John C. Calhoun was born in South Carolina and after attending Yale University, began to practice law. He was elected to the state legislature and later to the US House of Representatives. He served as Vice President under President John Quincy Adams and again under President Andrew Jackson. In 1832 he resigned that office and was elected to the US Senate. Calhoun favored slavery and its expansion. In an 1837 Senate speech, Calhoun defended slavery as a beneficial institution. Slaves, he argued, fared better under the care of a master than poor workers did in the industrial North. Further, he expressed a view of the Union similar to the one his predecessor, Charles Hayne, had expressed in the Webster-Hayne debate. He believed that the Union was a compact between sovereign states, and that states, not the Supreme Court, could declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. He believed states should nullify federal attempts to limit slavery. Three weeks before his death, he spoke against many of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850, which limited slavery’s westward expansion. He favored the Fugitive Slave Act. His final, 42-page speech asserted that North and South were now two separate nations that should separate peacefully.
Henry Clay was born in Virginia, studied law, and began to practice law in Kentucky. He served in the Kentucky state legislature and was elected to the US House of Representatives five times, each time serving as Speaker of the House. He and John C. Calhoun worked together to pass the Tariff of 1816 to help both North and South recover after the War of 1812. Clay became known as the Great Compromiser. Clay was a slave owner, but favored emancipation and the return of slaves to Africa. In 1820, the question of slavery in the Missouri Territory caused a rift in Congress. Clay brokered the Missouri Compromise, maintaining the balance between slave states and free states in the Senate. He ran for president in 1824, but the election produced no winner and was decided in the House of Representatives. Clay gave his support to John Quincy Adams, who, upon election, appointed Clay Secretary of State. This arrangement was dubbed a “corrupt bargain” by Andrew Jackson and his supporters. Clay would run for President and lose a total of five times. He helped create the Whig Party, which opposed the new Democratic Party under the leadership of Andrew Jackson. Clay was elected to the US Senate in 1831. Later in his career, he helped establish the Compromise of 1850.
Stephen Douglas was born in Vermont and moved to Illinois when he was 20. In the 1830s and 1840s he served in various Illinois offices and emerged as a leader of the Democratic Party. He represented Illinois in the US House of Representatives from 1843-1847 and in the US Senate from 1847 until he died in 1861. In Congress, he favored westward expansion, “Manifest Destiny,” and the Compromise of 1850. He believed that states should enter the Union slave or free, based on how their voting population indicated, a doctrine known as “popular sovereignty.” To that end, he proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. In 1858, he ran for reelection to the Senate against Abraham Lincoln. During the campaign the two candidates squared off in a series of debates, which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln lost the Senate race but his performance helped boost his national support for the presidency. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Douglas condemned secession and, on Lincoln’s request, traveled the country speaking out in favor of preserving the Union. He died two months after shots were fired on Fort Sumter.
Daniel Webster was born in New Hampshire and first became an acclaimed public speaker while attending Dartmouth College. He began to practice law and later argued on behalf of Dartmouth in the Supreme Court case Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1818). Webster represented New Hampshire in the US House of Representatives from 1812 to 1816. He subsequently moved to Massachusetts and in 1827 was elected to the Senate. There he defended the view that states could not nullify federal laws. He famously uttered the words, “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” in the Hayne-Webster Debate on the compact theory of the Union. His views were shared by Henry Clay and opposed by John C. Calhoun. He supported the Compromise of 1850 and, as Secretary of State, helped enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.