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Taken together, the political debates of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun guided American politics like no other group save the Founding generation. As Merrill D. Peterson put it, “their arrival on the political stage announced a new era of American statesmanship… they were representatives, spokesmen, ultimately personifications, of their respective sections: East, West, and South.”[i] History would proclaim them the “Great Triumvirate” in recognition of the awesome influence and sway they held for so long in national politics. They led every great debate about the union and its future from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the Compromise of 1850. Like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who Benjamin Rush famously called the north and south poles of the Revolution, they became the voices of American geography and symbolized the sectional strife always sitting ominously atop the union. Yet within two years of the 1850 compromise all three titans would be gone, passed from the scene just as the searing sectional debate about Kansas and Nebraska was taking shape. The union was about to be swallowed up in the maelstrom of sectionalism they had worked for so many decades to forestall.
Abraham Lincoln in a eulogy for Clay, said that “In all the great questions which have agitated the country, and particularly in those great and fearful crises, the Missouri question—the Nullification question, and the late slavery question, as connected with the newly acquired territory, involving and endangering the stability of the Union, his has been the leading and most conspicuous part” and with allusion to Pericles and Shakespeare said that Clay’s “career has been national—his fame has filled the earth—his memory will endure to `the last syllable of recorded time.’” Lincoln would claim Clay as his idol of statesmanship. Many others from different parts of the country would claim Webster or Calhoun. Even in death their ideas continued to shape the contours of debate.
Each man earned various monikers in his life. Clay of Kentucky was “the Great Compromiser” or the “Star of the West” and was “independent alike of history, or the schools… He has never studied models, and, if he had, his pride would have rescued him from the fault of imitation. He stands among men in towering and barbaric grandeur, in all the hardiness and rudeness of perfect originality, independent of polish and beyond the reach of art.”[ii] He was a fiery orator, quick on his feet, never utilizing notes or text, and utterly dedicated to preservation of the union.
Webster of New Hampshire was “the Yankee Demosthenes” or “Godlike Daniel” and was “a man of deep sentiment, so sentimental about the past, ancestors, the common law, hearth and home, his college, Washington, and the Constitution.”[iii] He was conservative in politics, a passionate orator, and utterly dedicated to preservation of the union.
Calhoun of South Carolina was the “Young Hercules”, “a fervent nationalist who took the whole country as his constituency” and “one of the master-spirits who stamp their name upon the age in which they live.”[iv] His “mind and character – hard, grave, inflexible – were all one” and he had attained his station through “tenacious self-discipline and driving ambition.”[v] He was the spokesman of the South, a stern orator who meticulously prepared his speeches, and was utterly dedicated to the preservation of a union that recognized the rights of the states and those of his fellow southerners. In the absence of that recognition, he was prepared for peaceable disunion.
From the first, their fame emanated from their oratory, which once held a far more prominent place in politics than it does today. To be sure, thirty second soundbites and poll-tested stump speeches are a product of current technology, never-ending news cycles, and the perceived attention span of voters. But the Triumvirates’ time was different. Addresses spanned hours, sometimes days, and were printed often verbatim in newspapers or pamphlets. Senate and House galleries would be packed, standing room only being too generous a description to describe the nooks and crannies people contorted themselves into just to hear one of the Triumvirate speak.
Perhaps none spoke with more at stake than in 1850. The union had held, navigated through the choppy sectional waters of the territorial, tariff, and slavery questions. But fear of disunion in 1850 was palpable. California was now American territory as were New Mexico and Utah, all got from the Mexican Cession. California was filled with gold, immigrants, but not slaves, and was ready for statehood. Utah and New Mexico were more barren but also had to be organized. And so the question: would slavery be allowed in these new places? The sectional balance between free and slave states was threatened.
