America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
An independent historian, Bordewich has written a lively, deeply researched volume on the Compromise which, while it did not save the Union, at least kept it together for ten critical years during which the northern states could unwittingly prepare its industrial muscle and transportation sinews for the coming Civil War.
Bordewich paints illuminating portraits of the drama’s main actors, adding richness and texture to an often-told story. Henry Clay is both the extraordinary statesman who conceives the compromise and expends virtually all that is left in his frail, failing frame to secure its passage but also the petulant politician who makes approval of his compromise initially impossible by acts of anger and rancor. Mississippi Senator Henry Foote emerges from obscurity to play a vital role in keeping Unionist southern senators in support of the measure. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rages wildly against the interests of the country and his home state, often out of personal pique at his lose of status and power. And Stephen A. Douglas steps forward when failure appears final and by legislative legerdemain and deft leadership, rescues the Compromise and saves for a decade the country.
I’m reading too much about the Compromise of 1850 because I think it carries lessons for our current situation as leaders in Washington search for “A Grand Bargain” to the nation’s fiscal crisis. Maybe the lesson of the Compromise of 1850 is that sometimes too much is too much. The Compromise initially failed because all its elements bundled together caused too many senators to vote no. Yet when its six measures were broken apart, each was approved, albeit with a different majority behind each measure. Perhaps there is a lesson there for Washington’s leaders today.