The marvelous news from the West was the last thing Henry Clay had wanted to hear. Gold! Gold in California! It set the pulse of America racing; it sent a hundred thousand brave souls to that far-off land to make their fortunes. It hastened the day when the institutions of American democracy, and not merely the American flag, would be planted on the Pacific shore. And it meant that Henry Clay—aging, ailing Henry Clay—must leave Ashland, his home and refuge at Lexington, Kentucky, and once more make the long journey to Washington.
Five years he had been at home. Five years he had sought and eventually found solace from ambition definitively frustrated. He would never be president. The White House would never be more than a place for him to visit. No one had come closer to its portal more often than he. No one had a better claim to the knowledge, temperament and character required of its residents. But the American people were fickle and easily swayed, and at the crucial moments they had turned from him to others.
He had learned to accept his fate. A statesman did what he could
in his country’s service, not what he would
. And it was for his country that he felt so dispirited by the news from California. Whatever it would cost him personally—in effort expended, health further compromised, obloquy endured—it would cost the Union more. Henry Clay had been born amid the American Revolution and come of age with the Constitution; for his entire adult life the Union had been his guiding star. Twice he had steered the Union between the Scylla of jealous states’ rights and the Charybdis of rampant federalism. But the turbulent seas of democracy grew more tempestuous with each passing decade. And the gold fever whipped them higher still, for the sudden peopling of California compelled Congress to rule on the fate of slavery in the new American West. California sought admission to the Union as a free state. The North demanded California’s admission, and would probably get it. What would the South demand in return? And what would the competing demands do to the creaking hull and strained rigging of the American ship of state?
The genius of Henry Clay was a knack for compromise, for finding formulas neither side loved but both sides could live with. He had conjured one such formula in the Missouri crisis of 1820, and another in the South Carolina crisis of 1833. The genius of American democracy was its ability to muddle through crises—to accept answers as tentative and let principle nod to expedience. Henry Clay had been criticized for pliant principles, but he pleaded the higher aim of preserving the Union, the guarantor of American democracy. Democracy was a work in progress, never perfect but never finished. Given time, democracy would find a way forward.
California’s gold meant democracy might not have time. With everyone else, Henry Clay had supposed that filling the territories acquired from Mexico in the recent war would take decades. The Louisiana territory had been American for half a century and wasn’t a tenth full. Clay, though a slaveholder, was an emancipationist at heart: he judged slavery a curse and looked to the day when the Southern economy would outgrow slavery, as the Northern economy had done. A few decades, no more time than had already passed since the Missouri compromise, was all that was needed.
Clay knew he
didn’t have a few decades. He would be lucky to last a few years. But if he could somehow conjure another compromise, he might give the Union the time it required.
John C. Calhoun had less time than Henry Clay. His consumption—tuberculosis—was more advanced than Clay’s. He might have months; he might have weeks. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed. His voice, for decades the trumpet of the South, could barely rise above a whisper.
Upon the news from California, his thoughts turned to Henry Clay. The two had entered the House of Representatives together amid the troubles that sparked the War of 1812. For years they had worked in harness, defending and bolstering the country their generation had inherited from America’s founders. But ambition drove them apart, like sons contesting control of an estate they were supposed to share. Clay was the elder, in years and seniority, yet Calhoun had gifts of intellect and guile Clay couldn’t match. It was the guile that surprised most people, including Clay, who puzzled at Calhoun’s ability to advance himself—and get past Clay—without appearing to try.
But it was the intellect that brought Calhoun down. Or maybe it was the ambition, disguised as intellect. Calhoun’s political strength was his base in South Carolina, yet his strength was also his weakness. Other states insisted on what they considered their sovereign rights vis-à-vis the national government, but none were so vigilant and quick to take offense as South Carolina. The founders had left deliberately vague where the boundary lay between state and national authority; similarly blurred was who would determine the boundary and how it would be enforced. They knew that any explicit answer might wreck their experiment in self-government before it got fairly started; they left to their heirs to find a solution the country could live with. The task had been the work of Calhoun’s—and Clay’s—lifetime.
South Carolina had registered particular umbrage at a tariff that harmed planters in the state. Those planters sought an advocate, and they discovered one in John Calhoun. He penned an exegesis that would have made a medieval scholastic proud, investing South Carolina with the exclusive authority to determine its rights and privileges. The planters applauded; their respect for Calhoun grew. So did Calhoun’s own regard for his skills as an interpreter of the Constitution and a shaper of America’s destiny.
