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The Big Three

ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

The Great Triumvirate. By Merrill D. Peterson. Oxford. 27.95.

Merrill Peterson’s subject in this detailed and masterly study is the “intermediate” generation that followed the founders of the republic. Their ascendancy extended from the era of the War of 1812 to the eve of the civil war they labored in vain to prevent.

In this cohort of statesmen, three near contemporaries— Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster—stood, by common consent, preeminent. For better or worse (some of each, in fact) their thought, oratory, and political preoccupations set the tone and agenda of the age. It was a self-consciously classical age. Sculptors still dressed their eminent subjects in togas and chiseled their features after the manner of Praxiteles. Classical allusion, to Demosthenes and Pericles and countless other greats of antiquity, still embellished the periods of oratory. And oratory, as in the ancient city-states, was not merely a coin of statecraft but an afternoon’s diversion.

An earlier reviewer has oddly suggested that Professor Peterson “dislikes” his three subjects and treats them with evenhanded “disdain.” Even if like and dislike were apt categories of historical or biographical judgment, and even if Peterson were in their grip, this would be a strange misreading of The Great Triumvirate.

It is, of course, true that among the three triumvirs Henry Clay alone seems to have been truly amiable. Calhoun, though admired for his intellect and respected for the purity of his private character, was, in Harriet Martineau’s famous phrase, a “cast-iron man.” Even in social settings the rigors of his conversation could be forbidding and fatiguing. Webster, a prodigy of forensic power—he argued no fewer than 168 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning half of them and leaving the stamp of his argument even on many he lost—was a flawed man. He was suspected of drunkenness; and he could be strangely cold at times, even to old friends. Further, Webster always seemed to have his palm upturned for some handout—one of Nicholas Biddle’s “retainers” for services to the Bank of the United States in the main. Calhoun for his part could also be starkly small-minded, as when he resisted Clay’s effort to persuade Congress to buy an original copy of Washington’s Farewell Address. But for Clay, in short, there is more to respect than to like about these three. But in history it is respect that finally counts.

A tragic theme interlaces the story. It is a tale of how men of marvelous political talents grappled with a problem— slavery, exacerbated by the cotton boom and by territorial expansion to the West—which soon would confound their best-laid defenses. Peterson tells us—it is the measure of this great obsession—that the 29th Congress, seated amid the turbulence of the Mexican War, was the last before 1861 to pass any piece of major domestic legislation that did not in some way pertain to slavery.

Aside from slavery, though certainly linked to it, were issues that “every schoolboy” used to know at least a bit about—the quarrel over the tariff, the task of consolidating the boundaries of the new nation and safeguarding its ocean-going commerce, the issues of Texas annexation and Mexico. In addition, there was the question of “internal improvements” (public works, as we would say), and how and by whom they would be financed. Money and credit, especially in the battle over the second Bank of the United States, remained a pertinent issue.

Our three triumvirs met in Washington, in Congress, in March 1813. All had been sent to the House in the excitement of the second war for independence against Britain. Their gifts soon pushed them to the top. Clay, still a young man, served as a peace commissioner at Ghent and as Speaker of the House, already acknowledged as the premier legislative talent of his time. He soon, of course, became a perennial (and perennially disappointed) candidate for the presidency. But his early and impolitic decision to back John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson in the hung election of 1824 became his undoing. With his ensuing appointment as Adams’ secretary of state, this coincidence—for such, Peterson shows us, it was, no “bargain,” corrupt or otherwise—played right into Jackson’s hands. No slouch at demagoguery, then or later, Jackson charged “bargain and corruption” anyway.

Calhoun at this time was a strong nationalist, serving with distinction as both secretary of war and, later, as vice president. Peterson speculates, entertainingly, that it was while idling away the notoriously empty hours of the latter office that Calhoun began to drift in new philosophical directions: the office may have “encouraged” Calhoun’s inveterate tendency “to turn his feelings into speculations . . . and to push them to their ultimate conclusions, no matter how absurd.”

Webster, too, served not only as a congressman and senator but also as secretary of state. The Webster-Ashburton treaty (settling the longstanding Maine boundary dispute with Britain. . . . . ..) was his impressive diplomatic legacy.

It was, however, a trio of intersecting issues—the tariff, the sale of the public lands and the distribution of the proceeds, and the maintenance of the sectional balance in the Senate— that as early as 1820 began to absorb all energies. The resulting pressures soon pushed Calhoun into the theory of nullification and eventually toward a radically new political orientation. Peterson meticulously traces the steps by which the South Carolinian, always protesting his unionism, was gradually propelled by his “cast-iron” logic (and by shifting political alignments in South Carolina) into sectionalism. It was to a degree abstract and theoretical in origin; for that was the cast of Calhoun’s mind. But Calhoun’s radical anti-centralism was also the fruit of a laborious attempt (leading finally to the theory of the “concurrent majority” and the dual executive) to find a formula for holding the nation together— paradoxically, by denationalizing it. As Calhoun became steadily more sectionalist, Clay’s position as the theorist of the “American system” (internal improvements and industrial development, behind a protective tariff) became steadily less tenable. The measures basic to his “system” tended to exacerbate North-South tensions, and thus to undermine his intersectional Whig coalition.

