In America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, published this month, Fergus Bordewich recounts the various controversies that the architects of the Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve and the process by which that decade-long reprieve for the Union made its tortuous way through the halls of the Capitol. The expansion of slavery was central to the whole affair, but this core issue manifested itself in a number of intertwined controversies whose complexity may surprise readers used to abridged accounts of the compromise as only one of several steps toward the Civil War.
One of these controversies involved California, where (by a stroke of either remarkably good or remarkably bad fortune) the discovery of gold shortly after the acquisition of that future state from Mexico forced the nation to quickly come to terms with the question of its admission to the Union. The admission of a new state threatened to upset the delicate balance between free and slave states in the Senate, and both opponents and apologists for the spread of the peculiar institution put forth various proposals for the organization of territories gained in the Mexican War—an outright ban on slavery, popular sovereignty, an absence of any restriction on slavery whatsoever, and so on. Combined with this dispute over the fate of slavery in the former Mexican territories, and related to it, was a bitter controversy involving territorial claims by Texas. Texans insisted that their state’s jurisdiction extended west of the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico, whereas New Mexicans denied encroachment on what they believed to be their own domain. These disputes emerged at a time when passions about the fate of the peculiar institution and the federal government’s role in upholding it were at a fever pitch.
Into this web of controversy and contested suggestions for untangling it stepped Henry Clay, member of a generation of elder statesmen for whom the coming debate would be their last great act on the national stage. Clay’s proposal to cut the Gordian knot of the dispute over the fate of slavery in the territories called for the admission of a free California, the restriction of Texan claims to eastern New Mexico, an abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, a more effective fugitive slave law, and freedom from congressional interference in the interstate slave trade.
Clay feared that if these measures were presented to the Senate as a unit, extremists on both sides would balk at passing it. That is precisely what happened, as opponents of slavery led by William Seward denounced the stiffer anti-fugitive provisions and the expansion of human bondage into the Mexican cessions while slavery advocates such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis claimed that prohibitions on the spread of he peculiar institution into the territories threatened the South. Debate on the “omnibus” bill combining Clay’s proposals became so heated that at one point Mississippi’s Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.
Meanwhile, the crises which the compromise was meant to address continued to escalate, with delegates from nine slaveholding states meeting in Nashville to consider possible courses of action. Among those possibilities was secession from the Union, a drastic measure ultimately repudiated the convention’s more moderate attendees. After the packaged compromise proposals went down to defeat, Stephen Douglas herded the measures through the Senate separately; Texas was mollified with payment of her debts, a tougher fugitive slave law passed despite opposition from a few northern politicos, and California gained admission as a free state.
Adroit maneuvering by Speaker Howell Cobb secured passage of the compromise measures in the House of Representatives, even though hard-liners on both sides of the expansion and slavery debates continued to contest the implications of the individual provisions. The beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law was a particularly bitter pill for Whigs in the North to swallow. Despite continued tension, and the fact that the compromise ultimately proved to be a reprieve rather than a cure for sectional animosity, Bordewich concludes that it was a laudable political success, staving off as it did a rending of the Union and subsequent war which he claims the government was ill-prepared to face in 1850.
America’s Great Debate could benefit from additional attention to the way in which the country at large reacted to the wrangling in the Senate. Some chapters take the reader on short forays into the disputed Texas-New Mexico border region, but for the most part Bordewich does not stray far from the halls of power in Washington. Nor does he stray far from the conventions of narrative history; readers looking for intensive analysis and overt engagement with the secondary literature should look elsewhere. Taken on its own terms as a straightforward narrative political history, however, this is a solid account, making effective use of published primary material and offering an intimate look at the inner workings of politics at the national level during the tumultuous mid-1800’s.