We don’t have great legislators anymore. The era of great men in our national legislature is gone, never to be revived and almost barely remembered. John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay are three of the most important legislators our nation has ever had, or will ever have again. While their ambition led them to strive for the President’s office, none achieved this end. Instead, they each spent their careers in the Senate working to improve upon what the Founders had given them. A connection to the Founding generation, many Americans looked to these men for guidance; and their leadership in the Senate has been matched by no one. While they all had monumental foibles (Calhoun was a secessionist, and Clay was a slave holder to be specific) they all contributed greatly to the course of the 19th century. And while ultimately their actions indirectly lead to our Civil War, they also helped preserve the union throughout the course of their lives.
While we have had men and women in the Legislature, none can match the fame and notoriety Calhoun, Clay and Webster achieved in the middle of the 19th century. And in particular, none of this Nation’s previous great Legislators remained in the the Legislature. Madison eventually succeeded Jefferson in the Presidency, and he is the only other great legislator worth mentioning in the 19th century. In the 20th century we had LBJ and Gerald Ford, both of whom eventually went on to serve lack luster terms as President of the United States. If nothing else, the three Sultans of the Senate were saved from a the failures suffered by Madison, Johnson and Ford in the oval office. While both Clay and Calhoun found themselves in the Vice Presidency and in other various cabinet positions, neither had a realistic chance of winning the Presidency. Clay was the great compromiser, and for good or ill he helped save the Union from a civil war on numerous occasions ending with the Compromise of 1850. Webster, known as “Godlike Dan” eventually became known as “Black Dan” when he saw the prudence in supporting Clay’s Compromise of 1850. And while Calhoun helped advance the policy of secession in the South, he was a pivotal player in the United States Senate.
A close study of the period in American History from 1820-1856 cannot be fully understood without examining the lives and careers of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. It is undoubted in an age dominated by the Presidency that we will ever again see legislators that can match the legacy these three men left behind.