The American Mind and the Traits of Webster, Clay and Calhoun

by Edwin P. Whipple
Excerpt from essay first published in Harper's Magazine as "American Mind"

Perhaps the fairest and least flattering expression of our whole national life may be found in our politics; for in limited monarchies and in democracies it is in politics that all that there is in the public mind of servility, stupidity, ferocity, and unreasoning prejudice is sure to come glaringly out; and certainly our politics will compare favorably with those of Greece and Rome, of France and England, in respect either to intelligence or morality. In no country is the government more narrowly watched; in no country do large parties, bound together by an interest, more readily fall apart on a principle; and when we consider that, in practical politics, force and passion, not reason and judgment, are predominant, - that men vote with a storm of excitement hurrying them on, - this fact indicates that the minor moralities have to a great extent become instincts with the people. It would be impossible to give here even a scanty view of this political expression of our national mind with its sectional contests, its struggles of freedom with slavery, its war of abstract philosophies on concrete interests, its impassioned moralities, and no less impassioned immoralities; but perhaps a few remarks on three great statesmen, who are marked by unmistakable local and national traits, and who were genuine products of American life, may not be out of place even here. We refer to Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. These, though "dead, yet speak " and we shall allude to them as if they still occupied bodily that position in our politics which they unquestionably occupy mentally. Such men can only die with the movements they originated.

Of these three eminences of our politics, of late years, Webster may be called the most comprehensive statesman, Clay the most accomplished politician and Calhoun the nimblest and most tenacious sectional partisan. Webster, on the first view, seems a kind of Roman-Englishman, - a sort of cross between Cincinnatus and Burke; but, examined more closely, he is found to be a natural elevation in the progress of American life, a man such as New Hampshire bore him, and such as Winthrop and Standish, Washington and Jay, Hamilton and Madison, have made him; a man who drew the nutriment of character altogether from American influences; and, especially, a man representing the iron of the national character as distinguished from its quicksilver. The principal wealth of New Hampshire is great men and water-power; but, instead of keeping them to herself; she squanders them on Massachusetts, and Webster was one of these free gifts.

If we compare Webster with Calhoun, we shall find in both the same firm mental grasp of principles, the same oversight of the means of popularity, and the same ungraceful and almost sullen self-assertion, at periods when policy would have dictated a more facile accommodativeness. Their intellects, though both in some degree entangled by local interests and opinions, have inherent differences, visible at a glance. Webster's mind has more massiveness than Calhoun's, is richer in culture and variety of faculty, and is gifted with a wider sweep of argumentation; but it is not so completely compacted with character, and has, accordingly, less inflexible and untiring persistence toward an object. Both are comparatively unimpressible, but Webster's understanding recognizes and includes facts which his imagination may refuse to assimilate; while Calhoun arrogantly ignores everything which contradicts his favorite opinions. The mind of Webster, weighty, solid, and capacious, looks before and after; by its insight reads principles in events, by its foresight reads events in principles and, arching gloriously over all the phenomena of a widely complex subject of contemplation, views things, not singly, but in their multitudinous relations; yet the very comprehension of his vision makes him somewhat timid, and his moderation; accordingly, lacks the crowning grace of moral audacity. Calhoun has audacity, but lacks comprehensiveness.

As Webster's mind, from its enlargement of view, has an instinctive intellectual conscientiousness, the processes of his reasoning are principally inductive, rising from facts to principles; while Calhoun's are principally deductive, descending from principles to facts. Now deduction is doubtless a sublime exercise of logical genius, provided the principle be reached - as it is reached by Webster, when he uses the process - by induction; for it gives the mind power to divine the future, and converts prophecy into a science. Thus, from the deductive law of gravitation we can predict the appearance of stellar phenomena thousands of years hence. Edmund Burke is the greatest of British statesmen, in virtue of his discovery and apt application of deductive laws applicable to society and government. But the mischief of Calhoun's deductive method is, that, by nature or position, his understanding is controlled by his will; and, consequently, his principles are often arbitrarily or capriciously chosen, do not rise out of the nature of things, but out of the nature of Mr. Calhoun; and therefore it is frequently true of him, what Macaulay untruly declares of Burke, that "he chooses his position like a fanatic, and defends it like a philosopher," - as it might be said that Clay chooses his like a tactician, and defends it like a fanatic.

