1. Webster vs. 8. Seward
1. Daniel Webster, Whig - Massachusetts, 1782-1852
Dubbed “The Great Orator,” Daniel Webster fought to keep the country unified during the pre-Civil War debate over slavery. Indeed, he became the de facto spokesman for those seeking to save the union after delivering what’s been called, “The Most Famous Senate Speech” in a debate that lasted over nine days with a senator from South Carolina. Ironically, it was another speech – arguing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 and saying that bickering over slavery was pointless because it wasn’t going away – that ended his Senate career. That speech played well as a middle-of-the-road position in many parts of the country, but not in his liberal home state. Soon after, he resigned the Senate to become Secretary of State. Webster died just four months after Henry Clay – another #1 seed – did.
8. William Seward, Whig/R - New York, 1801-1872
William Seward – perhaps best known for being Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state (one of the “Team of Rivals”) and purchasing Alaska during the Andrew Johnson administration (“Seward’s folly”) – served in the Senate for two terms (1849-1861). It was there where he was one of the most prominent anti-slavery voices. Seward, who also served as New York governor, lost the Republican presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
4. Douglas vs. 5. Houston
4. Stephen Douglas, D-Ill., 1813-61: Best known for beating Abraham Lincoln in 1858 but losing to him in the presidential contest two years later, Douglas’ biggest legacy in the Senate was his championing of the cause of "popular sovereignty," which said that states and territories could decide the slavery issue. The Supreme Court struck down part of that in its Dred Scott decision, noting that territories and Congress had no right to prohibit slavery. He was influential in the passing of the Compromise of 1850, which preserved the union temporarily. But he then authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, applying popular sovereignty as the nation expanded. It worked with the territories of Utah and Nevada, but at this time, it further divided the country on the issue of slavery. Northern states were enraged and saw it as kowtowing to Southern demands, moving the country closer to inevitable war. It led to the creation of the Republican Party and the rise of Lincoln.
5. Sam Houston, D/Know Nothing-Texas, 1793-1863: The namesake for the nation’s fourth-largest city, Sam Houston still lives deep in the hearts of Texans. He was the Texas Republic’s first president, and when Texas became a state, he became one of its senators. In that chamber, he refused to endorse the Kansas-Nebraska Act – which allowed states to decide for themselves whether to keep slavery – because he felt it would further divide the nation. In fact, he was the only Southern Democrat to vote against the act, and he was right: Less than a decade after its passage, the country descended into Civil War. Houston’s opposition damaged him politically, and he was dismissed from the Senate by the Texas Legislature (remember, this was before direct election of senators), and then ran for governor and lost. Two years later, however, he ran again for governor, and won, but was deposed in 1861 after Texas seceded from the union – despite his best efforts to avoid that -- and he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate states.
3. Sumner vs. Buchanan
3. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., 1811-74: A prominent abolitionist on slavery, Sumner wrote the seminal piece of civil-rights legislation in 1870 during the debate over Reconstruction. The bill was far ahead of its time: It declared all men, including ex-slaves equal and to have equal access to all walks of life. The legislation passed in 1875 after Sumner’s death, but was ruled unconstitutional (leading eventually to the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision declaring “separate but equal facilities to be allowable). Sumner, though, is perhaps best known for being beaten with a cane by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina in 1956 – in fact, Sumner was beaten so badly he didn’t return to the Senate for nearly three years.
11. James Buchanan, D-Pa., 1791-1868: Buchanan is better known for being the nation’s 15th president, for being the president who was in office right before the outbreak of the Civil War, and for being among the worst presidents in U.S. history. But he also served for more than 10 years in the Senate (1834-1845), where he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and sympathized with pro-slavery senators (even though he personally opposed slavery). Buchanan also served as secretary of state (under President James Polk) and minister to Great Britain (under Franklin Pierce).
2. Calhoun vs. Hart Benton
7. Thomas Hart Benton (19th), D/Jacksonian/D-R-Missouri:1782-1858: Thomas Hart Benton was one of the notable politicians in the Jacksonian Era. He fought a duel with a young Andrew Jackson – and Jackson carried Benton’s bullet in his body for the rest of life. Later, Benton would become of one Jackson’s biggest champions and defenders in the Senate.
2. John C. Calhoun (19th), D/D-R/Nullifier-South Carolina, 1782-1850: During the debates over slavery before the Civil War, there was no bigger and notable champion of states’ rights than John C. Calhoun, who preached under his doctrine of nullification that states had the right to reject federal policies they believed were unconstitutional. Calhoun also served as vice president (under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), secretary of war (under James Monroe), and secretary of state (under John Tyler).