THE GREAT TRIUMVIRATE

Webster, Clay, and Calhoun

By Merrill D. Peterson

Oxford University Press. 573 pp. $27.95

DANIEL Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun were "the ornaments of American statesmanship in the era between the founding and the Civil War." Together with their great political adversary, Andrew Jackson, they were "the most celebrated Americans" of their age. "Men and women flocked to the Capitol to hear them; all across the country their speeches were read as if the fate of the nation hung on them; and whether in Washington, at home, or on the road they could never escape the noisy pomp of fame." All this even before the age of radio and television! A new book by Merrill Peterson, former dean of the faculty at the University of Virginia, tells the stories of the famous three orators who shaped the golden age of the United States Senate.

Professional historians have recently been asking each other, at their conventions and in their scholarly journals, whether they should write more books with appeal for the general public. Peterson's three-way biography of Webster, Clay and Calhoun appears as if in response to these discussions. The subjects certainly lend themselves to a compelling narrative of wide interest. "Between these men there were striking contrasts -- Calhoun narrowly, morosely intellectual; Webster witty, easy, and pleasure-loving; Clay who had attained 'truly noble mastery' over an impetuous character -- but all were victims of their own unchastened ambition."

Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were great actors on a public stage then dominated by politicans. The era between the Revolution and the Civil War was a time when Americans took electoral politics very seriously -- which is not to say they didn't have fun with it, too. Although restricted to white males, the franchise was still much broader in this country than anywhere else in the world, and the novelty of mass political participation had not worn off. Election campaigns and speeches were exciting, people identified with their parties as they now do with their sports teams, and spokesmen like Webster, Clay, and Calhoun became heroes to their vast followings. The only major rivals of the politicans for the interest and commitment of the public were the preachers -- and some of the leading revivalists of the age became celebrities too.

Professor Peterson's own sympathies lie more with Clay than with his other two subjects, a justifiable preference. Clay's nationalism and devotion to Union through compromise put him in a favorable light compared to the narrower sectional and economic interests typically served by the Yankee Webster and the South Carolinian Calhoun. All three men had to juggle principle and personal ambition throughout their careers; all had their moments of greatness and pettiness, and each sometimes transcended his constituency to serve the nation as a whole. But in the end, and without any undue hero-worship, it is Clay who comes off best here. Calhoun's increasingly singleminded devotion to the preservation of slavery and Webster's subservience to financiers are bound to tarnish their images for even the most devoted admirers today.

PETERSON considers Clay the true heir of Thomas Jefferson, carrying on his policies of enlightened nationalism, synthesizing the welfare of southern agriculture with that of the country as a whole, practicing slaveholding without believing in it, and looking forward to the day when it would cease. The chief rival claimant to Jefferson's mantle, Andrew Jackson, comes off badly indeed in this book. He and his followers are seen only as Clay, Calhoun, and Webster saw them, which is to say, through the eyes of their bitterest critics. So the Jacksonian Democrats come across as selfish demagogues.

Without invoking grand theories, without statistics, and with only an occasional generalization of any kind, Merrill Peterson simply tells an interesting and momentous story. His fellow professionals will find little here they didn't know already and little that even relates to their current research agendas. There is nothing here of the "new social history," with its ethnographic analyses of constituencies, or the "new politicial history" with its sophisticated quantification of voting patterns. Indeed, there is very little about the three senators' constituents at all, to tell us who supported them and why. Nor is there any of the "new cultural history" that draws on anthropology to help explain the symbolic significance of dramatic situations like the ones Webster, Clay, and Calhoun so often created and exploited. Obviously, Peterson believes this is a place for narrative pure and simple.

Couldn't a narrative make use of the conceptual insights of recent scholarship, without being overburdened by them? This is the question left in my mind after reading Peterson's account of the three famous statesmen. We should not have to choose between a readable story line and interpretive richness. After all, in earlier years Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Age of Jackson and George Dangerfield's The Era of Good Feelings (books dealing with the same time and place as this one) combined narrative literary skill with interpretive originality and power.

Professor Peterson could have used one of his own earlier works to help him enrich this one. In The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, Peterson showed how Americans have thought about Thomas Jefferson over the centuries, what he has meant to them, and how his reputation and image have been exploited for various purposes. It would have enhanced the value of this book if he had added a chapter on the posthumous cults of Webster, Clay and Calhoun, explaining among other things how these three came to be associated together in our minds, to the exclusion of other contemporaries such as Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Quincy Adams. Webster, Clay and Calhoun, even in death, have been every bit as symbolic and political as they were in life.

Daniel Walker Howe, professor of history at UCLA, is the author of "The Political Culture of the American Whigs."