AS WASHINGTON steams in the summer heat, and the nation prepares for the November elections, Congress is no closer to overcoming the legislative paralysis that has hobbled its deliberations all year. Although the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law has temporarily heartened Democrats, it is likely to fuel a new and perhaps even more virulent round of ideological posturing during the upcoming congressional campaign.
For a roadmap through the legislative combat zone that almost surely lies in store, today’s senators and congressmen might look for inspiration to the supremely pragmatic lawmakers who piloted Congress through the longest, and arguably the bitterest, debate in American history to pull the nation back from the brink of war and craft the Compromise of 1850.
Congress had already struggled unsuccessfully for two years to decide whether to extend slavery into or ban it from the vast new territories the United States had conquered in the Mexican War. The crisis came to a head in 1849 when Gold Rush settlers in California petitioned for admission as a free state, upsetting the precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states in the U.S. Senate. Threats of southern secession were rampant. Congress was so badly deadlocked that many Americans expected civil war to break out within weeks. “We are on the very eve of bloodshed in the capital,” warned the New York Herald. “There is no telling when its crimson streaks may deluge the halls of Congress.”
The ten-month-long debate that extended until September of 1850 was not a pretty spectacle. Before it was over, mortal threats would be made, punches thrown, and guns drawn on the floor of Congress.
Henry Clay of Kentucky–respected for fathering national compromises in 1820 and 1833–proposed an omnibus bill webbed with new compromises which he argued would end the nation’s entire controversy over slavery: California would be admitted as a free state; territorial governments would be formed in the rest of the Mexican Cession with no mention of slavery; Texas would abandon its claims to New Mexico, and in return the U.S. government would pay off that state’s yawning debts; the slave trade in Washington, DC would be ended, but the legality of slavery itself there would be reaffirmed; finally, a new fugitive slave law would impose harsh punishment on anyone who aided runaways.
Clay’s allies transcended party allegiances. They included the aged Massachusetts Whig Daniel Webster, pro-slavery Mississippi Unionist Henry Foote, and the populist Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, at thirty-seven the youngest member of the Senate. Failure to compromise, Clay warned, would mean the nation’s disintegration into confederacies of the South, New England, the Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes region, and the Far West.
The opposition to compromise was formidable. It included both hardcore defenders of slavery led by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who believed that slavery had been “established by Almighty God,” northern abolitionists who believed that there was a higher law than the Constitution which commanded Christians to oppose any appeasement of the Slave Power, and other politicians who objected to one or another of Clay’s proposals.
Clay had hoped to win over the ideological extremists by means of moral persuasion. He failed. Instead, the enemies of the omnibus united against it.
Douglas, whose ferocious energy caused him to be dubbed “a steam engine in britches,” then stepped into the vacuum left by the exhausted Clay. After studying the voting patterns that had killed the omnibus, the squat, hard-drinking Douglas deduced that enough different combinations of votes existed to pass the measures piecemeal, anchored on a core group of dependable “moderates.” He surmised correctly, for instance, that he could get enough anti-slavery men to vote for California statehood and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, and enough southern firebrands to vote for the fugitive slave bill, which he could pass separately. It was a strategy that depended less on patriotic appeals and soaring oratory than on tireless negotiations, which were carried out as often as not over jugs of wine in the snack bar just off the Senate floor, where one senator after another might find himself in Douglas’s bearlike embrace.
Within a few weeks, Douglas had passed every piece of Clay’s compromise, although only a few senators voted for every part of it. The House of Representatives soon followed suit. It was a triumph for aggressive pragmatism. “No man and no party has acquired a triumph, except the party friendly to the Union,” Douglas declared.
At one point in the debate, Daniel Webster fixed his famously intimidating gaze on the arch-sectionalist John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and caustically declared: “In all such disputes, there will sometimes be found men with whom everything is absolute; absolutely right, or absolutely wrong. They are apt, too, to think that nothing is good but what is perfect, and that there are no compromises or modifications to be made in consideration of difference of opinion or in deference to other men’s judgment. If their perspicacious judgment enables them to detect a spot on face of the sun, they think that a good reason why the sun should be struck from heaven.”
Clay, Douglas and Webster were all derided as hypocrites by many in their own day. But they were not afraid to sacrifice popularity to cut a deal that saved the United States from collapse. The compromise may have been what the historian Sean Wilentz has called an “evasive truce” that delayed but could not prevent, a final reckoning over slavery. But failure would likely have meant war, one which in 1850 the North might well have lost.
Compromise is the oil of American democracy. It is what our politicians are, in part, elected to do. If they insist on ideological purity they will always fail us, or doom themselves to rancorous irrelevance. As they gird themselves for the truculent battles to come this year, they would do well to remember Webster’s words.