At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union (review)
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At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union. By Robert V. Remini. (New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. xiii, 184. $24.00 cloth)

Beginning in grade school, we are taught that compromise is the hallmark and strength of the American political system. In his new book, At the Edge of the Precipice, Robert Remini uses the sectional crisis precipitated by the acquisition of territory from the Mexican War as a primer to examine the craft and process of political compromise. His lively account of the Compromise of 1850 skillfully and concisely analyzes the leadership role of Henry Clay in guiding the nation through the swirling and dangerous political waters of the time and in averting the dissolution of the Union. The strength of Remini's work is his dissection of the political wrangling, partisan interests, individual frailties, and sectional differences that eventually culminated in the passage of the Compromise, ironically with Stephen Douglas at the helm. Clay, the Great Compromiser, had exited the capital after the defeat of his "omnibus" bill that had grouped the various components of the Compromise into one legislative proposal, a tactical mistake that Douglas had understood from the start and later corrected through the passage of its components through separate bills. Remini, the author of a highly respected biography of Clay, captures the complexities and contradictions of the Kentuckian's views on slavery, the lack of discipline in his personal life and legislative career, and the generosity and intemperance of his congressional maneuverings. In addition, he emphasizes the role [End Page 255] of national leadership in preserving the Union in 1850, particularly that of the Great Triumvirate—Clay, Calhoun, and Webster—and argues that their concern for the Union and their skillful leadership prevailed over the forces of disunion.

Standard accounts of the Compromise of 1850 situate it as one of the crucial national events that polarized the sections politically over the issue of slavery and that progressively broke down the second political party system, thus allowing the voices of extremism to prevail in both sections. Remini, however, offers a new insight in his book: because the Union averted disunion in 1850, the North gained another ten years during which it grew in industrial, financial, technological, and military strength while the South, despite the expansion of cotton production, failed to diversify its economic system and declined relative to northern economic and political power. He also asserts that the 1850s bought more time for another strong leader in the national tradition to emerge—Abraham Lincoln—who could meet the challenges to the Union posed by secession and civil war.

But Remini's insight also exposes the weakness of the book. For the most part, his work is too tightly focused on the congressional process of the Compromise without much of an examination of the larger political, economic, and social factors that shaped the forces of union and disunion during the period. In short, much of his recounting of the Compromise seems to occur within a legislative political vacuum. In addition, his book provides little support for his key assertion about growing northern power—an odd omission since plenty of economic and demographic evidence could have been marshaled behind it. In this sense, Remini's book is more suggestive than anything else.

Moreover, by asserting the centrality of statesmanship in the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its absence several years later in the descent into Civil War, Remini's interpretation of the Compromise harkens back to elements of the blundering-politician school of Civil War causation advocated by Avery Craven and James G. Randall. Yet Remini's narrative of enlightened statesmanship is often belied by the pettiness, partisanship, and machinations that [End Page 256] characterized the legislative process, including those by the Great Triumvirate that came close to derailing the Compromise altogether before moderate elements prevailed. Lastly, compromise is certainly an important political skill, but Remini's account elevates it to a highly valued principle. Before we forget, compromises of the antebellum era occurred at the expense of the rights of millions of African Americans. Some national issues demand resoluteness and righteousness, not...