The Great Triumvirate

Clay, Webster, and Calhoun Wielded Great Influence for Decades

Engraved portrait of John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay
The Great Triumvirate: John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay (left to right). Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Great Triumvirate was the name given to three powerful legislators, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, who dominated Capitol Hill from the War of 1812 until their deaths in the early 1850s.

Each man represented a particular section of the nation. And each became the primary advocate for that region's most important interests. Therefore the interactions of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun over the course of decades embodied the regional conflicts which became central facts of American political life.

Each man served, at various times, in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. And Clay, Webster, and Calhoun each served as secretary of state, which in the early years of the United States was generally regarded as a stepping stone to the presidency. Yet each man was thwarted in attempts to become president.

After decades of rivalries and alliances, the three men, while widely regarded as titans of the U.S. Senate, all played major parts in closely watched Capitol Hill debates that would help forge the Compromise of 1850. Their actions would effectively delay the Civil War for a decade, as it provided a temporary solution to the central issue of the times, slavery in America.

Following that last great moment at the pinnacle of political life, the three men died between the spring of 1850 and the fall of 1852.

Members of the Great Triumvirate

The three men known as the Great Triumvirate:

  • Henry Clay of Kentucky, represented the interests of the emerging West. Clay first came to Washington to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1806, filling out an unexpired term, and returned to serve in the House of Representatives in 1811. His career was long and varied, and he was probably the most powerful American politician to never live in the White House. Clay was known for his oratorical skills and also for his gambling nature, which he developed in card games in Kentucky.
  • Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, and later Massachusetts, represented the interests of New England and the North in general. Webster was first elected to Congress in 1813, after becoming known in New England for his eloquent opposition to the War of 1812. Known as the greatest orator of his time, Webster was known as “Black Dan” for his dark hair and complexion as well as a grim side of his personality. He tended to advocate for federal policies that would help the industrializing North.
  • John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, represented the interests of the South, and particularly the rights of southern slave owners. Calhoun, a South Carolina native who had been educated at Yale, was first elected to Congress in 1811. As the champion of the South, Calhoun instigated the Nullification Crisis with his advocacy of the concept that states did not have to follow federal laws. Generally depicted with a fierce look in his eyes, he was a fanatical defender of the slave-owning South, arguing for decades that slavery was legal under the Constitution and Americans from other regions had no right to denounce it or try to restrict it.

    Alliances and Rivalries

    The three men who would eventually be known as the Great Triumvirate would have first been together in the House of Representatives in the spring of 1813. But it was their opposition to the policies of President Andrew Jackson in the late 1820s and early 1830s that would have brought them into a loose alliance.

    Coming together in the Senate in 1832, they tended to oppose the Jackson administration. Yet the opposition could take different forms, and they tended to be more rivals than allies.

    In a personal sense, the three men were known to be cordial and respect each other. But they were not close friends.

    Public Acclaim for the Powerful Senators

    Following Jackson’s two terms in office, the stature of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun tended to rise as the presidents occupying the White House tended to be ineffectual (or at least appeared to be weak when compared to Jackson).

    And in the 1830s and 1840s the intellectual life of the nation tended to focus on public speaking as an art form. In an era when the American Lyceum Movement was becoming popular, and even people in small towns would gather to hear speeches, the Senate speeches of people like Clay, Webster, and Calhoun were regarded as notable public events.

    On days when Clay, Webster, or Calhoun was scheduled to speak in the Senate, crowds would gather to gain admission. And though their speeches could go on for hours, people paid close attention. Transcripts of their speeches would become widely read features in newspapers.

    In the spring of 1850, when the men spoke on the Compromise of 1850, that was certainly true. The speeches of Clay, and especially Webster’s famous “Seventh of March Speech,” were major events on Capitol Hill.

    The three men essentially had a very dramatic public finale in the Senate chamber in the spring of 1850.. Henry Clay had put forth a series of proposals for compromise between the slave and free states. His proposals were seen as favoring the North, and naturally John C. Calhoun objected.

    Calhoun was in failing health and sat in the Senate chamber, wrapped in a blanket as a stand-in read his speech for him. His text called for a rejection of Clay's concessions to the North, and asserted that it would be best for the slave states to peacefully secede from the Union.

    Daniel Webster was offended by Calhoun's suggestion, and in his speech on March 7, 1850, he famously began, "I speak today for the preservation of the Union."

    Calhoun died on March 31,1850, only weeks after his speech concerning the Compromise of 1850 was read in the Senate. Henry Clay died two years later, on June 29, 1852. And Daniel Webster died later that year, on October 24, 1852.