The second generation of American leaders: Clay, Calhoun, and Webster

August 2, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers, writing.

Here is something odd and overlooked about the history of the American republic. The second generation of leaders―with one notable exception―is completely devoid of any close relatives, mainly sons, of the people we consider the Founding Fathers. None of the relatives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, or almost any others that you can think of had much to do with the governing circles of the nation’s third and fourth decades.

America did not depend on family dynasties for its rulers.

The one exception, of course, is John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams who was at the center of the American Revolution and who served as its first vice president and second president. John Quincy Adams certainly played an important role in the nation’s second generation, but that role was never a dominant one.

That thought occurred to me as I was reading about a book by the prolific historian H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants.

As the title suggests, Brands tells the story of America in the first half of the 19th century―a time when a second generation had inherited the ideals of the democratic republic established by the founders―through the narratives of its three most influential politicians.

Henry Clay was from Kentucky, a Westerner, and saw himself as the nation’s leader. He wanted to be president and came within a hair’s breadth on several occasions, but he never achieved his personal dream. He had what the nation needed in Congress, however: the ability to find compromise that would stave off the breaking up of the Union.

The issue, of course, was slavery. Most of the nation, like Clay, who was himself a slaveholder, recognized its evil and its insidious danger. Keeping that danger at bay was the lifelong work of Henry Clay.

Not so with John C. Calhoun. Many of his contemporaries believed Calhoun to be the most incisive political thinker since James Madison. But Calhoun was from South Carolina, and while he was committed to the Union, that commitment was balanced with an equally strong belief that the Union could not violate core societal issues. The most important of those was the ownership of slaves, and being from South Carolina, that commitment kept him in Washington.

On the other side of that issue was Daniel Webster, who was also from the other side of the country―where constituents felt quite differently about slavery. The extremists among them were the abolitionists, who cared nothing about a Union that countenanced slavery. The extremists might be a minority even in Massachusetts, but they were growing in number and influence.

Webster had neither the political savvy of a Henry Clay nor the incisive mind of a John C. Calhoun. What he had was a voice and an eloquence that could lure the city of Washington into the U.S. Capitol whenever he was scheduled to speak. His words and tones were intoxicating and therefore influential. Defenders of slavery began to see Webster as the symbol of all evil.

All of this adds up to high political drama, and Henry W. Brands makes the most of it.

Brands is one of the best narrative historians writing today, and he is also one of the most prolific. He has written more than 30 books, and a good number of them have reached the best-seller lists. Not only is he energetic in his writing, but he is also wide-ranging in his subject matter and motifs. He has written narrative histories, biographies, comparative analysis, and historical analysis.

His subject matter has included Ulysses S. Grant, the Cold War, Revolutionary era, Civil War, and late 19th century history, just to name a few of his topics.

Brands is a professor of history at the University of Texas, where he has been on the faculty since 2005. He had previously taught at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. I have read several of Brands’ books and am always delighted to find one where our interests coincide.

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