AN ABSORBING EXPLORATION of a crucial moment that shaped the American identity-and which has striking parallels in our own politically contentious age-Fergus M. Bordewich's America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (Simon & Schuster; April 17, 2012; $30.00) is a fascinating, timely account of national morality and political expediency during the yearlong debate over what we know today as the Compromise of 1850. Bordewich, a historian and journalist who has written to great acclaim on such seminal topics as the Underground Railroad and the design and building of Washington, D.C., here examines mid-nineteenth-century America at a critical juncture, bringing to life the outsized men of the age, who wrestled with slavery, sovereignty, and America’s manifest destiny.
Bordewich began to consider the great congressional debate of 1850 while researching Bound for Canaan, his magisterial book on the Underground Railroad. "How had the imperative of slavery played out against the expanding landscape of America made possible by the nation's first imperial war in Mexico?" he wondered. "How did the men who led the nation rationalize slavery—how did they defend the morally indefensibly-in order to keep the nation intact? How close had the United States actually come to war in 1850?" As that year dawned, Congress seemed hopelessly crippled, as political figures jockeyed for their own advantage and that of their parties. The ensuing struggle on the floor of the Senate would encapsulate all that was good and bad about America’s politicians. It was an age of great eloquence, and "by listening in on the debate of 1850," Bordewich writes, "we can learn much not only about what Americans thought about their new empire, about the profound ways in which slavery warped our political system, and about the creative craft of compromise, but also about how to talk politics to each other so that we can actually listen."
Two historic events triggered the great congressional debate that would lead to compromise: the Mexican War and the California Gold Rush. With great swaths of the North American continent becoming new territories of the United States, and with some, like California, petitioning for statehood, the balance of slave states and free states, which had been politically crucial since the Missouri Compromise thirty years earlier, once again dominated debate in Congress. The architect of that earlier compromise, Henry Clay, and his arch-rivals John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster were still dominant figures in Congress, but there were new voices, too: Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William Seward, all sparring over their political and ideological agendas. As the year-long debate persisted, Clay tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise. When he failed, Douglas pushed through his own compromise, which saved the nation from collapse and staved off civil war, even as it helped make civil war inevitable.
Bordewich's indelible portraits of these complicated men bring America’s Great Debate vividly to life: Calhoun, the aging "Marxist of the Master Class," who believed incontrovertibly in the divinely imbued superiority of the white race; Douglas, who, although a northerner, was married to the daughter of a wealthy slave owner; Webster who, even with his Yankee bona fides, ardently supported the strengthened Fugitive Slave Act that was an integral part of the compromise. They and many others shaped America's Great Debate, amalgamating personal beliefs, moral precepts, and political savvy.
"The quest for compromise amid the crisis of 1850 may offer lessons in how agreement may be achieved between the most unyielding adversaries, and also in the unintended consequences of compromise," Bordewich writes. America’s Great Debate offers an enlightening cautionary tale about the contentious nature of political discourse and the need for civility and cooperation in the halls of government. It is, ultimately, says Bordewich, "a story about the struggle for American identity."