continued with their heirs. It is with us still.”
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