Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Historic Dinner

One of my graduate adviser's favorite questions was really out of the box, but it worked. He'd often ask "If you could have dinner with either Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, or John C. Calhoun, who would it be and why?" Those three, known as the Great Triumvirate, served in the Senate during the antebellum period and the question is actually a clever way of getting us to think about the contribution of those men. So...who would it be? Let's look at the three candidates.

Henry Clay, from
Henry Clay, Whig, Kentucky

Why: Clay was the longest serving Speaker of the House of the nineteenth century. Before Clay, the speaker was a glorified parliamentarian. The Kentuckian made it more like what we know today--someone active in policy. He pushed the vote to declare war on Britain in 1812 and was involved in peace negotiations. He ran for president unsuccessfully three times, became the founder and spokesman of the Whig Party, and was one of the most prominent senators in history. Known as the "Great Compromiser," Clay forged the tariff legislation that ended the nullification crisis in 1833 and staved off the Civil War for a decade with the Compromise of 1850. The deal had eight parts including the admission of California as a free state, the settling of a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico, the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Dinnertime Conversation: In other words, what would I want to talk to Clay about over dinner? I'd really want to hear how he felt about the other two members of the Great Triumvirate and how he worked with them (and others) behind the scenes to forge those compromises.

Main Course: Steak and potatoes. Classy, simple. I'm sure somehow a bottle of bourbon would get involved.

Daniel Webster, from
Daniel Webster, Whig, Massachusetts

Why: Webster, a congressman from New Hampshire and Massachusetts and a senator from Massachusetts, is one of the most renowned orators in American history. His Second Reply to Hayne on January 26-27, 1830, rebutting pro-nullification arguments, is considered one of the greatest speeches in history. Webster concluded, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." He argued over two hundred cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, notably with a four hour argument in Dartmouth College v. Woodward and three days of speaking in McCullough v. Maryland, both in 1819. In the first case, his defense of his alma mater after New Hampshire tried to change the charter moved the courtroom to tears. In McCullough, Webster defended Congress's authority to establish a national bank and made the famous statement (borrowed by John Marshall in the Court's decision), "The power to tax is the power to destroy." Webster backed Clay's compromises. His support for preserving the Union cost him his seat after he spoke in favor of the Compromise of 1850. That Webster was supporting legislation that included a fugitive slave law alienated his base.

Dinnertime Conversation: Webster opposed the War of 1812 and after the burning of Washington in 1814, suggested moving the capital city north of the Mason-Dixon line. What accounted for his conversion from sectionalism to nationalism? What did he really think of Clay's compromises and his leadership of the Whig Party?

Main Course: He's from New England. I think you have to go with lobster.

John C. Calhoun, from
John C. Calhoun, Democrat, South Carolina

Why: Calhoun was the strongest voice the South had in the decades before the Civil War. He began his national career as a "War Hawk" who lived in the same boarding house as Henry Clay. After the War of 1812, Calhoun's political views shifted from an ardent nationalism to a fierce sectionalism. In 1828, he penned South Carolina Exposition and Protest, which outlined the policy of nullification. In other words, he explained that South Carolina saw the Tariff of 1828 as an unconstitutional attack on the South and therefore, South Carolina could declare the act as null and void. He was the first vice president to resign and took his seat in the Senate in 1832. He believed that the Compromise of 1850 wasn't enough to appease the South. He was too ill to deliver his final speech, so Senator James Mason of Virginia read the remarks. Calhoun said that if Southern rights were not respected (namely the right to take slaves into the territories), then secession would be the only option. He died on March 31, 1850. The South lost its most prominent voice and the Compromise of 1850 passed through Congress. His legacy lived on as the South threatened secession throughout the 1850s, finally pulling the trigger during the winter of 1860-61.

Dinnertime Conversation: I'd really be curious about how he shifted away from the nationalism of his early career. He seemed to take the opposite political theory path than Daniel Webster. I'd also love to talk to him about his political theories on secession.

Main Course: Perhaps barbeque? Cajun food? I think with Calhoun's temperament, something spicy is in order.

The Verdict: Clay, Calhoun, and Webster all had major roles in antebellum politics, and I'm hoping future blog entries will get more into this. Bear in mind that Webster and Clay both died in 1852. Without the Great Triumvirate, the Senate had nobody who could forge the great compromises. Stephen Douglas tried, but he only made enemies in both the North and South (more on this later, I hope). But merely because I think he was a genius and because of all he did, I'd have to go with Clay. Oddly enough, I think John C. Calhoun would agree with me. He and Clay were once friends but had a falling out over politics. Calhoun once said of Clay, "I don't like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him!" Who would you pick?

I'm hoping that this is the first of many entries for the new year. I'm a little late in acting on my new years' resolution to update more often. Thanks for reading!