Compromise 3: Clay and The 1850 Debate

Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe

On a raw evening in winter of 1850, a weary-looking, feeble, and desperately ill old man arrived unannounced at the Washington, D.C. residence of Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had come to seek Webster’s help in his battle to save the Union. He believed that Webster’s legendary eloquence would be essential in preventing what appeared to be a headlong rush by Southern states to secede from the Union and possibly initiate civil war. Read more »

Who’s Who?

A historian of American portraits tells how he determines whether a picture is authentic—and why that authenticity matters

More than any other features, our faces are what mark us as unique individuals. Superficially our faces are who we are. Together with names they identify us with the lives we have lived; they are our perpetual calling cards. Our interest in and curiosity about faces is a natural phenomenon, and if we are to feel a kinship with our national heritage, it matters that we recognize the faces of our American icons. Read more »

A Few Parchment Pages Two Hundred Years Later

The framers of the Constitution were proud of what they had done but might be astonished that their words still carry so much weight. A distinguished scholar tells us how the great charter has survived and flourished.

The American Constitution has functioned and endured longer than any other written constitution of the modern era. It imbues the nation with energy to act while restraining its agents from acting improperly. It safeguards our liberties and establishes a government of laws, not of men and women. Above all, the Constitution is the mortar that binds the fifty-state edifice under the concept of federalism; it is the symbol that unifies nearly 250 million people of different origins, races, and religions into a single nation. Read more »

In Praise Of Pierce

He had all the right qualities. Only the time was wrong.

It’s been a long time since anyone put in a good word, or in fact any kind of word at all, for Franklin Pierce. I am a New Hampshire man who lives not far from the house where the fourteenth President was born and who therefore grew up, so to speak, beneath his paling shadow. From such a position I would like to take this opportunity to rearrange the perspectives now distorting or, indeed, obscuring the nature of his career. Words from Samuel Butler will serve as a text for my remarks.Read more »

The Ten Best Secretaries Of State…

When the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1790, his entire staff consisted of just six people, including himself and a part-time translator. The current Secretary presides over almost fifteen thousand employees scattered around the globe. During the intervening years, of course, the challenges facing Jefferson’s successors have changed dramatically as the infant republic has grown into a world power. Read more »

Faces From The Past-V

“My lamp is nearly burned out,” he admitted, “and the last glimmer has come.” For the past two years not a day had passed when he was free of pain; one lung was gone, the other diseased; he was tormented alternately by dropsy and diarrhea, racked by chills and fever. He sat quietly in the armchair, saving himself, a wasted figure in an old-fashioned, snuff-colored coat with high stiff collar.

 

 
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The Young Devils And Dan’l Webster

When four aristocratic blackquards were jailed for a brutal murder, justice seemed triumphant. But these were no ordinary criminals, and justice needed eloquent help

Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1830’s, was a city of some 14,000. Merchants and sailors, shopkeepers and ship chandlers, owners and bankers and insurers, doctors and lawyers lived in its red brick and white wood houses. Neighbor and trader with more of the rest of the world than any other port of the United States, Salem in the spring of 1830 was pressing its prime. In Samuel Eliot Morison’s neat phrase, “the movement from wharf to waterfall” was beginning.

The “American Woodsman”

As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders

Audubon never did become a conservationist as the word is understood these days. Even as he picked oft his huge toll of feathered specimens, he was aware that his beloved frontier world was rapidly vanishing about him. He did not pretend to say whether the changes were for the better or for the worse. He only knew with passionate conviction that no one coming after him would ever have the same opportunity to record the birds of North America in their primeval haunts, and that realization drove him mercilessly to finish his inventory before it was too late.

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Ghosts In The White House

Discreet helpers have worked on the speeches and papers of many Presidents, but a nation in a time of trial will respond best “to the Great Man himself, standing alone”

It is assumed that the so-called “ghost writer” has become “a necessity of modern-day, high-speed campaigning.” Dorothy Thompson has said that ghostwriting “is so common today that one can almost say our thoughts are guided by ghosts.” Even a religious co-ordinator has been added to the White House staff. Recent demonstrations, however, have led some critics to long tor the Good Old Days when a President told his story in his own way.

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