Holiday book recommendation: Heirs of the Founders

If you are looking for a late holiday gift for a friend or loved one, look no further than H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants.

Brands’ is one of the preeminent historians of American history that is active today. The subjects he’s tacked previously include Ben Franklin, FDR, the state of Texas and Ulysses S. Grant. In this new work, he tackles a formative era in the nation’s history, the era from The War of 1812 until the ill-fated Compromise of 1850.

The key figures of this book are predictably Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. The era’s politics were defined by Andrew Jackson more than anyone though Clay as history reminds us was the leading Anti-Jackson figure in the country for most of this period.

Clay’s “American system” of infrastructure improvements depended on a robust Federal government and unionism. That world view often butted heads with Calhoun’s defense of southern regionalism, nullification and slavery as well as Webster’s New England-oriented perspective. All three however had a dislike for the politics and policies of Jackson, but Clay more than anyone save perhaps John Quincy Adams was Jackson’s great rival.

The narrative is laid out in a readable and quick form by Brands – the book is about 400 pages in length but proves a page turner. For me, it is now an indispensable reference book about that period.

Florida obviously plays a fairly large role in the narrative, first because of Jackson’s incursions of the late 1810’s which eventually soured his relationship with Calhoun and also because of the effort of some abolitionists to make Florida a “free” state or territory in the 1840’s.

As one who has a particular interest in Clay because of his advocacy of the American System and Second Bank of the United States among other topics, it was interesting to see the contrast/competition with Webster and Calhoun whom Clay is forever linked in history to as well as the well-known contrasts with Jackson.

For any student of American history this is a highly recommended purchase.

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