Clay spent three weeks in thought and came to the floor of the Senate on 29 January to present his compromise measures. In brief, and presented as the first “omnibus bill”, they consisted of the admission of California as a free state, the settlement of the boundary between Texas and New Mexico, federal assumption of Texas public debt, allowance for the slavery question to be decided in New Mexico and Utah territories through popular sovereignty, abolition of the slave trade in Washington DC, and a stronger fugitive slave law. Clay knew many of the provisions would be unpalatable for many but he urged their passage and did so with a remarkable visual aid: a piece of George Washington’s coffin. Both Clay and Webster venerated Washington. Clay told the Senate that “it was a warning voice, coming from the grave to the Congress … to beware, to pause, to reflect before they lend themselves to any purposes which shall destroy the Union.”[vi] He went on for two days, at every turn stressing the vital importance of preserving the union.
There was, indeed, something in this mix for everyone to hate. And John Calhoun hated almost all of it. Old, frail, and unable to write or speak Calhoun dictated his (and largely the South’s) response to Clay’s measures. Touching up the draft with his own pen he then turned it over to Senator James Mason of Virginia to deliver it on the floor. On 4 March Calhoun was literally carried into the Senate chamber where he sat, cloaked in black, as Mason gave the speech.
Calhoun’s words mirrored his physical state. They were dark, haunting, ominous. They portrayed a south beaten down by the weight of northern opinion and economic interests. His speech put blame for the crisis squarely on the north and its disrespect, disregard, and disdain of southern ways. He stated candidly, “I have, Senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.” His proposed solution was for the north to “do justice by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled–to cease the agitation of the slave question, and to provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution, by an amendment, which will restore to the South in substance the power she possessed of protecting herself”. Calhoun believed that peaceful separation was possible and, now, likely. He closed, “I have now, Senators, done my duty in expressing my opinions fully, freely, and candidly, on this solemn occasion. In doing so, I have been governed by the motives which have governed me in all the stages of the agitation of the slavery question since its commencement. I have exerted myself, during the whole period, to arrest it, with the intention of saving the Union, if it could be done; and, if it could not, to save the section where it has pleased Providence to cast my lot, and which I sincerely believe has justice and the Constitution on its side.”[vii] It would be his last speech in the Senate. Calhoun would die by the end of March before the compromise measures finally passed.
Only three days later on 7 March Daniel Webster sought to stem the tide of pessimism and disunion. As usual, the galleries were overflowing, people eager to hear Webster persuade the country to save their union. He spoke for nearly four hours. He began, “I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States… I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of all; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear, or shall not appear for many days. I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. “Hear me for my cause.”[viii]
Knowing he would reap a whirlwind of scorn from northern and abolitionist supporters he pleaded for compromise by asking that northerners recognize slavery as a reality where it existed, that they respect this reality and the south, and that they play their part in fulfilling the requirements of the fugitive slave law. The only alternative was disunion and war. Webster would go on in July of that year to give another speech, his farewell address, which was more sympathetic to the antislavery cause and in which he again urged the compromise measures be adopted. These two speeches moved opinion in the Senate as ultimate passage of the compromise would indicate but his own political reputation was severely damaged.
At the end of July Henry Clay watched as the measures failed to pass. In debilitating condition from tuberculosis, Clay vowed not to abandon his effort. But he could not continue. He left the Senate and traveled east to try and recuperate from the illness wracking his body. The task of passing the compromise fell to a young Senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. With Clay’s influence, he determined to vote on each part of the compromise individually and successfully put together majorities for every measure. All passed by the end of September and were signed into law. For many, the union seemed safe.
Clay, Webster, and Calhoun would not live to see the debate revived over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. And as historian David Potter has rightly observed, the Compromise of 1850 was ultimately more like an armistice, marking time until the next territorial question brought the union under threat once again. Then, and in 1860, there were those who said that had the Triumvirate been still in the Senate the crises would have been averted. They were not there. And the country would endure a brutal Civil War over the very same issues Clay, Webster, and Calhoun had debated themselves. And it can be said that all three were, then and ultimately, wrong in their view of and the compromises they made with the moral evil of slavery. But in their hands, from the early to mid-1800’s the continued existence of the union, though in imperfect form, had been secure.
Brian Pawlowski is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network and was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He has served as a Marine Corps intelligence officer and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in American History.
[i] Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 5.
[ii] Ibid. 8
[iii] Ibid. 37
[iv] Ibid. 27
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