But he found he had mounted a tiger. South Carolina pushed its case to the brink of armed conflict with the national government. Calhoun took alarm: for his state, for the country, for his political future. He worked with Henry Clay to defuse the crisis; characteristically, each man claimed credit for averting civil war.
Yet where the nation honored Clay, the man of the Union, it suspected Calhoun, the guardian of his state. In serving South Carolina, Calhoun tainted himself in the eyes of America. Those who had watched him for years—and they were many, for in his prime he was one of the most arresting figures in Washington, tall and straight, with curling auburn hair and eyes of the fiercest blue—increasingly detected a change in him. His defense of states’ rights, and especially of the right most important to Southern planters, the right to own slaves, became a monomania. Where other defenders of slavery were content to call it a necessary evil, essential to the operation of the Southern economy but nothing to boast of, Calhoun pronounced it a positive good, an ornament of the South’s superior culture. As his national reputation diminished, and with it his hopes for national office, he retreated into state and section, which honored him the more. He became a Dantean figure: barred from reigning in heaven, he determined to rule in hell.
And now he found himself confronting Henry Clay again. Clay would save the Union, if he could. Calhoun would wreck the Union, if that’s what it cost to preserve slavery and states’ rights.
Coughing, Calhoun reckoned his body might stand one final battle. He would defeat Henry Clay once and for all. Or he would die trying.
Daniel Webster was two months older than John Calhoun and five years younger than Henry Clay. But he looked a decade younger than either man. He had never felt the responsibility that weighed on them: Clay for the Union, Calhoun for the South. Nor had ambition driven him as hard as it drove them. At least not until now.
In an age of orators Daniel Webster had no peers. Henry Clay’s words danced and laughed, setting to sound the Kentuckian’s open, engaging personality. Clay won arguments less often than he won followers; the Henry Clay Clubs that sprang up around the country revealed but the tip of his celebrity. John Calhoun’s speeches impressed all and intimidated many; his tightly marshaled arguments advanced like a Roman phalanx across the field of political battle.
But Daniel Webster had a way with words that seemed almost supernatural. Indeed, some said he must have struck a bargain with the devil to acquire such a gift. He perfected the art of persuasion in the courtroom and became the most sought after, and generously compensated, advocate of his era. The stern justices of the Supreme Court were no match for Webster; at the conclusion of his argument for Dartmouth College in a landmark case, even John Marshall—John Marshall!
—wept. When Webster spoke in Congress, Washington stopped what it was doing and hurried to hear him.
Yet Webster was profligate: with his talents, his time, his earnings. Things came too easily to him. It was said of Webster that he must be a fraud: no one could be as great as he looked. “God-like Daniel,” people called him, and it went to his head. His most important speeches he prepared carefully, but lesser ones—lesser for him yet beyond mere mortals—he tossed off with scarcely a thought. As much as he earned, he spent even more. He was always in debt and in need of the income his law practice supplied. He wasn’t above taking discreet payments from powerful people whose interests he promoted in Congress.
He had the caliber to be president but not the true aim. He had come close to the White House almost by accident. Yet of the three towering figures of the age—Clay, Calhoun and Webster were spoken of as the “great triumvirate,” not always admiringly—he was the only one, in 1850, who retained a chance of reaching the summit of American politics. Which was to say, as the California crisis loomed, that from a personal perspective Daniel Webster had the most to lose.
He could easily lose it all. His Massachusetts constituents loved him, but the abolitionist movement had captured the state, and its leaders were demanding that he share their intolerance of slavery. Many abolitionists had no more devotion to the Union than the most secessionist Southerners did, if the Union demanded toleration of slavery. Siding with them risked making Webster as much a pariah outside New England as John Calhoun had become outside the South. Yet opposing them, and taking an uncompromising stand for the Union—beside Henry Clay—could cost him his political base and possibly his livelihood.
Throughout his career Webster had dodged difficult choices, and gotten away with it. His silver tongue had talked him out of one cul-de-sac after another. But he had never faced a test like this. He would have to speak as he had never spoken. He could make John Marshall weep, but to hold his home base and maintain his hopes for the presidency—to sustain his section without imperiling the Union—Daniel Webster might have to go back to the devil for a second mortgage on his soul.
Copyright © 2018 by H. W. Brands. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.