The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants
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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.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-385-54253-1
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2018

Kirkus Interview
H.W. Brands
October 11, 2016

As noted historian H.W. Brands reveals in his new book The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, at the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about the possible use of atomic weapons in response to China's entry into the war, Truman replied testily, "The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has." This suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, the willful, fearless, and highly decorated commander of the American and U.N. forces, had his finger on the nuclear trigger. A correction quickly followed, but the damage was done; two visions for America's path forward were clearly in opposition, and one man would have to make way. Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. The contest of wills between these two titanic characters unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of a faraway war and terrors conjured at home by Joseph McCarthy. “An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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