When Compromise Still Reigned in U.S. Politics

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Heirs of the Founders takes us to the generation after the Founding.

America’s Founding generation continues to fascinate authors and readers alike. That is natural: We live in the world they created for us, under their Constitution and the court precedents they began more than two centuries ago. In modern legal debates, the acts of the Founders, even years after the Constitution was written, take a pivotal role: After all, they wrote the thing; they must know what it means.

For the second generation, things get more difficult. As the men who won our independence and wrote our founding documents retired and died, the task of governing the country came to rest upon younger men’s shoulders. In another time, or another republic, this might have meant the end of the experiment and a descent into chaos. Fortunately for the United States, new leaders pushed to the fore to dominate the nation’s debates and governance. They wrestled with the divisive issues of slavery, westward expansion, and the tariff. In doing so, they were forced to confront the friction at the heart of a republic based on the theory of liberty and inalienable rights.

In his latest work, Heirs of the Founders, historian H. W. Brands focuses on the three men of that second generation who stood out from the crowd: Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. As Senators from the West, South, and North, respectively, these three men shaped America’s major debates through keen intelligence and sparkling oratory. Working together at times and against each other at others, their words and deeds shaped the nation’s journey for forty years.

The second generation rose to prominence in what is sometimes called America’s second war of independence: the War of 1812. Clay’s start in politics was based on his ideas, but Calhoun and Webster were drawn into the scene as much by their skills in speechmaking as anything else. It was an age where rhetoric mattered, and where debates in Congress were not speeches to near-empty rooms and C-SPAN cameras but real events with leading figures on either side of an issue verbally sparring in an attempt to persuade their fellow legislators — and the folks at home.

Clay and Calhoun found themselves on the same side early in their careers in support of the war with Britain. As part of a group of young legislators that became known as the “war hawks,” they demanded that the young nation show its resolve and growing might by challenging Britain’s abuse of American sailors and flagrant disregard for the treaty terms they had agreed to at the end of the Revolution. Webster, representing a region that prospered through trade with Britain, opposed the war.

Congress sided with Clay and Calhoun, but the war was not the success they hoped it would be. Battles were largely inconclusive. The failed invasion of Canada and the burning of our capital humiliated the cocky war hawks, and the nation was fortunate that the British agreed to a peace treaty that reestablished the status quo ante bellum.

The war also made a name for the fourth person in this three-man biography: Andrew Jackson. Although it happened after the treaty was signed, Jackson’s overwhelming victory at the Battle of New Orleans made him America’s most popular general and a political force to be reckoned with. Jackson’s supporters began to see him as a second Washington, another distorted reflection of the first generation in the second. His rise also reshaped the politics of the time as the First Party System gave way to the Second.

Resistance to the war doomed Webster’s Federalist party and left the nation in a brief “Era of Good Feelings” in which the remaining party, founded by Thomas Jefferson, reigned supreme. But good feelings never last, and new squabbles divided the one party against itself into several factions. The issue that finally led to a complete split was not really an issue at all, but a man: Jackson. Those who supported the general fell into the Democratic party, the re-branded Jeffersonian Republicans. Those opposed scattered many ways before uniting in a Whig party, so named to evoke memories of the English faction that resisted an over-mighty king.

Clay, Calhoun, and Webster all found themselves, for the time being, as Whigs. For Webster the fit was natural, as the Whigs took up many ideas of the Federalists. For Clay, too, there were some ideological reasons. A one-time opponent of the national bank and other instances of “big government,” Clay’s experience during the war taught him that somewhat more government was needed to knit the sprawling nation together and defend it from foreign foes. Calhoun joined last, only after serving as Jackson’s vice president and slowly moving from friend to enemy. He resigned the vice presidency to take a seat in the Senate as a member of the opposition.

In the decades that followed, the three — and Clay, especially — were known for the compromises they crafted to keep the nation’s sectional disputes from spiraling into disunion and war. While questions of tariff rates came into these agreements, the biggest fights all went back to the contradiction at the heart of the republic: slavery.

The first of these was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was supposed to settle the matter for all time by allowing Missouri into the union as a slave state while drawing a line across the remaining territories: North of it would be free soil, south would be slaveholding country. In 1837, another Clay-brokered compromise pacified both sides of the tariff debate, lowering the high rates imposed by Webster and his Northern allies a few years earlier while quieting the threats of secession from Calhoun and his fellow South Carolinians.

That might have been enough to hold the country for a while, if not for the annexation of the Oregon Country and the Mexican Cession. These territorial acquisitions in the 1840s nearly doubled the size of the country and reopened the slavery question as slaveowners saw new lands to work with unfree labor and abolitionists feared the further spread of the institution. After fits and starts, Clay brokered another compromise, this time with Webster reluctantly joining him and Calhoun fighting them all the way.

The Compromise of 1850 was Clay’s masterpiece, but he did not live to enjoy it. He died in 1852, as did Webster; Calhoun preceded them in 1850. The country suffered from their absence, especially Clay’s, but it is likely that there was little even the Great Compromiser could have done to stave off the coming conflagration. The spirit of compromise has deep roots in the Anglo-American tradition, and had the United States adopted a flexible, unwritten constitution like that of the mother country, compromises like those worked by Clay might have continued to govern us until today. But that was not America’s path.

With a written constitution standing supreme over other laws and a bill of rights guaranteeing our liberties, the path to compromise is more difficult. The Constitution vouches safe our rights, which is often the only thing that keeps a government from trampling them. A look at Britain’s modern-day take on the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to a speedy trial all show that in the centuries since the two nations separated, the unwritten constitution has done far less than the written one to protect the people’s liberty.

But even as rights are better preserved on this side of the Atlantic, opportunities for compromise are limited, especially where one right comes into conflict with another. In the debate over expansion of slavery to the territories, the slave’s right to liberty, the slaveowner’s right to property, and the federal government’s power to govern the territories all clashed. Clay aimed at an English-style balancing of interests, but a rights-based jurisprudence demands clarity and absolutes.

Eventually a court was bound to see it that way, and in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, the Supreme Court did, holding entirely in favor of the slaveowners and their right to take their human property wherever they chose. Against such an absolute pronouncement, no compromise was possible. Ultimately, that led to a result better than any half-measure achieved through compromise — the abolition of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 — but that result was neither guaranteed nor foreseeable when Chief Justice Roger Taney issued his ruling eight years earlier.

The clash over slavery exposed the conflict between the conservative tradition of compromise and the liberal idea of rights. Rights won out, as the Constitution demands they do, though it took four years of bloody civil war to secure that victory. The conflict between these two aspects of the American legal tradition continues to this day.

Brands presents the story of the three great men of their generation in a readable and engaging volume. Although he gives no new insights over previous works, Heirs of the Founders serves a good introduction to the period for people unfamiliar with Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Some passages are better than others — the inclusion of two chapters about Solomon Northup feels like a clumsy attempt to capitalize on the box-office success of Twelve Years a Slave — but in general, Brands gives the reader a fair summary of an age where compromise still reigned supreme in politics.

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