Study Guide

Legislative Branch (Congress) - Clay, Webster & Calhoun: The Great Triumvirate

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Clay, Webster & Calhoun: The Great Triumvirate

People love to bash politicians. And Congress is full of politicians (535 of them, to be exact), so perhaps it shouldn't come as too great a surprise that much of the public tends to view the legislative branch with skepticism or even disdain, assuming the worst about the lawmaking process and the people who make it happen.

But such a jaded view of Congress ignores the countless occasions, throughout American history, when legislators rose beyond the status of mere politicians to become true statesmen, crafting the laws and organizing the institutions that allowed the United States to become what it is today. The halls of Congress have rung with the footsteps of many of the most influential figures in American history; the chambers of the Capitol have echoed with some of the nation's most inspiring oratory. They don't call the Senate "the world's greatest deliberative body" for nothing, and the House of Representatives has plenty to be proud of in its own right.

In the decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, for example, the nation's three most powerful individuals were, arguably, not presidents or generals or captains of industry; they were instead the three most prominent members of Congress. Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of New England (at different times he represented both New Hampshire and Massachusetts) combined to dominate American politics for decades. Sometimes allies, often rivals, the three men who formed this "Great Triumvirate" all sought but failed to win the presidency at one time or another. But of all the actual presidents of the era, perhaps only Andrew Jackson could really rival the power or influence of these "Lions of the Senate."

No one today remembers much about President Millard Fillmore, but Henry Clay's "American System" provided the essential roadmap for the course of the country's later economic development and set the United States on its path toward national greatness.

No one today cares much about the views of President John Tyler, but John C. Calhoun's vigorous defense of states' rights and southern regional interests provided the rationale for the Confederacy in the Civil War and continues to influence opponents of "big government" even today.

No one today is likely to quote the words of President Zachary Taylor, but Daniel Webster's ringing oratory inspired Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and still ranks among the most powerful statements of core American values ever articulated.

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