They Came Next

By Gordon, John Steele | New Criterion, January 2019 | Go to article overview

They Came Next


Gordon, John Steele, New Criterion


H. W. Brands Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. Doubleday, 432 pages, $30

Great generals, inventors, actors, scientists, sports stars, and even criminals often live on in the American folk memory. But, at least since the founding era, unless an American politician reaches the White House, he is almost always doomed to historical oblivion.

Everyone, for instance, has heard of William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91), who rode through Georgia into immortality in the autumn of 1864. But how many know of his younger brother John (1823-1900)? This Sherman served six years as a Congressman and six terms in the Senate. He was Secretary of the Treasury and of State. He ran for the Republican nomination for president three times (coming close in 1888). He even coined the political term "mending fences," and was the principal author of the Sherman Antitrust Act. But I expect not one American in a hundred today could identify him.

There are, to be sure, a few exceptions to this rule. Chief Justice John Marshall made the third branch of government the equal of the other two, with boundless constitutional and historical consequences. William Jennings Bryan was a three-time presidential loser with a golden tongue. Senator Joseph McCarthy's name lives on in both infamy and adjective.

But the most important exceptions to the rule are often referred to as "the great triumvirate": Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. While none would realize his presidential ambitions, these three men often dominated American politics from the War of 1812 to the Compromise of 1850. It was, admittedly, an era of relatively obscure presidents (with the conspicuous exception of Andrew Jackson, of course). They all sat in both the House and the Senate (and Clay was Speaker). Each served as Secretary of State. Calhoun was also Secretary of War and vice president. In concert some times, in opposition at others, they helped fundamentally to shape the United States's antebellum history.

These three men are the subject of H. W. Brands's latest book, Heirs of the Founders. Brands, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Texas, has written or co-written almost thirty books. Twelve of these are biographies, at once scholarly and highly readable, ranging from the life of Benjamin Franklin to that of Ronald Reagan. While each stands alone, read sequentially they constitute a history of this country. Heirs of the Founders is a worthy addition to this already distinguished list.

Henry Clay (1777-1852) was the oldest of the three. Born in Virginia, his family moved west to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1797, and he became a planter and successful lawyer. He always maintained the outlook of a Westerner, favoring "internal improvements" and further westward expansion. While himself a slaveholder, Clay recognized what an evil system it was and sought its eventual extinction. After serving briefly in the Kentucky legislature, he was appointed to fill a brief vacancy in the U.S. Senate. He was only twenty-nine, below the constitutional age requirement, a fact that no one seems to have noticed at the time.

But Clay disliked the rules of the Senate, with its endless debate. His real home was in the House of Representatives, where he won a seat in the election of 1810. A supremely gifted politician, especially when it came to assembling a majority to pass a bill, he was elected Speaker of the House on his very first day in office, a feat no one has accomplished since or is likely to in the future.

If Clay was a Westerner at heart, John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was a Southerner to his fingertips. Born in Abbeville, South Carolina, he was of Scotch-Irish descent, and he was well endowed with the supposedly belligerent and disputatious nature of that ethnic group. His father was a successful farmer. …

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