Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: America’s Great Debate

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Since its establishment by the Constitution in 1787 the Federal Government was dominated by the Southern States.  The steadily disproportionate population growth in the Northern States as opposed to their Southern sisters gradually chipped away at the Southern dominance in the United States House of Representatives.  By 1850 the Southerners were outnumbered in that institution.  With fifteen Free States in the North and fifteen Slave States in the South, through the guarantee of equal representation of each State in the United States Senate granted by the Constitution, the South still held power and sway in the Senate.

The discovery of gold in California and its application for statehood threatened to upset the delicate balance of power and give the Northern States the majority in both Houses in Congress for the first time in its history.  In his book, “America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union,” Fergus M. Bordewich, tackles the following ten month debate over California, Slavery and the Constitution in the Senate.

Mr. Bordewich’s narrative begins by setting the stage.  He points to “Manifest Destiny” as being the idea responsible for the Mexican War.  He further explains the possibility of the spread of slavery into that territory so recently acquired from Mexico, and how that territory would be formed in the new states fueled the fire of sectional discourse.  The discovery of gold in California and the resulting exponential increase of its population due to the gold rush only exacerbated the situation. The lack of any form of organized government made it imperative that something be done to establish government and order in California or she would quickly descend into anarchy.  If California came into the Union as a new state it was a virtual certainty that she would enter as a Free State and thus upset the balance of power between the Northern and Southern States in the Federal Government.  Sensing the impending diminishment of its political power, secession was openly discussed in the Southern States.

The vagueness of Texas’ unresloved western border complicated issues even further when she claimed the Rio Grande as her western border, laying claim to half of what would eventually become the state of New Mexico.  Texas, a slave state, was readying an army to invade the New Mexico Territory and assert her claim.

Henry Clay had an answer.  Despite his self imposed retirement Clay was once again elected to the Senate by the Kentucky Legislature.  “The Great Compromiser” would return to Washington in December with a plan that he hoped would resolve the issues and heal the ever widening chasm between the country’s Northern and Southern sections.  His plan would become known to history as The Compromise of 1850.  Thereby he appealed to Congress to:

  • Form Territorial Governments in New Mexico and “Deseret” (later to become Utah) without regard to slavery.
  • Set Texas’ western border, and if she released her claim to the New Mexico Territory the United States would pay off its sizable public debt.
  • Abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
  • Toughen the Fugitive Slave Law.
  • Forbid the passage of any law prohibiting or obstructing trade in slaves between the slaveholding states.

Mr. Bordewich’s narrative quickly summarizes the web of tangled issues, explains each of Clay’s proposals and demonstrates why each was necessary and relevant to the situation at hand.  Once Clay introduces his compromise the author closely follows the machinations of the debate, and the ever shifting political alliances in Congress.  Speech after speech is delivered on the floor of the Senate by the great orators of the day; Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, William H. Seward and Stephen Douglas. Mr. Bordewich does admirable job summarizing these lengthy speeches, both for and against, the compromise,

Much to Clay’s dismay when the Compromise finally reached the floor for a vote it was in the guise of an omnibus bill.  All of Clay’s proposals were packed into one single pill designed to cure the nation of all its various political illnesses.  It was too big a pill for Congress to swallow as a whole, and it fell to defeat.

After the demise of the Omnibus Bill, the torch passed from Henry Clay to Stephen A. Douglas, the Senator from Illinois, who worked tirelessly to pass each of Clay’s proposals as single, standalone pieces of legislation.  One by one, by various combinations of different factions within the congress pass each bill, each a pill designed to cure the particular ill for which it was designed.

Clay’s medications and Douglas’ doctoring did not cure, but only postponed the malignancy of the secession cancer that threatened to cause the death of their patient.  North was not ready for war, Bordewich points out, in 1850 and further states that had it broken out the South would have in all likelihood secured her independence, by doing so the precedence of secession would be established, and the resulting probability that other sections would follow the example.  Without the Compromise of 1850 a map of the North American continent would look vastly different than it does today.

“America’s Great Debate” is exhaustively researched well written.  It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of antebellum America.

ISBN 978-1439124604, Simon & Schuster, © 2012, Hardcover, 496 pages, Photographs & Illustrations, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $30.00.  To Purchase this book click HERE.

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