Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lessons from 1850

America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
by Fergus M. Bordewich

This was a very good book on several points.

First, on the level of history it was excellent at bringing together the threads and issues that ravaged the political landscape of the mid 1800s; namely, the slavery/free state debate that affected California’s petition for statehood; Texas’ claim on land in New Mexico; the fugitive slave laws and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. This book excelled in accentuating the significant personalities of the period and especially gave me exposure to the role of my native Missouri, via the unyielding personality of Thomas Benton.

Second, it spoke to me on the level of compromise itself. The Kentucky senator Henry Clay was desperate to finesse a compromise and gave his aging and ending life to a cause that would ultimately fail. While he lived to see the Union preserved and did not personally witness its demise, Southern Rebellion was only delayed, not thwarted. Henry Clay, while extolled for his role in this part of American history, is all but a footnote to our nation’s history. His work would be eclipsed by bloodshed ten years later.

Compromise, by its very nature, is a delay only. The book itself referred to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was totally inadequate to address hostile opinions of 1850. While I can’t immediately recall great political compromise bills, I would posit they are almost universally short lived and short sighted.
More interesting than Clay’s commitment to compromise was, shockingly, the stalwart abolitionist Daniel Webster’s tragic reversal of his convictions in favor of compromise. Webster might have gone down in the annuals of American history as prophetic and stubbornly conviction driven. Instead, he opted for a supporting role in a drama that would foster no statesmen, only sectional politicians who averted a crisis only temporarily.

Third, I sensed, once again, God’s sovereign hand in history. Had the South seceded in 1850, it seems that the North would have adapted to some form of mutual, co-existing government. It is difficult to imagine that, but what is not difficult to imagine is the North in 1850 was not yet disgusted with slavery and not yet ready to fight to preserve the Union. The Fugitive Slave laws reaffirmed by the Compromise of 1850 would give the North a nauseating dose of anti-liberty. Southern rights of slavery would be enforced in both North and South. Northern convictions of liberty would be negated in both South and North. By 1860, the North had had enough.

If the book had any drawbacks, it was that Bordewich edited too much from the speeches. Several times, the reader would only encounter brief excerpts of the speeches and letters of the time which seemed to distract from the author’s well construed “you-are-there” essence. I would have preferred more lengthy passages and think, for the most part, that would have aided in re-creating the scenario. Obviously, we couldn’t read all that was said over the course of some ten months, and the author did a great job overall of telling us the story of a Compromise that held the Union together for one more decade.

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