- The Webster-Hayne Debate: Defining Nationhood in the Early American Republic by Christopher Childers, and: A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War by Stephen E. Maizlish
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The study of high politics and congressional debates, once foundational to political histories of the early republic, has gone out of fashion in recent years. There are a number of explanations for this trend. As a field, political history has broadened, and political historians have expanded their definitions of politics and political actors, incorporating methodologies from social and cultural history. Furthermore, the bellwether political events of the antebellum United States represent well-tilled ground, making it increasingly challenging for scholars to harvest new insights from familiar topics.
Nevertheless, as Christopher Childers and Stephen Maizlish remind us, what politicians said mattered. The language political leaders used and the words they chose not only reflect the substance of debates and significant events but also offer windows into political ideologies ranging from nationhood and sectionalism to race and gender. Thus, although these two studies revisit familiar events in the Webster–Hayne debate of 1830 and the Compromise of 1850, Childers and Maizlish provide a welcome reminder of the continued importance of such traditional topics for political historians.
In The Webster–Hayne Debate, Christopher Childers offers a concise overview of the famous 1830 Senate debate between Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina. Yet Childers provides more than just a blow-by-blow of the gladiatorial oratory: He also attempts to place "the debate in the broader context of the early American republic" by "using it as a lens through which we can view the issues of nationalism, sectionalism, and the meaning of union to Americans in the early republic" (ix). Accordingly, along with presenting a detailed account of the debate, he also offers a breezy survey of the politics of the early republic.
In the first three chapters, Childers sets the stage by painting the broad strokes of political ideology across three sections: the Northeast, [End Page 606] the South, and, most compellingly, the West. Indeed, one of the contributions Childers makes in recontextualizing the 1830 Webster–Hayne debate is to recast the sectionalism of the debates to include the West rather than relying solely on the strict North–South axis that is the default of most scholars. First, Childers traces the emerging nationalism of New England following the War of 1812 and the ill-fated Hartford Convention of 1814, as New England shifted from a mercantile to a manufacturing economy, embracing Henry Clay's American System of protective tariffs and internal improvements. In the South, Childers highlights a shift away from nationalism and toward sectionalism, typified by South Carolinian John C. Calhoun in the 1820s. Meanwhile, Childers sees the emerging West, represented by Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, as a sectional wildcard, increasingly advocating for liberal public land policies. Westerners found themselves torn between northern and southern interests, and the range of complicated issues—from the tariff and internal improvements to land policy—prevented permanent political alliances because, "The realities of sectional politics and local interests, however, complicated matters to the point that any alliance would be short lived" (99).
Only with this context in mind, Childers argues, can we fully understand the meaning and importance of the Webster–Hayne debate. This helps to explain, for example, why a seemingly unrelated resolution regarding public land policy introduced by Samuel A. Foot of Connecticut ignited the debate. Thus, Childers concludes, "Understanding Webster's and Hayne's divergent ideas of union brings greater clarity to the issues that Americans faced in 1830 and restores a sense of how they interpreted those issues through the lens of constitutional theory" (88). The final two chapters provide a...