Henry Clay. Stephen Douglas. Daniel Webster. All were great names in American political history.
They and other leading U.S. senators and congressmen played a leading role in developing a controversial political compromise in 1850 which temporarily brought relief to the bitter sectionalism which threatened to split the South from the North. For decades, the twin, interconnected issues of states’ rights and the westward expansion of slavery into newly created territories bitterly divided Americans.
Kentuckian Henry Clay, long an outspoken champion of Whig ideals but never quite popular enough to become president, had taken an active part in earlier compromises. Southern Democrats, backed by Northern “doughfaces” such as Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas, pushed for the territories to be allowed to determine their own course in regards to slavery, a concept known as popular sovereignty. Abolitionists strongly opposed the concept and insisted on either containing slavery to the established Southern states, or eliminating it altogether.
It was a tumultuous time in American history, one that at the same time threatened to tear asunder the young country.
The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law proved not to be permanent solutions, but rather only temporary bandages for wounds that were too deep to heal. The final result, a decade later, was the push for Southern independence which led to the formation of the breakaway Confederate States of America.
Fergus M. Bordewich neatly captures the arguments, opposing political ideals, and the frantic efforts to keep the country intact in his fascinating new book, America’s Great Compromise: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).
Bordewich first examines the backdrop of the political situation which led to the Compromise of 1850, nicely giving a sweeping overview of the Compromise of 1820 and successive legislation, as well as the impact of the Mexican War and the United States’ newly acquired lands. He introduces Henry Clay and other leading characters, giving enough detail to paint a portrait of the leaders and their backgrounds and motivations.
The narrative flows well and is cohesive and compelling, without becoming bogged down in technical details of congressional in-fighting. The level of depth is enough to give a complete picture of the situation and activities of the leading players, without overwhelming the reader with too much minutiae. Bordewich skillfully presents the facts, but in a fashion that is both readable as well as entertaining and educational. Too often books on the politics of the first half of the 19th century fall short of explaining the bigger picture and instead subtly reflect the sectional biases of their respective authors. Bordewich avoids this trap and instead presents a balanced, well constructed treatise which is sure to become the standard work on the Compromise of 1850.
This book should be required reading for any person seeking to understand the factors which led to the tragedy of the American Civil War. Kudos to the author and publisher for adding this important work to the historiography of the antebellum United States.
America’s Great Debate
Fergus M. Bordewich
Simon & Schuster, 2012
480 pages, annotated, maps and illustrations, indexed