The Great Triumvirate

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In antebellum America, given the popular fascination with things classical, it is natural that a trio of dominant politicians, with careers linked by events, be given the sobriquet “the Great Triumvirate.” Unlike their Roman precursors who helped bring about the collapse of a celebrated republic, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun played a significant role in molding a new, viable republican system. It is appropriate that Merrill D. Peterson, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and winner of the Bancroft Prize, has chosen this subject. His most significant contributions to American historiography concern Thomas Jefferson, and this work becomes, in spite of its biographical foundation, an interpretive political history of post-Jefferson America—the end product of Jeffersonian ideology.

Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, each representing a different section of the country, assumed that they were the true heirs to Jefferson’s legacy and sought to preserve the Republic from what they believed to be a contemporary version of Caesar: Andrew Jackson. In fact, the military chieftain from Tennessee becomes the fourth central character in Peterson’s study. Yet by basing his analysis on Jackson’s most important and enduring enemies, Peterson brings an important Whiggish dimension to modern understanding of the era, which is too often simply termed “the age of Jackson.” From this perspective, Jackson is more important as a symbol than as a man. It was against the forces he represented and helped unleash that the triumvirs struggled for so long, and the dynamic tension between their versions of Jeffersonian ideology and the Jacksonians, who also claimed to be followers of Jefferson, completed the foundation of the American political system.

Peterson projects his narrative through a biographical lens, focusing on each of his characters in turn. With other historical figures, the approach would be limiting, but not in this case. At least one of the members of the Great Triumvirate always seems to be at center stage, allowing Peterson to construct a chronicle touching nearly every important national political issue from 1812 to 1852. The role of Peterson’s heroes was essentially conservative. They sought to preserve what they believed to be the political structure of Jeffersonian America from the excesses of Jackson and his descendants. That conservatism, however, was based on their understanding of republicanism and the practical needs of a developing country. It called for the controlled growth of a national economic system and required a strong commitment to the role of the federal government.

In spite of their success at altering its course, the triumvirs themselves must share part of the blame for their ultimate failure to stem the rising tide of Jacksonianism. They proved to be no more immune to the siren call of sectionalism than were their enemies. Moreover, their own personal ambition, particularly lust for the White House, continually intervened to prevent long-term cooperation. Lastly, none of the triumvirs ever recognized that Jackson signaled the emergence of a new concept of political leadership in the United States.

The story begins with one of the great watersheds in American history, the War of 1812. In 1811, Clay and Calhoun had been elected to the House of Representatives as enthusiastic Jeffersonian Republicans and were soon recognized as potential heirs to a party leadership still dominated by the Virginia Dynasty. Both men also began acting with the so-called War Hawks, who were pushing for war with Great Britain. Whatever the individual reason for militancy, the overriding theme of this younger generation of politicians was an aggressive form of nationalism. Growing to adulthood after the revolutionary struggle, they represented the first generation of self-conscious Americans.

The third triumvir, Webster, did not arrive in Congress until eleven months after the war began. Unlike his colleagues with whom his name would be forever linked, the New Englander was no great admirer of Jefferson and certainly no advocate of war. As a leading light of Federalism in his section, he believed the struggle with Great Britain unnecessary and joined the opposition. Ironically, this stand against the War of 1812, which would haunt Webster throughout his political career, placed the declining Federalist Party, heretofore committed to a strong central government, in the uncomfortable position of advocating an extreme...

(The entire section is 1839 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, July 1, 1987, p. 1646.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, August 15, 1987, p. 1220.

Library Journal. CXII, August 1, 1987, p. 120.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 29, 1987, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, November 8, 1987, p. 65.

The New Yorker. LXIII, November 9, 1987, p. 151.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, September 11, 1987, p. 75.

The Wall Street Journal. November 9, 1987, p. 25.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, November 22, 1987, p. 3.