The triumvirate and their great compromise


A tour of the U.S. Senate will provide the visitor with a glimpse of American history. The Senate form and basis of representation were the subjects of compromise in the Convention of 1787 and the adoption of the Constitution.

Today’s tour guides the visitor through the historic old Senate chambers, a token in crimson and gold that harps back to the grand oratory of the pre-Civil War when that body prevailed over the House of Representatives and dictated to presidents.

A short walk down the hall and a corner turn, past the marble busts of vice-presidents who have presided over earlier Senates, and you are at the Senate Reception Room (S-213). The reception room, designed in 1853 to serve as a meeting place, is a historical pantheon of nine senatorial giants whose portraits are displayed in hopes of inspiring their successors.

Great Triumvirate

Each of these distinguished senators earned his place in this “senatorial hall of fame” for leadership that rose above political party ideology and was national in scope. Three of these senators served together during the national and antebellum periods of American history (1815-1850). They were the great “Senatorial Triumvirate,” who made decisions leading to the development of the American nation — Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster.

On three occasions when sectional strife endangered the stability of the Union, these three senators assumed a major role in finding a legislative settlement:

  • In 1820, when the dispute over the admission of Missouri as a slave state caused a national crisis;
  • In 1833, during the nullification crisis which buffeted South Carolina and President Andrew Jackson to the brink of armed conflict;
  • In 1850, the compromise that thwarted what could have become a full-blown secession crisis.

Henry Clay

The youngest of the three, Henry Clay of Kentucky was born in 1777 in the backcountry of Virginia. He never attained the presidency, but his name is far better known than that of men who did.

He had a limited education but made the most of his meager opportunities by reading law. His legal career was a success from the start because he had a warm magnetic personality and a native shrewdness that proved to be of great value in the frontier court.

Elected to Congress on the eve of the War of 1812, Clay was a man of the land over the Appalachian Mountains, tempestuous, aggressive and a leading war hawk during the war.

Likable and desiring to be liked, Clay attracted a western following that saw the need of a political and economic program that would satisfy all sections of the country — a national program.

American system

Clay’s American system was the result. The heart of the system was to encourage home industry by a tariff policy that would make the U.S. independent of the rest of the world. The industrial East could sell to the agricultural West and South; the West and South could sell to the East.

With the heavy revenue that a tariff would generate, the government could build internal improvement. As attractive as the American system looked on paper, the Great Compromise’s linking of the obnoxious protective tariff with the program of internal improvements tended to make the two equally unpalatable to southerners.

The South’s dependence on imported manufactured goods and the trading of tobacco, sugar and cotton with European markets, made high tariffs a body blow to Southern prosperity.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster, like Clay and Calhoun, was not far removed from the frontier experience. Born in 1782 to a New Hampshire pioneer farmer, he surmounted a number of obstacles to obtain an education that gave him a reputation as one of the foremost constitutional lawyers in the country.

Webster was a superb orator, whose voice thundered through the Senate chamber and his oratorical artillery commanded devotees. This “God-like” individual was elected to the House of Representatives in 1813 from New Hampshire and to the Senate in 1827 from Massachusetts.

Webster opposed the War of 1812 with all the vehemence at his command and supported nationalistic legislation after the war in the same fashion. A move to Boston changed Webster’s view of the Union.

New England adopted an extreme nationalism that supported the manufacturing and shipping interests of a developing nation. When John C. Calhoun proclaimed his Doctrine of Nullification, it was Webster that all eyes turned for an answer.


The Webster-Hayne debate was not an affair of the afternoon or evening. It began Jan. 18, 1830, and lasted to the end of the month. During a debate on the tariff, Sen. Robert Hayne of South Carolina seized the opportunity to lecture the Senate on the issues of states rights.

Webster’s oratory rose to new heights and is generally conceded to be the most eloquent ever delivered in the Senate. Webster pointed out the impracticality of a doctrine that would allow individual states to pass on to the constitutionality of an act of Congress or a decision of the Supreme Court.

He warned the South that the nation could never admit that its laws might be defied by a state. Nullification, if attempted, would lead only to a fratricidal war or the disruption of the Union.

In his closing peroration, Webster appealed to the patriotism of the American people. He said: “liberty and Union now and forever, one and inseparable.”

John Calhoun

The most distinguished statesman of the Old South was the sage prophet and fighter John C. Calhoun. Born in 1782, he was a product of the South Carolina backcountry and from Scotch-Irish immigrants.

A Yale graduate, lawyer by profession, and a lucky marriage into Tidewater planter aristocracy, Calhoun naturally made national politics his career.

From 1811-1817, he was a member of Congress. In 1818, he was secretary of war in President James Madison’s cabinet, and after that, he was vice president under President John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson before returning to the Senate.

Calhoun, to avoid secession, advocated the Doctrine of Nullification in response to the much-despised Tariff of Abominations (1832). With irreproachable logic, he contended that sovereignty is indivisible and must reside with the state or a nation.

He proposed that a national law could be suspended within the state’s territorial jurisdiction. A state might even withdraw from the Union as a more dreadful reaction to federal law. Nullification and secession was Calhoun’s way of protecting the rights of the minority against the tyranny of a majority within a democracy.

Each of these senators represented the prevailing views of their section of the nation. Next to liberty they strove to save the Union by respecting the rights of the states and distributing equally the burdens of the Union.

The Compromise of 1850 was the swan song of the Great Triumvirate. The decade preceding the Civil War was filled with tense and crucial moments that demanded compromise. But, Clay, Calhoun and Webster, who had compromised the major confrontations of a stretching nation, were dead. That’s your history!

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