The Remaking of America


The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, by Merrill D. Peterson, New York: Oxford University Press, 573 pages, $27.95

When one surveys the caliber of people in public life today, one is reminded of Henry Adams's quip that the progression of presidents from Washington to Grant was enough to refute the theory of evolution. But as James Bryce observed in The American Commonwealth, "A democracy, not less than any other form of government, needs great men to lead and inspire the people." The perpetuation of political institutions is as great a task of statesmanship as the founding of political institutions.

After the passing from the national scene of the Founders' generation in the early 1800s, America was blessed with political leaders who were equal to, in Daniel Webster's words, "the great duty of defense and preservation." Noted Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson has given us a thorough account of the three greats of the age, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, "the great triumvirate," who together "triangulated the destiny of the nation."

Of course, other figures loom large in any evaluation of the early 1800s—Andrew Jackson springs immediately to mind. But the great triumvirate were close to the fray for nearly 40 years. And though none of the three became president, all played crucial parts in the evolution of the nation and the perpetuation of its political institutions.

The great three rose to prominence during and immediately after the War of 1812. One of the lessons of the war was that America's commercial relations with Europe made the United States economically vulnerable. Clay became the leader of the movement for national economic development, which he christened "the American System." The pillars of this program were "internal improvements"—roads, canals, and other public works projects—and protective tariffs, designed to promulgate the rapid growth of American industry.

Peterson argues that "the American System" was not simply Hamiltonianism redux; he says it represented an aspect of "the Jeffersonian revulsion from Europe and a flowering of the American character." Regardless of whether one accepts this judgment, Peterson does correctly acknowledge that the American System disregarded the free-market principles of the emerging classical theory of economics.

One can see clearly in Peterson's narrative that this movement was decisive for American history; indeed, one might say that the nation was "made" every bit as much at this time as it was in 1776 and 1787. Peterson observes: "The first generation of American statesmen had worked out the implications of a large territory for free government under the Constitution, and found them good. Now statesmen of the second generation worked out the implications for the American economy, with the same positive result."

When Peterson sees a "positive result" of this new government intervention in the economy, however, he is not reckoning how this early intervention has become a lasting precedent for American public policy. In the 1820s, nearly all policy questions were turned into constitutional questions: is the national government rightly entitled to do such things? Today few policy issues are debated on constitutional grounds, largely because of the outcome of this earlier episode.

And in fact many of today's national policy issues are in form and very nearly in substance identical to the debates over features of the American System. The protective tariff debate reminds one of the current controversy about the oil import fee; the debate about a national charter for the Bank of the United States has a curious resonance when considering the Federal Reserve. And recent debates over "industrial policy" could be taken almost exactly from the 1820s. As Edna St. Vincent Millay observed, "It's not one damn thing after another; it's the same damn thing over and over again."

Although Clay was a leading advocate of the American System, we shouldn't lay the blame for its legacy at his feet, nor certainly to the other members of the triad. The three disagreed about many of these measures, and all three were staunch opponents of Jackson and his aggrandizement of the executive branch. And although it may be true, as Peterson argues, that Webster's intellect was entirely derivative, still he should be venerated for his advocacy before the Supreme Court on behalf of the right of contract and other fundamental economic rights. Alas, we are ever so needful today of Webster's central argument in McCulloch v. Maryland: "An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy."

The three embodied the spirit of their respective regions. Clay, coming from the expansive West, was a drinker and a gambler. His towering oratory led observers to say he missed a great career as an actor. Being from a border state, he played the key role in many of the sectional compromises over slavery beginning in 1820. Webster displayed the literary and intellectual climate of the Northeast and spoke in "golden sentences" replete with literary references gleaned from his extensive reading. Calhoun reflected the agrarian vision of the South. He was an austere, humorless figure who never smoked, drank, or swore; Harriet Martineau called him "the cast-iron man."

Calhoun was in many ways the most important of the three, for his political odyssey captures the increasingly urgent national dilemma over slavery. Beginning his career as an advocate of strong national government, Calhoun rapidly became a partisan of the South and developed a peculiar political theory that defended slavery as a positive good, repudiated the Declaration of Independence ("the most dangerous of political errors"), and assaulted the sovereignty of the national government. Calhoun's growing isolation perfectly embodied the coming isolation of his native region.

All three men held cabinet posts—Clay and Webster at State, Calhoun at War—but none would ever become president, despite repeated attempts. Peterson says their ambitious pursuit of the office diminished each, but the presidency probably would have diminished them even more.

It is doubtful that any of these men in the executive office could have improved upon the legislative compromises of the age. The sectional division was growing increasingly intractable throughout their tenure in Congress. Although Clay and Webster helped to forestall the open split, their compromising statecraft must be judged finally within the understanding of Lincoln's "house divided" speech. America was made during their tenure in politics, but it was very nearly unmade shortly after their passing. Indeed, Peterson concludes that "the Civil War was a judgment on each of the departed statesmen."

Steven Hayward is editor of Claremont Review of Books and a graduate student in American studies at Claremont Graduate School.