Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
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On February 5, 1850, Henry Clay of Kentucky raised his long, creaky, seventy-two-year-old frame from behind his desk in the back row of the United States Senate to begin one of the most memorable speeches ever delivered in the chamber. As he looked out upon the expectant faces of his colleagues, the chamber’s marble columns, and the crimson carpets and drapes that bestowed an ambience of regal dignity through the clouds of cigar smoke that filled the air, Clay knew that it was his last act in the great theater where he had played to rapt audiences for nearly half a century. “When my services are terminated in this body – and I hope that before the expiration of my present term they may be – my mission, so far as respects the public affairs of this world and upon earth, is closed, and closed, if my wished prevail, forever,” he told his fellow senators. Although he still projected his magnetic amalgam of moral gravity and sparkling wit, and still set female hearts beating, he was no longer regarded, as he had been for so many years, as a prince in waiting for the throne of the presidency. He felt, and was, an old man. Yet never had he felt more needed by the nation, and never had he offered more of himself to it than he did now. As he faced the Senate, he looked beyond it to a future he could not behold, hoping that what he said this day, and did in the weeks to come, would find its place in history. His mission, he said, was to offer a soothing balm for “this distracted and, at the moment, unhappy country,” a permanent solution to the nation’s most intractable problem of slavery, a compromise that would, perhaps, secure him a seat in the pantheon of luminaries where dwelt his beloved George Washington, and the rest of the Founding Fathers. If this was to be his last battle, he intended to go out like a cannonade.
The scene would be memorialized in countless paintings, engravings, and prints as if it were not the beginning but rather the climax of the remarkable debate, the longest in the body’s history, which continued almost without interruption through most of 1850, and produced some of the most exciting events ever witnessed on its floor. The image is legendary: Clay, usually looking younger than his years, his body thrown back and his arm thrust forward in classic oratorical pose, senators pressing around him with stark attention, men and women – symbolically, all of America – crowding the colonnaded gallery, and soaring overhead a carved eagle as if it were Clay’s own guardian totem. Many who were there remembered it as the greatest speech they had ever heard. Certainly, there were few moments in American history when it was felt that so much might turn on a single speech, or that the country’s fate hinged on one man’s persuasive ability to overcome rigidly held beliefs, and to change minds. Spectators had come to hear Clay from as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia, and so dense was the crush on the Senate floor, it was said that at least one female visitor was carried across the gallery by the human tide without her feet touching the ground.
Copyright © 2012 by Fergus M. Bordewich
Review by Sanford Levinson
There is an almost Shakespearean quality about this superbly written, absolutely riveting saga of the Compromise of 1850. Great figures—including Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and President Zachary Taylor, portrayed as a steadfast opponent of what came to be called the Slavocracy even though a slaveowner himself—dominate the book, and by the end all are dead. There are also Stephen A. Douglas (who would die at 48 in 1862, having failed in his own ambitions to become president), and, surprisingly, Taylor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, who emerges as a surprisingly formidable political figure.
At stake was nothing less than the survival of the United States. Calhoun and other Southern firebrands, including Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, were contemptuous of any compromise that would retard the expansion of the Slavocracy west into southern California and, ultimately, into Cuba and Mexico. Texans eager to annex much of New Mexico welcomed the prospect of secession as well. (They did not include, however, senator and former governor Sam Houston, another vivid character in the book.) The task was to cobble together a compromise that would gain enough votes from ever-more-polarized Northerners and Southerners to keep the Union together. Everyone would have to make what appeared to be dreadful concessions. Southerners had to accept the admission of California as a free state; northerners had to accept the strengthening of the altogether odious fugitive slave law. Texans would have to accept a future that lacked Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico, a concession purchased by the federal assumption of the state’s debts. As Bordewich laconically writes, “The assumption of Texas’s debt was…the first federal bailout of a state in American history.”
Still, one must confront the ambiguity latent in the subtitle, for the Compromise of 1850—what historian William Freehling called “The Armistice of 1850” and Sean Wilentz has more recently described as a “truce”—did not in fact “preserve” the Union. As predicted by John C. Calhoun almost literally on his deathbed, it only staved off by a decade attempted secession and the accompanying catastrophic war. Bordewich, fully attentive to the awful realities of slavery and its maintenance made possible by the Compromise, ultimately defends it because he believes that secession in 1850 would have basically succeeded; “The North, if it had any stomach for war at all in 1850, would likely have lost.” What, however, if an earlier Civil War would have defeated the Slavocracy and ended slavery a decade earlier? Would we then continue to praise the Compromise? Of course, this is ultimately unknowable. But whether thinking of America 160 years ago or today, evaluations of compromise inevitably rest on controversial empirical assessments of the consequences of acquiescence or, instead, “just saying no.” Clay’s or Webster’s stature as “tragic heroes” rather than villains depends on such assessments. Bordewich has written a remarkable book that is illuminating both about American history and, implicitly, about our own times. It deserves wide readership and, more importantly, discussion.
Hardcover Book : 496 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. ( April 17, 2012 )
Item #: 13-518503
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 1.24inches
Product Weight: 28.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
The Compromise of 1850 not only foreshadowed the Civil War, it has plenty of lessons to teach today. Bordewich tells this historical drama with most deftly, touching on elements barely mentioned in most history books. He covers the titans of the time - Clay, Webster, Calhoun - along with equally important players: Benton, Taylor, Seward, Fillmore, Houston, Douglas, and Foote. The details are exhaustive but never dull. It reads like the play-by-play at a sporting event. Highly recommended to all!
How many times have you read accolades for "beautiful writing" on the back of an HBC selection whose prose is, in reality, well nigh incomprehensible? The unhappy truth is that, despite all the easy praise handed out these days, clear, elegant, insightful historical writing is as rare as double rainbows.
All the more reason, then, to celebrate Bordewich's "America's Great Debate." This is a book by a genuinely gifted writer about men (Calhoun, Webster, Benton, Douglas, and Clay) who were formidable orators and statesmen, subjected to the supreme test of America's fiercest legislative battle over slavery. War and peace literally hung on their words.
Bordewich has all the story-telling skills of a novelist, coupled with a profound knowledge and understanding of the period.The author's affinity for his subject is palpable; his ability to draw well-considered lessons for the present deeply impressive.
This is historical writing of a very high order.
Reviewer: Richard H