If we carefully study the speeches of Webster and Calhoun, in one of those great Congressional battles where they were fairly pitted against each other, we shall find that Webster's mind darts beneath the smooth and rapid stream of his opponent's deductive argument at a certain point, - fastens fatally on some phrase, or fact, or admission, in which the fallacy lurks, - and then devotes his reply to a searching analysis and logical overthrow of that, without heeding the rest. Calhoun, of course, has the ready rejoinder that the thing demolished is twisted out of its relations; and then, with admirable control of his face, proceeds to dip into Webster's inductive argument, to extract some fact or principle which is indissolubly related to what goes before and comes after, and thus really misrepresents the reasoning he seemingly answers. To overthrow Calhoun you have, like Napoleon at Wagram, only to direct a tremendous blow at the centre; to overthrow Webster, like Napoleon at Borodino, you must rout the whole line.

In the style of the two men we have, perhaps, the best expression of their character; for style, it has been well said, "is the measure of power, - as the waves of the sea answer to the winds that call them up." Webster's style varies with the moods of his mind, - short, crisp, biting, in sarcasm; luminous and even in statement; rigid, condensed, massive in argumentation; lofty and resounding in feeling fierce, hot, direct, overwhelming, in passion. Calhoun's has the uniform visor and clear precision of a spoken essay.

Clay - the love of American economics, as Webster was the pride - had all those captivating personal qualities which attract men's admiration, at the same time that they enforce their respect; and was especially gifted with that flexibility, - that prompt, intuitive, heart-winning grace, - which his great contemporaries lacked. The secret of his influence must not be sought in his printed speeches. We never go to them as we go to Webster's and Calhoun's for political philosophy and vehement logic. But if Webster as an orator was inductive, and convinced the reason, and Calhoun deductive, and dazzled the reason, Clay was most assuredly seductive, and carried the votes. The nature of Clay, without being deficient in force, was plastic and fluid, readily accommodating itself to the moment's exigency, and more solicitous to comprehend all the elements of party power than all the elements of political thought. His faculties and passions seem all to have united in one power of personal impressiveness, and that personality once penetrated a whole party, bound together discordant interests and antipathies, made itself felt as inspiration equally in Maine and Louisiana, concentrated in itself the enthusiasm of sense for principles, and of sensibility for men; and these, the qualities of a powerful political leader, who makes all the demagogues work for him, without being himself a demagogue, indicated his possession of something, at least, of that

"Mystery of commanding;
That birth-hour gift, that art-Napoleon,
Of winning, fettering, wielding, moulding, banding
The hearts of millions, till they move as one."

But the fact that Clay never reached the object of his ambition proves that he was not a perfect specimen of the kind of character to which he belonged; and his personality, - swift, fusing, potent as it was, - alert, compromising, supple as it was, - still was not under thoroughly wise direction; and sense of honor morbidly quick, and a resentment of slight nervously egotistic, sometimes urged our most accomplished politician into impolitic acts, which levelled the labors of years.

