Top positive review
Good Not Great
Reviewed in the United States on November 28, 2018
H.W. Brands is an excellent historian, highly skilled at researching a topic and at telling a tale in engaging, illuminating prose. This, his latest book, contains many of those elements, making it an enjoyable and informative read. But it is not without its problems.
One inherent problem with a book such as "Heirs of the Founders" is that it focuses on the lives of three different men--Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. It is difficult enough to compile a biography of one individual in less than 400 pages, but Brands tells the reader about these three men in only 370 pages of text. Such an approach is bound to leave out much, and that is what keeps this good book from being a great one.
For example, Brands says that Thomas Jefferson "rode the wave of opposition [to the Alien and Sedition Acts] into the White House . . ." But the Election of 1800, to which Brands is referring, was far more complex. Indeed, had there been no Three-Fifths Compromise, John Adams would have won the election outright. The compromise allowed southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining the state's population and thus the number of representatives the state would get in the House. They would each get an equal number of electors. As it was, no candidate got a majority of electoral votes, sending the election into the House, which elected Jefferson. A simple sentence or two would have clarified the issue.
Brands brings up the gag rule but does not explain what it was. He seems to assume his reader knows. The gag rule was a resolution in the House that tabled, without discussion, all petitions regarding slavery. But Brands doesn't tell us this.
In addition, Brands makes no mention of Daniel Webster's affair with Sarah Goodrich, a young artist. The affair took place in the late 1820s, while Webster's wife was dying of stomach cancer back in Massachusetts. This behavior certainly gives an insight into Webster's character, but Brands seems to be in a hurry and so skips or glosses over many aspects of these three men and their times.
In another example, Brands does not mention Henry Clay's most famous quote--"I'd rather be right than be president." Spoken in 1838, it was seen as sour grapes by many. Nor does he mention that Clay was an inveterate gambler. Or that he could, at times, be downright nasty.
The fact that the book has fifty-nine chapters in 370 pages only adds to the rushed feeling of "Heirs of the Founders." What Brands has given us is good. But another hundred or so pages could have made it great.