The Capitol Dome

Summer 2012

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FERGUSM. BORDEWICH America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (New York: Simon&Schuster, 2012), 496 pp., hardcover, $30.00; ebook, $14.99. POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT professor Sanford Levinson, in his review of this book as a main selection for the History Book Club, wrote that "There is an almost Shakespearean quality about this superblywritten, absolutely riveting saga of the Compromise of 1850."1 Indeed, there is more than an element of high drama and tragedy in the heroic, larger-than-life main characters—Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Stephen A. Douglas—and its only slightly less imposing supporting cast—Jefferson Davis, William Henry Seward, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore—who wrestle with passion- laden issues on which the survival of a great nation rests. In the end, the Herculean struggle reaches a flawed compromise that in hindsight we know delayed but did not prevent disunion. Therein, as Shakespeare might say, lies the rub. Bordewich, the author of several other superbly researched and crafted historical studies, including a book on the underground railroad and the origins of Washington, D.C. as the nation's capital, lends his considerable talents to explicating the Compromise of 1850. This book details the compro- mise's origins in the aftermath of the MexicanWar and the question ofwhat to do with the vast new territories acquired as a result of the war within the context of the growing polariza- tion of views in both the North and South over the expansion—and SUMMER 2012 indeed the very survival—of the insti- tution of slavery. The author excels at painting elegant and revealing word pictures of the characters and events that populate the book, such as this description of John C. Calhoun: "Arrestingly handsome in his younger years, with near- violet eyes, and a lean build that set him apart from the flabbily rotund politicians of his time, by the late 1840s, anger, resent- ment, and illness had carved and hardened his chiseled features to forbidding crags.His personal austerity—he neither drank nor smoked—and his humorless reserve made him seem, to some, as Puritan as a Yankee. So condescendingly aristocratic was Calhoun that a stranger typically felt there was a barrier between him and the South Carolinian 'which, though slight as gossamer, was as impenetrable as granite'" (37-38). Some readersmay be surprised that the book is mainly about congres- sional debate. In the current climate in which politicians are held in such low regard, when their words seem based more on the latest poll results than on principle and what they do say is subjected to so much spin as to mean almost anything, it is refreshing to remember that there was a time when politicians, as Bordewich writes, "said what they meant. Men who believed in slavery said so, as did those who hated it, no matter how much odium their words attracted. By listening in on the debate of 1850, 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 actually listen" (3). Levinson, in his review, observes the "ambiguity" in the subtitle, because the compromise did not preserve the Union; it only delayed secession and war by a decade. Other historians have referred to the Compromise of 1850 as an "armistice", a "truce", or an "appease- ment." Yet Bordewich argues that the compromise was necessary and proper, and that without it the seces- sion of the slaveholding states in 1850 would have succeeded peaceably or by war if the North had then had the stomach for war. By staving off seces- sion for a decade the compromise made it possible not only for theNorth to develop its material superiority but also its moral commitment to THE CAPITOL DOME 47

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