Writing in a day when most Americans regard the current Congress as hopelessly dysfunctional, Fergus M. Bordewich was inspired to investigate one of the key times in its history when centrists put aside their ideological differences in the name of Union and national [End Page 507] harmony. Although a number of scholars—most notably Mark Stegmaier in his admired 1996 study of the Texas-New Mexico border dispute—have explored various aspects of the compromise, Bordewich is the first historian to chronicle the entire affair since Holman Hamilton’s classic 1964 account. Elegantly written and solidly grounded in both primary and secondary sources, America’s Great Debate will attract scholarly and lay readers alike. Most will finish this thick volume with a sense of deep ambivalence, however, as to the deals engineered by Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas. Failure, Bordewich concedes, would most likely have meant war and a probable southern victory. The nation, he suspects, might have fractured into at least three countries, with an independent South descending into a “tyranny resembling apartheid South Africa” (p. 394). Yet the largely pro-southern settlement was imperfect at best, as it opened the Southwest to the possibility of slavery and endangered the lives of free blacks residing in the North.
Bordewich has a rare gift for defining antebellum politicians with a single, well-designed phrase or anecdote. Clay was more progressive on race than his Lower South counterparts, yet he “unsentimentally bought and sold [slaves] as if they were pieces of farm equipment” (p. 77). John C. Calhoun defended human bondage as “not just respectable, but like a kind of idealism that ennobled masters and slaves alike” (p. 204). After the compromise was at last achieved, Mississippi’s Henry Foote, detested by both political friend and foe, “severely overindulged himself [and] wound up the next day prostrate with diarrhea” (p. 346).
Although some recent writers echo Daniel Webster, who believed that the Wilmot Proviso was unnecessary, as geography would somehow have kept slavery out of the vast New Mexico territory, Bordewich wisely refuses to conflate cotton and unfree labor. As Jefferson Davis repeatedly observed during the debates, the Southwest was perfectly suited for grapes, olives, mining, and even sugarcane. Politically, Davis parted ways with Calhoun, who argued that Congress lacked any legal right to regulate slavery in the territories. By demanding that [End Page 508] the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific, Bordewich notes, Davis implicitly conceded that Congress enjoyed the authority to ban slavery north of that line. Indeed, if the author exhibits some admiration for compromisers Clay and Douglas, Lower South fire-eaters here emerge as ideologically inconsistent, defending states’ rights and strict construction, while demanding a new fugitive slave law that “was the single most intrusive assertion of federal authority enacted during the entire antebellum era” (p. 363).
Unlike an earlier generation of historians, particularly the late Robert Remini, who routinely praised the compromise as keeping the peace for another ten years, or Hamilton, who was as hard on abolitionists as he was secessionists, Bordewich describes the human cost of the agreement. Within months, at least sixty alleged runaways had been returned to slavery. After two Pennsylvania parents were dragged from their beds by slave catchers, who left an infant behind to fend for itself, the black population in many parts of the state dropped by 40 percent. Of the 114 members of Rochester’s leading black Baptist church, all but two fled to Canada. Finally, because the compromise merely shoved the interstate slave traffic across the Potomac into Alexandria, Virginia, sectional conciliation allowed the trade in black Americans and the concomitant destruction of black families to continue for another decade.
DOUGLAS R. EGERTON is a professor of history at Le Moyne College and the 2011–12 Mary Ball Washington Professor at the University College Dublin. His latest book is The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive...