THE GREAT TRIUMVIRATE: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun by Merrill D. Peterson

THE GREAT TRIUMVIRATE: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A triple biography of the three great Senators of America's second era of politics, by Peterson (History/Univ. of Virginia), author of Adams and Jefferson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, and Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation. In this ""life and times,"" we are offered succinct portraits of three contrasting personalities--the staunch New England ""Demosthenes,"" Webster; the populist warrior, Clay; and the orator par excellence, Calhoun, defender of southern separation and slavery'. It is one of the great ironies of American history that these three ambitious men all aspired to the Presidency and all failed to attain it, at the same time that the country was run by such lightweights as Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor. As Peterson writes, ""When the last of this 'second race of giants' passed away in 1852 nothing was left to challenge the sway of the Lilliputians. The republic lost its glory--the regalia of great statesmen."" Indeed, this appears to be the main theme of Peterson's work. The early Republic had been blessed with greatness in its host of Founding Fathers, and their spirit had laid hands on the next generation of leaders to touch them, too, with that special quality. But they, in turn, ""had failed. . .and the institutions had failed to perpetuate or reproduce that greatness of statesmanship."" Yet their tragedy was in presaging that awful cataclysm--the Civil War, which ""was a judgment on each of the departed statesmen."" The Civil War demonstrated the limits of Clay's compromise; as for Webster, ""it demonstrated the fragility of law and constitutions before moral and social forces he never truly understood""; for Calhoun, the judgment, to quote Whitman quoting a soldier, was ""the desolated, ruined South. . .that is Calhoun's real monument."" A well-done, compact biography of three inextricably intertwined leaders.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
ISBN: 0195056868
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press