Heirs of the Founders by H.W. Brands
H.W. Brands is an incredibly prolific author of American History, having written previous books on Aaron Burr, Ronald Reagan, FDR, Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin. He’s also written about the California Gold Rush, the Gilded Age, Texas independence, and a variety of other eras of U.S. history, primarily covering the 19th century.
Heirs of the Founders is my first Brands book, yet coincidentally I’m also reading his Age of Gold next and had the opportunity to see Brands speak about Heirs at an event at the Hudson Historical Society just days after I’d finished this well crafted and engaging look at the so-called Great Triumvirate.
I hadn’t initially included this book as part of my project, but as I progressed through the Jacksonian era, it seemed as if the primary forces of the the time weren’t so much the men that resided in the White House (especially post-Jackson) but these giants of the Senate, namely John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. This was the golden era of the Legislative branch, when the ‘people’s branch’ last felt more consequential than the Executive branch.
Of course, that power was buoyed considerably, both in substance and rhetoric, by the three men that Brands profiles here.
Daniel Webster was known as The Great Orator, and was indeed the most exceptional speaker in an age known for its oratory. Generations of schoolchildren would be made to memorize passages of his so-called “Second Reply to Hayne”, perhaps the most famous speech ever given on the floor of the United States Senate which he ended by thundering, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"
Representing Massachusetts in the Senate as well as serving as Secretary of State under Harrison, Tyler and Fillmore, Webster was a fervent supporter of the idea that the United States was more than just an association of sovereign states, but a "popular government, erected by the people” (the subject of his Reply to Hayne) during the Nullification Crisis of 1832. It was this crisis, authored and driven by his obstinate counterpart, John C. Calhoun, that served as the opening salvo of a battle that would eventually rend the nation in two.
Calhoun is known today as a man who not only fanatically supported the institution of slavery but actually defended it as a “positive good”, benefiting both slaves and slave owners. He drew battle lines with Andrew Jackson over the so-called “Tariff of Abominations” of 1828. The tariff was meant to protect northern industrial interests from competition with foreign goods, yet Calhoun felt that it would substantially raise the cost of living in the South, who were more dependent on foreign imports than their more industrially-minded counterparts in the North.
Tariffs were a big deal in the 1800s. Anyone who endeavors to study the era will spend a lot of time reading about them. Though they aren’t as relevant in this modern age of globalized free markets (though President Trump is doing his damndest to bring it back in vogue), at the time these taxes on foreign imports could be used to protect America’s nascent market economy allowing merchants and makers here at home to better compete with the more mature markets of Europe. They could also be used more sparingly as a means for the federal government to raise revenue at a time before our modern tax system served that purpose.
Calhoun felt that the tariffs enacted under John Quincy Adams, and now in the hands of Andrew Jackson, were so detrimental to the South that he couldn’t in good conscience allow them to be collected in his state of South Carolina. In Calhoun’s view, states had the right to reject (or nullify) federal laws they didn’t approve of within their own borders.
This staredown would serve as one of the major crises of the Jackson presidency and was only resolved through carefully conducted compromise, principally orchestrated by the man who would come to be known as America’s “Great Compromiser”, Henry Clay.
Clay, a hero even today in his adopted home of Kentucky, was truly one of America’s most consequential politicians who would never serve as President (it wasn’t for lack of trying). Clay was so well-respected in fact, that he was named Speaker of the House almost immediately upon election at the tender age of 34.
But it was in the Senate that Clay would become famous. His political deals were instrumental in staving off a civil war that, as the slave powers in the South became increasingly entrenched and abolitionist voices in the North became increasingly belligerent, looked more and more likely.
He was instrumental in the passing of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that allowed for America’s continued expansion while keeping the balance of power between the slave states and Northern states in equilibrium. He went on to diffuse the Nullification Crisis in 1833 by introducing a bill that would slowly decrease the tariff (while supporting the use of Federal force if necessary), cooling Calhoun in the process.
But most impressive was his final act, the Compromise of 1850. The admission of California into the union threatened to upset the delicate balance once again of the slave-owning South and the North. Clay introduced a series of bills that gave each side a bit of what they wanted and a little of what they didn’t, but could ultimately accept.
Brands allows much of his book’s narrative to be driven by long passages of quotes from the men themselves, yet he does a masterful job of weaving the best bits of these long oratories together to form a cohesive and compelling account. He has a knack for finding the most salient passages and gives just enough complimentary detail (derived from vivid depictions of the scenes from letters and newspaper accounts) to create the necessary drama to keep things lively and mesmerizing.
Compromise is difficult, as we know well in this time of hyper-partisanship. Even the Founders struggled with it while drafting the Constitution. In fact, to get the document ratified, they left it to these worthy heirs to battle over interpretations of issues around states rights and human freedom that were purposefully left vague so as to come to a tenuous compact.
Basically, the Founders kicked the can down the road and it was up to these men to pick it back up, wrestle with its contradictions, complexities, and competing interests and come to a shared vision of the Republic. The nation was lucky to have men like Webster and Clay (less so Calhoun) to see it through this era and at least somewhat delay what would become, sadly, the inevitable cataclysm to come.