Prolific historian Brands (Chair, History/Univ. of Texas; The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, 2016, etc.) continues his project of retelling the American national story through its principal actors.
The author’s return to the “great man” school of history is somewhat problematic, since those presumed great men of American history are mostly white and seldom women. Still, the approach has virtues in making for a neat, character-driven history of the sort that nonspecialist readers like to read, in the manner of Douglas Brinkley, Steven Ambrose, and other popularizers. Brands goes a little farther afield to deal with three contemporaries who were rivals and occasional allies in the business of deciding what America was going to become at the time when the Founding Fathers were leaving the political field. Daniel Webster, by the author’s account, was a mesmerizing orator and debater, a man who “had a way with words that seemed almost supernatural.” John Calhoun of South Carolina was almost as gifted as his Massachusetts peer, with a fiery devotion to his home state, while plain-spun Henry Clay of Kentucky had his eyes on the opening West. None of the “great triumvirate,” as they were known, lived long enough to reckon with the Civil War and its aftermath, but all were principal players in the great post-Jacksonian debate over slavery and states’ rights. The greatest contribution of this book, full of historical set pieces and debates, is the author’s parsing of the regional and sectional differences that would lead to conflict, with the South enjoying undue influence. “The South,” writes Brands, “acting through the national government, had repeatedly secured the admission of new slave states: nine since the ratification of the Constitution, with Texas likely to spawn more.” Given the sectional and ideological divides at work today, the book is oddly timely—and unlikely in the moments when the three politicians managed to forge compromises.
A lesser work from Brands but a solid introduction to a post-revolutionary generation whose members, great and small, are little remembered today.