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41/2*: Party of Three,
This review is from: The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (Hardcover)This excellent book can be read as a follow-up to Joseph Ellis' "Founding Brothers," although written at a more advanced level. Merrill D. Peterson examines the characters of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun and the issues facing them in (roughly) the first half of the 19th century. These issues involved primarily the differing conceptions of the federal government (federal powers vs. states' rights) arising in the Constitution Conventions of the Revolutionary War period.
This fundamental political difference was linked to other fiercely divisive issues, such as the moral and economic conflict over slavery, and eventually led to the Civil War (to put it simply). Passions were so linked to sectional economic and political interests that the Civil War appears inevitable; indeed, one wonders why it didn't occur earlier. Part of the answer is that Clay and others, through a series of "Compromises" delayed the war. The reader's attitude toward these three "giants" will depend on his/her own values and politics.
Peterson paints vivid portraits of the characters, but he assumes a fair amount of historical knowledge by the reader. For example, his discussions on tariffs, the need to increase the debt, and other economic measures were often too dense, as were the detailed and somewhat confusing party realignments (e.g., Whigs, Republicans, Democrats, "Ultras," and various combinations of these). Although he is sometimes dry, Peterson also has a scholar's wit and appreciation for his subject. Furthermore, the political and legal manipulations of the principles are often fascinating (e.g., Calhoun's unconstitutional theory of states rights known as "Nullification;" the failure of all three to reach the presidency). At times, it feels lengthy (especially for the non expert; the book is basically written at a beginning graduate school level), but it is generally very well written and covers a fascinating period in American history.