Greatness in History

Review: 'Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster' by H.W. Brands

Daniel Webster / Getty Images

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It's hardly surprising news—more of a book-review section's perennial subhead—to say that the University of Texas professor H.W. Brands has published a new book on American history. The man is a machine of popular historical writing, and his works appear at a rate only slightly faster than the average person can read. Thus, now as always, Brands has published a new book—this one called Heirs of the Founders, which relates the 19th-century battles among Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster: the Great Triumvirate of senators and public figures in the decades between the American Founding and the Civil War.

What might be most interesting about the news, however, is the fact that the book-reviewing world seems to be slowly turning against Brands, straining to find a way to express a discomfort with his popular writing. And it's not for anything he's done, exactly. It's more for what he isn't doing. His subjects are too . . . well, what, exactly? Too little involved in the topics that should matter. Too little determined to make a tale of yesterday useful for the cultural battles of today. Once upon a time, the demand was that our accounts of history be opened to include obscured or oppressed voices. Now, the demand is that only those voices be heard.

Or so, at least, one could assume from the prepublication notice of Brands's Heirs of the Founders that appeared in Kirkus Reviews—as mainstream a venue as exists for news about impending books. The small unsigned notice is, in its way, a perfect specimen of the problem the American literary world suffers. It opens, for example, "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."

Think, now, what that means. The first sentence (in brief writing, the vital hook) is that Brands has failed because he did not take up the proper topic. The prose of the review is a little unclear. By "presumed great," is the author suggesting that there are no such things as great figures? Or that there exist great figures, but Clay, Calhoun, and Webster are not among them? Or that there may be great figures in history, but they can't be white men?

A bit of all three, probably, given the notice's last sentence: "A lesser work from Brands but a solid introduction to a post-revolutionary generation whose members, great and small, are little remembered today." Is it really the case that Clay, Calhoun, and Webster are "little remembered"? And where does the reviewer think they come on the scale of "great and small"?

But the key to the notice—the central fact—is that we now seem compelled to begin even a mildly dismissive review with a signal of our own place in the current literary culture. The old demand to open up history was, all in all, a good one. Sophisticated thinkers and historians urged their readers to reject what used to be called "Whig History": the notion that world history is to be interpreted as a generally forward march toward greater liberty, greater Europeanism, and greater enlightened Protestantism, usually advancing through the work of great figures. The truth is that every victory leaves a loser. Every gain of territory leaves someone dispossessed. Every bit of progress leaves something abandoned in its wake. And aren't these just as much a part of history? Perhaps more to the point, if we have grown suspicious of the great advance of modern times, isn't it possible that they have something important to tell us as we struggle to figure out where modernity went astray?

Unfortunately, as the notion passes into the hands of the less sophisticated—at, say, Kirkus Reviews—it devolves into gestures as unreflective and involuntary as the twitch of a head or the jerk of a knee. The reviewer twitched and jerked, and thereby gave us in the review's opening sentence the unsophisticated version of post-Whig historiography: Great men aren't great precisely because they were part of the march of the modern age, and history is solely now a tale of the lost, the dispossessed, and the abandoned. The impulse expressed in the Kirkus Reviews notice is more totalizing than anything even imagined by the Whig historians (who, in truth, remain slightly mythical: more often referenced in the simplified abstract than named in the complicated particular).

Of course, none of that addresses the historian and his new book. H.W. Brands started out as a solidly trained academic historian with a specialty in the history of American foreign policy during the Cold War. He was an astonishingly productive historian, as far as that goes, publishing his first eleven books in the seven-year span from 1988 to 1995, from Cold Warriors: Eisenhower's Generation and American Foreign Policy to The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power.

Some work on the flashpoints of America's foreign affairs, however, led him back to the history of the United States' involvement in the Philippines and thence to Teddy Roosevelt. Brands's 1997 volume, TR: The Last Romantic, became his breakthrough to popular success, and ever since he has claimed the whole of American history as his bailiwick. In the years since, he has published 21 more books aimed primarily at popular audiences, on topics ranging from John Jacob Astor to Benjamin Franklin—along with the California Gold Rush and Woodrow Wilson, the Alamo and Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Jim Fisk, Ulysses Grant and Aaron Burr, Ronald Reagan and Douglas MacArthur.

In Heirs of the Founders, he takes up Clay, Calhoun, and Webster as they argued about the War of 1812, the national bank, the role of tariffs, and the peculiar institution of slavery. Not one of the Great Triumvirate lived to see the Civil War, which may not be a coincidence. One could make a reasonable (if not persuasive) case that their national stature—as evidenced in the cross-political crowds that would come out just to hear them speak—held off for a generation the inevitable violent sundering of the nation.

More than in some of his books, Brands lets the figures themselves speak, quoting long passages from their speeches. One of the little noted effects of the work of linguist John McWhorter is a shift toward understanding the 19th century through its rhetoric, taking seriously its oratorical flourishes. And Brands dives into the adoration to which Webster was treated as one of history's great speakers. Nor were the deliberately homespun Clay and the viciously educated Calhoun far behind. Their ability to speak well was what gave them their political reputations and thus their political power.

Brands notes the ironies that would have the trio swap positions on various topics, notably secession, as the political moments swirled from point to point. Their compromising has not worn well, and Calhoun's gradual rise to a supposedly modern scientific defense of slavery is as rejected now as it is possible for an intellectual position to be. But Brands sees, too, their determination to preserve the union and the desire to avoid war. "Peaceable secession!" Webster once replied to a critic who wanted to divide the nation. "Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle, the dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion."

Is all that enough to make them great? Yes, I rather think it is. Clay, Calhoun, and Webster may have been tiny giants, compared with the Founders. But it was their time that limited them, even while its rhetorical culture gave them the possibility to flourish. Only an unsophisticated view of history, twitching and jerking in its own virtue signaling, could fail to see that these flawed political animals were also memorable figures and heroic geniuses, worthy of the kind of popular attention H.W. Brands pays them.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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