New book tells the story of the Compromise of 1850 which delayed civil war in America

Author Fergus M. Bordewich examines the events leading up to the Compromise of 1850 in his new book, America's Great Debate

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).

Henry Clay - "The Great Compromiser"

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

ISBN 978-1-4391-2460-4

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One Response to New book tells the story of the Compromise of 1850 which delayed civil war in America

  1. Mark Curran says:

    I used to believe this type of explanation for the Civil War — until I grew up and learned to read Southern newspapers, Southern books, and Southern speeches on google. Actual books, actual speeches, actual newspapers from the time.

    Have “scholars” in America lost their minds? Southern leaders, editors, books, and sermons bragged about, shouted about — and ultimatumately promise war over one thing — the SPREAD of slavery.

    The 1850 “Compromise” was about as much of a compromise as any armed robbery at any 7-11. Give us what we want — or we shoot you, and the North decided to give them what they want.

    Here is a clue — that’s not a compromise. A “compromise” is not at the barrel of a gun, is this too hard to grasp? Too difficult?

    The Slave owners, being as George Mason predicted in 1780, more or less insane with power, did as Mason also predicted — push the country into a huge and deadly war over the spread of slavery. How on earth did “scholars” ignore George Mason’s warning and prediction, I do not know. But it’s typical of those who desire not to pi** off Southern apologist, that they adopt the slave owners Orwellian double talk and even view point.

    How many “scholars” have even bothered to mention the South’s Ultimatums, as appeared in Southern newspapers in March of 1861. Go on, see if you can find any. I will give you a year – you won’t find any reference to Southern Ultimatums. But they were the headlines in Southern newspapers at the time. And the headline read “THE TRUE ISSUE”.

    What was the true issue? Not according to evil Northern historians later, but according to Southern leaders and newspaper editors AT THE TIME. The true issue — was the spread of slavery.

    There were five war ultimatums — guess how many were about the spread of slavery. Go ahead, GUESS. Really, guess. Do you think it was one ultimatum, or two? Or three? Or four?

    You would be wrong. All five Ultimatums were about the same issue — SPREAD SLAVERY or we attack — that is what ultimatum means. This came AFTER the South seceded, not before. This was not an ultimatum to remain in the Union, these were ultimatums to avoid war. Not sorta, not kinda, not in a way.

    Nor is this just the excitement of the moment. Jeff Davis shouted the same thing in speeches, and even put it in his book years later — the “intolerable grievance” he said was NOT any tariff, was NOT John Browns raid, was NOT this and that — it was the issue of slavery in the territories.

    Southern document said it too — official documents, written by consensus, at the time. Do you think these men did not know what they were doing? DO you think Davis was unaware of what the issue was? Do you think Southern editors didn’t know? Do you think Southern leaders, speaking on the record, officially and for the sake of prosterity, were wrong? Were they trying to make themselves look bad?

    If you don’t know about the insane power hungry and arguablyl lunatic nature of Southern leaders, leading up to, during, and after the Civil War, about the spread of slavery, then you don’t know anything.

    Who in their right minds gives men ULtimatums to spread slavery or face war? Do any of you have a clue? Remember, Kansas just had a vote on slavery, and voted AGAINST slavery 98%. Do you know that? Honestly, I am stunned at what “scholars” do not know. You know all about the battles and what kind of side arms — but you are clueless about what really matters.

    So Kansas just rejected slavery by overwhelming vote — AND of course by a four year war against the killers and thugs sent out there by slave owners. Did men like Davis, Lee, Cobbs, Stephens say “Oh, well, they really don’t want slavery, we should respect that?”

    HELLO NO. They said “Spread slavery in Kansas or we will attack” and that is exactly what they did. Consider that these were men who for their entire life, as Mason so aptly pointed out, operated this way. They looked like gentleman, but they got what they wanted by violence, and promises of violence.

    They got their power, wealth, and most of all, prestige, from slavery and defending it as Gods will, or from some aspect of slavery. Slavery, in case this escapes you also, was about violence — promises of it, and promises they kept.

    These men could not operate any other way. You call that compromise? what a joke. They did not compromise. Compromise woudl have been, okay, we end slavery in stages. Compromise would have been, we let slaves leave our plantations if they want. Compromise would have been, we pay the slaves and let them vote on their condition.

    What you call compromise was this — give us what want, or we attack. How on earth is that a compromise? Are you insane?

    The whole phoney “scholarly” study of the Civil War are scared **&^ to be blunt about it — some know, yes. But those that do know, tread lightly and speak carefully, so as to not piss off the Southern apologist.

    We can’t admit that Lee, for example, tortured 14 year old girls. We can’t admit that Davis urged the young and old to fight to the death — ala Hitler — while Davis himself ran like a coward. And most of all, we can’t say what the Southern leaders boasted from the rooftops at the time — spread slavery or face war.

    Here is a clue — either get real, teach what actually happened, in honest terms, or go clean your garage.

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