Meanwhile, the focus of political preoccupations moved westward. Two competing figures sprang up, Jackson out of the Indian-fighting past and, later, his protégé James Knox Polk. The two Tennesseans embraced the frontier outlook and program wholesale, including Texas annexation and the war of aggression against Mexico. But this program made the three aging triumvirs shudder. The new divisions, commencing in the 1830’s, became the seedbed of Whiggery; and they kept alive the old dreams of Clay and Webster that presidential lightning might strike. But by the time of the Mexican War, all three triumvirs, not without reason, had learned to consult fear more than hope. Rawer, ruder political sensibilities (exemplified in the surprise presidential candidacy of the obscure and unseasoned Gen. Zachary Taylor) would pass them by. None of the three was an apostle of “manifest destiny.”

Peterson’s treatment of these men and the period is prodigiously detailed. He seems to have read every speech, scanned every debate, and perused every newspaper and pamphlet of the time. It was an eloquent but long-winded era; and a bit of the long-windedness rubs off on the narrative now and then.

Yet The Great Triumvirate, though formidably detailed, conforms to a plan. Like the patterned landscape that emerges as one climbs the hairpin turns of an old-fashioned mountain road, the design gradually declares itself as one approaches the summit. The climax lies in what is much the best set piece of Peterson’s narrative, the story of the Compromise of 1850. Like three ancient insects, the three triumvirs would sting their last and die within months of this last intersectional bargain. We see them, now old and frail, tottering to the Senate in one last great effort to slay the dragon of disunion. “The idea of a supreme and permanent Union,” Peterson writes—he is speaking of the 1830’s, but the observation applies throughout the period—”was still something of a novelty . . . The Union as only a partnership, which might be dissolved when it became inconvenient, was closer to the prevailing conception than Webster’s doctrine. Almost every politician aknowledged “the sovereignty of the states.”“

That being the regnant theory, legislative resources in the face of disunionist strains had their limits. Everyone knew that. But Clay was determined to try; and the Compromise of 1850 was to be his last legislative masterpiece, though he became too ill to see it all the way to final passage. Calhoun and Webster joined him. Calhoun, now far sunk in the metaphysics of sectionalism, was too frail to speak. He sat, a spectral figure, at his Senate desk while a younger colleague read his supportive speech. Webster for his part stirred the fury of righteous New Englanders by backing, with some emphasis, Clay’s “omnibus” bill—the term, ascribed to Sen. Henry Foote of Mississippi, was minted in this debate. Bending to grim constitutional literalism, Webster even supported Clay’s new and strengthened fugitive slave act, the minimum price of proslavery assent to the compromise. This was the unpardonable sin in abolitionist eyes, the offense that sent Whittier to his desk to write “Ichabod.”

Clay, as before, was grasping for that intersectional unionist majority that Whiggery had bound together at its zenith. But even his fellow Kentuckians were growing impatient with Clay’s appeasement, as they saw it, of antislavery. Their unrest found a precise parallel in the rage of the New England abolitionists at conscienceless “cotton whiggery,” numb to human rights.

It made little difference that, as has been often remarked, the sectional issues were essentially theoretical. As Sen. Thomas Hart Benton had said, “nature” had set geographical limits to slavery in the new acquisitions from Mexico that rendered the ultrainflammatory Wilmot Proviso redundant. And never mind that only two slaves were known to have been delivered up by New England under any fugitive slave law. The argument had become radicalized and polarized, and the more volatile for being in large part theoretical. The three triumvirs, unionists all in their fashion, could turn the tide for a time but only for a time.

Peterson’s judgment on them is accordingly a bit severe. The Civil War, a decade after their death, “was a judgment on each of the departed statesmen.” For Clay, it showed the limits of compromise; for Webster, the fragility of legalism and constitutionalism “before moral and social forces he never truly understood.” As for Calhoun, the war “levied an awful judgment,” as disunion and the South’s ruin were seen in part as his personal legacy.

There is justice in this. Yet judgment must be tempered with a keen awareness of this very frailty of human effort in the face of tragic forces and events. Clay and Webster helped to arm Lincoln, the great heir and continuator of Whig thinking, with an ultimately triumphant ideology: “the union as religious mysticism,” as Edmund Wilson memorably called it. Perhaps it could only be mysticism. For as their doomed efforts showed, the principle of national unity could be neither a sterile legalism nor unending intersectional compromise.

In any case, Merrill Peterson, far from scorning these three statesmen, has documented their struggles in a way that ennobles them and deepens our understanding. Their generation was in the end unequal to its challenge. But perhaps any—and it is hard to imagine one more gifted in the political arts—would have been. Therein lay the tragedy.


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