Perhaps the best test even of a man's intellect is the way he demeans himself when he is enraged; and in this Webster was pre-eminent above all American orators, while Calhoun was apt to lose his balance, and become petty and passionate, and Clay to exhibit a kind of glorious recklessness. Most of the faults of Webster proceeded from his comprehensiveness of understanding being often unaccompanied by a vigorous impetus from sentiment and feeling and some of his orations are therefore unimpassioned statements and arguments, which, however much they may claim our assent as logicians, do not stir, and thrill, and move us as men. Coming from but one portion of his own nature, they touch only one portion of the nature of others, and wield no dominion over the will. Such was his celebrated speech on the Slavery question, which so many found difficult to answer and impossible to accept. Not so was it when passion and sentiment penetrated his understanding; for, in Webster, passion was a fire which fused intellect and character into one tremendous personal force, and then burst out that resistless eloquence in which words have the might and meaning of things, - that true mental electricity, not seen in dazzling, zigzag flashes, - not heard in a grand, reverberating peal over the head, - but in which, mingling the qualities of light and sound, the blue bright flame startles and stings the eye at the very moment the sharp crash pierces and stuns the ear. No brow smitten by that bolt, though the brow of a Titan, could ever afterward lift itself above the crowd without being marked by its enduring scar and it was well that a great, and not easily moved, nature, abundantly tried by all that frets and teases the temper, should thus have borne within himself such a terrible instrument of avenging justice, when meanness presumed too far on the moderation of that large intellect, when insolence goaded too sharply that sullen fortitude!

The three great statesmen to whom we have referred, taken together, cover three all-important elements in every powerful national mind, - resistance, persistence, and impressibility; and each, by representing at the same time some engrossing industrial interest, indicates that practical direction of the national energies to which we have all along referred. In this region of industry the nation has been grandly creative; and, by establishing the maxim that the production of wealth is a matter secondary to its distribution, it promises to be as grandly beneficent. But, perhaps, in the art and science of government it has been more creative and more beneficent than in the province of industry. The elements of order and radicalism it embosoms are in a healthy rather than destructive conflict, so that we may hope that even the problem of slavery will be settled without any widespread ruin and devastation. The mischief of radicalism in other countries is, that it commences reformation by abjuring law; accordingly, it opposes political power on the principles of anarchy, and wields it on the principles of despotism. Here the toughest problem in the science of government teas been practically solved, by the expedient of legalizing resistance; and thus, by providing legal inlets and outlets for insurrection and revolution, we reap the benefits of rebellion, and avoid its appalling evils.* A nation which has done this can afford to bear some taunts on its vices and defects, especially as vanity impels it to appropriate the truth contained in every sarcasm under which it winces. [* The crime of the Southern Rebellion specially consisted in violating this fundamental principle of American politics.]

It now remains to ask how a national mind like the American, with its powers generally directed by its sentiments to commerce, industrial production, law, and politics, - which are the most lucrative occupations, - and but relatively directed to reforms, - which are the most unprofitable, - how it appears when tested by those virtues which are the conditions of a nation's durable strength? The question is not one of particulars, because, in every social system, no matter how far advanced in humane culture, there will always be individuals and small classes representing the vices of every grade of civilization which history or tradition lies recorded, from cannibals all the way down to dandies. We have our share of New Zealand and our share of Almacks; but in viewing a national mind we must fasten on the strongest elements and the average humanity. Looked at from this liberal point, American life would bear comparatively well the tests of prudence, moderation, and benevolence; a little less confidently, those of veracity, steadfastness, and justice; and considerably less those of beauty, heroism, and self-devotion.

But it is not so much in the present as in the future that we have the grandest vision of the American mind. We have seen that its organic substance, as distinguished from the unassimilated elements in contact or conflict with it, is solidly and productively practical; and as it is a sleepless energy, resisting, persisting, and impressible, we may hope that it will transmute into itself the best life of other national minds, without having its individuality overwhelmed; that it will be strong and beautiful with their virtues and accomplishments, without being weak with their vices and limitations; and that, continually enriched by new and various mental life, it will result in being a comprehensive national mind, harmoniously combining characteristics caught from all nations, - so that Greece might in it recognize beauty, and Rome will, and Germany earnestness, and Italy art, and France vivacity, and Ireland impulse, and England tenacity. It is in this contemplation of America as a conquering Mind that we should most delight, - a mind worthy of the broad continent it is to overarch, - a mind too sound at the core for ignorance to stupefy, or avarice to harden, or lust of power to consume, - a mind full in the line of the historical progress of the race, holding wide relations with all communities and all times, listening to every word of cheer or warning muttered from dead or thundered from living lips, and moving down the solemn pathway of the ages, an image of just, intelligent, beneficent Power! |