America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. A Review

Fergus M. Bordewich. America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Pp. x, 480.

It all started with slavery and a war. Before 1848, most white Americans had rested their hopes for national unity on the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which settled the question of slavery’s westward expansion by creating a dividing line between future free and slave states, barring Missouri, along the line of 36° 30′ latitude. National disaster, it seemed, had passed. And indeed, the country had little cause for concern. The process by which a territory became a state moved glacially. Congress had the responsibility for establishing temporary governments in new lands, fixing borders, appointing officials, supervising the writing of constitutions, and guiding territories into states—a lengthy, arduous procedure (p.28). After 1848, however, everything changed.

In the first episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Shelby Foote posits, “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it and it failed.” If we believe Foote’s contention then the Compromise of 1850 marks one of America’s most brilliant and fleeting political accomplishments. The politicians who crafted this agreement, the tumultuous road to its resolution, and its ultimate legacy form the subject of Fergus M. Bordewich’s America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. Most reader will recognize the author’s name from his magisterial book on the Underground Railroad, Bound for Canaan. Readers will be pleased to know that the written word hasn’t failed Bordewich in this moving, highly readable account.

Composed of twenty-eight chapters driven by personalities, events, and places, America’s Great Debate maintains a nice pace even when discussing political debates often mired in a morass of words and arguments. This approach marks the book’s greatest strength, for readers learn not only of the nuances of this weighty political discussion but also of the men who shaped it. The debates of 1849-50 marked a generational shift in American political culture as rising lights such as Jefferson Davis, Stephen A. Douglas, William Seward, and David Yulee supplanted the aging political generation defined by Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. Bordewich’s careful writing and prodigious research bring these luminaries—their feats and their failings—to life transporting the reader back to nineteenth-century Washington City and its environs.

Henry Clay

Proceeding chronologically, the narrative starts with the troubles of 1848-9. The acquisition of vast lands in the Mexican War coupled with the discovery of gold in California hastened the question of state formation and slavery’s expansion. With a precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states, and the impending formation of several western states, politicians queried: Would the Missouri Compromise line simply be extended farther westward? Could any part of the newly acquired territories be developed to support slavery? How would sectional interests be balanced? Fierce debate ensued as politicians considered how these western states would develop and what type of labor systems they would support.

Famed southern statesman John C. Calhoun “strove to keep the protection of slavery at the top of the South’s agenda,” whereas Stephen Douglas “strove just as mightily to push it out of political sight,” Bordewich explains (p.40). Resolution seemed impossible. Many believed only one man could staunch the “cascade of crises that was threatening to overwhelm the nation”: the eminent Kentucky politician Henry Clay (p.72).

Bordewich devotes considerable attention to the elements of Clay’s plan and its debate. Rightfully so, for Clay’s speech and the plan’s deliberation mark one of the most significant episodes in nineteenth-century American political history. After weeks of tireless work Clay was prepared to deliver his grand plan on January 29, 1850. Of it Bordewich elegantly writes, the “cathedral-like compromise” that Clay “had constructed in his mind had room enough in it, he was convinced, for the interests of both North and South” (p.134). Although the elements of the Clay’s proposal are probably familiar to most readers a quick recap seems warranted. First, California would be admitted to the Union without Congressional restrictions on slavery. Second, Congress should form territorial governments for both regions of the other western territories. His third resolution concerned the western boundary of Texas, while the fourth proposition offered to pay off the state’s public debt if Texas relinquished its claim to New Mexico. Shifting to the South he continued with his fifth and sixth points.

Clay declared it inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of District residents and Marylanders (which seemed unlikely); moreover, he proposed the prohibition of the slave trade within the District. Seventh, and most infamously, he asked for the Fugitive Slave Law to be strengthened. To conclude, Clay wanted to give the South a guarantee that Congress would not prohibit or obstruct the slave trade between slaveholding states (The above is gleamed from pp. 135-7). After finishing, protests broke out but Clay declined to respond promising instead further explanation in a week’s time.

John C. Calhoun

Clay’s work gained support from Whigs but failed to win over either abolitionists or southern nationalists. Bitter political divisions emerged as slavery cleaved the Senate into warring factions imperiling the country’s future (p.159). The extent of this crisis, or how close the country came to civil war, is difficult to gauge. Bordewich posits that the crisis was quite real and war quite possible. The civil war that began a decade later, he argues, has overshadowed the Union’s near-collapse in 1850 (p.15). That the situation was dire is undoubted, but how close the Union came to total disintegration is not established fully. And here the scope of Bordewich’s book is limiting, for we learn little of public opinion or gain the people’s voices during this critical moment, overwhelmed instead by the congressional cacophony.

Instead, Bordewich illustrates how the shrill arguments, fiery political speeches, and extremists’ strides toward secession (an incomplete convention of slaveholding states met in Nashville in June to debate the momentous question of disunion) created political gridlock and powerfully demonstrated to contemporaries that slavery would now define all future debates. As he writes: “If anyone still wondered how much slavery really had to do with the South’s aggressive posture, the debates of March 1850 erased any lingering doubts. Never, perhaps, had slavery been defended so explicitly and with such gusto in a national forum” (p.189).

For nearly seven months politicians deliberated over Clay’s package. Bordewich methodically recounts the sinews of this pivotal debate and the accompanying political paralysis, which mark one of the book’s greatest strengths and most robust historiographical contributions. Few scholars have chronicled, in such detail, the sundry elements working to undermine Clay’s package, focusing instead on the eventual compromise and the political fallout of the 1850s. With the architect himself severely weakened by illness and no feasible compromise the Omnibus was defeated. Stephen Douglas stepped into the breach invigorating the debate with new energy and a different vision. Douglas worked quickly. “Through a combination of personal magnetism, locomotive energy, an amazingly acute reading of the minds of his fellow senators North and South—and, yes, towering hubris—Douglas had wrought a miracle” (p.313). The key elements of Clay’s compromise met success as individualized bills that passed only through sectional votes and Douglas’s shepherding. “The nation rejoiced, most of it anyway. Fanaticism had been vanquished, chaos averted, the sore of slavery cauterized, national amity restored” (p.358). Unfortunately, as modern readers know all too well, this balancing act only delayed, “but could not prevent, the bloody reckoning over slavery” (p.371).

Stephen A. Douglas

For veteran readers of the Civil War-era Bordewich’s book will offer vast rewards and numerous insights. The same might be said for neophytes looking to understand this compromise and the politicians shaping mid-nineteenth-century American political culture. However, those readers hoping to learn more about the broader contours of antebellum political culture or the events leading up to the Civil War will find a book that reveals as much as it obscures and should consider America’s Great Debate in conjunction with, for instance, Elizabeth Varon’s Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (a recently published and illuminating synthesis), David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (a deeply researched and foundational text), or Michael F. Holt’s The Fate of their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War (a slim and highly readable volume). Ultimately, Bordwich offers readers an illuminating and highly readable narrative about the Compromise of 1850 and the politicians that waged a war of words that shaped the country’s future.

2 Responses to America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. A Review

  1. Thanks for the informative review. I just purchased this book and looking forward to it. I’m also glad you mentioned DISUNION – Varon. It is a wonderful read.

    Don H.

  2. Unraveling the Gordian Knot that was American politics before the 1860 elections is almost impossible. It sounds like this book is a big step in that direction.

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