From New York Times bestselling historian H. W. Brands comes the riveting story of how, in nineteenth-century America, a new set of political giants battled to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and decide the future of our democracy
In the early 1800s, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a champion orator known for his eloquence, spoke for the North and its business class. Henry Clay of Kentucky, as dashing as he was ambitious, embodied the hopes of the rising West. South Carolina's John Calhoun, with piercing eyes and an even more piercing intellect, defended the South and slavery.
Together these heirs of Washington, Jefferson and Adams took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency and set themselves the task of finishing the work the Founders had left undone. Their rise was marked by dramatic duels, fierce debates, scandal and political betrayal. Yet each in his own way sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution: its refusal to specify where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation, and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery.
They wrestled with these issues for four decades, arguing bitterly and hammering out political compromises that held the Union together, but only just. Then, in 1850, when California moved to join the Union as a free state, "the immortal trio" had one last chance to save the country from the real risk of civil war. But, by that point, they had never been further apart.
Thrillingly and authoritatively, H. W. Brands narrates an epic American rivalry and the little-known drama of the dangerous early years of our democracy.
Brands (The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War), a University of Texas at Austin history professor, uses the life stories of three consequential early-19th-century American politicians all with unfulfilled aspirations to become president to show how tensions inherent in the founding fathers' vision of the country led to the calamity of the Civil War. Those schisms played out most notably in the debate about whether new states entering the union, or new territories acquired by annexation or purchase, would be allowed to legislate on their own about the issue of slavery. Each of Brands's three leads, who competed against each other for the presidency, was tested by slavery. Clay (1777 1852), who served as house speaker and John Quincy Adams's secretary of state, successfully proposed the Missouri Compromise, linking the admission of that slave state to the admission of Maine, a free state. Webster (1782 1852), a senator and secretary of state to three presidents, abandoned core antislavery principles to advance his prospects for the presidency. And Calhoun (1782 1850), the South Carolinian who was vice president to both Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, responded to calls for abolition by doubling down, insisting that slavery was "a positive good, an ornament of the South's superior culture." Requiring of readers no prior knowledge of the period or the players, this fascinating history illuminates rifts that still plague the country today.