If American politics had rock stars, one might imagine George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as the Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis of their time. In other words, theirs are household names that still invoked in arguments over authenticity and meaning. Consider how often the names of the nation’s founding fathers are uttered in modern debates over everything from the Constitution to the future of America itself.
There are problems with this practice, though, including the notion that the founders had a fixed idea of what America was meant to be, or what it would become – even they didn’t agree much of the time. The nature of that disagreement becomes even more evident when we consider what the second generation of American giants fought about. But their battles echo our own today.
New York Times bestselling author and University of Texas at Austin history professor H.W. Brands explores the second generation of American leaders in his latest book “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster.” Brands says he was interested in this era and group of statesmen because it was up to them to prove that they could keep the republic going after the founding fathers.
“This was both the gift and the charge of the first generation of American statesmen: we’ve created this republic, now it’s up to you, the next generation – can you keep it?” Brands says.
Brands says he also wants to fill the “black hole” in what’s been written about American history between the American Revolution and the Civil War. He says this period is interesting and often overlooked because it was a time of peace. But it was also a time for America to demonstrate its founding principles without the use of force.
“The Americans never really won their argument against the British, they just defeated them in war,” Brands says. “But it’s those times of peace, where, I think, really, the highest skills, the gifts of politics, show through.”
Clay, Calhoun and Webster were influential political figures during their time, but Brands says we don’t think much about them now, for good reason.
“There’s a reason that presidents of the 19th century are forgettable: that was the design of the Constitution. The Constitution puts Congress in Article I and the presidency only in Article II. The president was supposed to be the executive of what Congress had decided,” Brands says.
Brands’ book covers the lives of each of the three men, but also focuses on their overlapping time in Congress, starting around 1812. He says they were in the Senate together during the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which was a pivotal moment.
“During this time, there were shifting alliances. So, part of the interest of the story is the shifting political views, the sifting out of the sections of the country, but also the personal dynamics among the three,” Brands says.
Brands says each man also represented the three main regions of the U.S. at that time: the South where Calhoun lived, the North where Webster lived and Clay in Kentucky, which was considered the West at the time. Brands says Clay was often the mediator between Webster and Calhoun, and was called the “great compromiser.”
“To be known as a great compromiser was a high compliment. In our day and age, to be called a compromiser is probably meant as an insult,” Brands says. “But that’s a major lesson from this era, that our democracy works when people are willing to compromise, and our democracy bogs down and threatens to fall apart when that spirit of compromise is lost.”
Even though the Compromise of 1850 didn’t last after the three leaders’ deaths, Brands says Clay likely wouldn’t have seen that as a failure because he believed that political issues are never permanently resolved.
“With Clay, it was a matter of, ‘Can we kick the can down the road? Can we advance the republic another 10 years, another 20 years?'” Brands says.
He says Clay exhibited the “genius of muddling through,” in other words, by persisting day after day, the American political system will work over the long term. Brands says studying the 19th century helps him better understand what’s going on in American politics today, and he says the lessons are both good and bad.
“The good news is that there was a time when American politics were even more polarized than they are today, and the nation survived it,” Brands says. “The bad news is it took a civil war.”
He says geography was the primary way Americans divided themselves politically in the 19th century, and that kind of division helped fuel the Civil War. Today, American political polarization is not strictly geographic, and Brands says that’s a good thing.
“As long as the separation isn’t geographical, then it can’t really get any traction in trying to say, ‘I don’t want to be part of this country anymore,'” Brands says.
But he says ultimately, compromise is necessary if the country wants to accomplish anything.
“There’s always a temptation to push things to an extreme. But very often, there are other things that push back. And on those moments when things don’t push back, that’s when we get in trouble,” Brands says.
Written by Caroline Covington.