America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (review)
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Compromise of 1850, Stephen Douglas, Henry Clay, Texas, New Mexico, Origins of U.S. Civil War

America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. By Fergus M. Bordewich. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Pp. 496. Cloth, $30.00)

Journalist Fergus Bordewich, the author of five previous books, including Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (New York, 2006), an engaging [End Page 179] narrative history of the Underground Railroad, has produced a richly detailed and beautifully written account of a pivotal moment in American history that all too often simply receives a paragraph or two in broader accounts of the antebellum period. It is important to note at the outset that America’s Great Debate, though engaging, does not alter the traditional narrative of how the compromise measure worked its way through Congress, in terms of the Omnibus Bill that eventually emerged out of Clay’s proposals (against his wishes) to settle the sectional turmoil and Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s repackaging of the Omnibus into separate, more passable bills.

America’s Great Debate is the second book to appear in recent years on the Compromise of 1850.1 Bordewich, however, casts his net wider than Robert Remini’s 2010 volume to incorporate a host of characters often glossed over. Indeed, the personalities of the major figures involved matter, and Bordewich sets up to capture this important episode in American history in all its complexity. Using a variety of sources, including the Santa Fe Papers at the Texas State Library; the Zachary Taylor Papers at the University of Kentucky; the published papers of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun; and, of course, the Congressional Globe, Bordewich traces the crisis, detailing the legislative battles in which politicians resembled punch-drunk brawlers. The author paints brilliant vignettes of the proslavery stalwart David Yulee, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Narciso López—a Venezuela-born solider who struck a deal with Mississippi Governor John Quitman to invade Cuba—Pierre Soulé of Louisiana, Mississippi’s Henry Foote, Texan frontiersman Robert Simpson Neighbors, Maryland Congressman James A. Pearce, Alexander Stevens and Robert Toombs of Georgia, and Millard Fillmore, who was thrust into the office of the presidency after President Taylor succumbed to a severe intestinal illness in July 1850.

In addition, Bordewich provides first-rate discussions of California politics, the contentious speakership battle in the House as the Thirty-First Congress opened, and the Texas–New Mexico boundary dispute, which was “little more than naked empire building steeped in a mumbo jumbo of legalism” (61). Texas had previously claimed that its territory extended to the Rio Grande River, and President Polk’s defense of the [End Page 180] Mexican War rested in large part upon this very notion. However, this line of reasoning meant that the former Mexican province of New Mexico would be sliced in half, giving Texas a vast area that included Santa Fe, which it had never occupied. As Bordewich details, the debates show how “much slavery really had to do with the South’s aggressive posture.” Never “had slavery been defended so explicitly and with such sheer gusto in a national forum” (189). In line with Elizabeth Varon’s most recent book, America’s Great Debate shows how “disunion” was invoked both “as a process and a threat.”2

In terms of the final balance sheet, Bordewich sees many more gains for the slaveholding South, which “obtained the harsh new Fugitive Slave Law . . . as well as the North’s tacit abandonment of the hated Wilmot Proviso.” The bills “to organize New Mexico and Utah were also clear southern victories” because slavery was, at least on the surface, opened in an area that should have been geographically off limits based on the Missouri Compromise (392). Ironically, the compromise measure that was meant to calm sectional tensions “lit the fires of liberty far and wide across the states of the North, awakening Americans to the thing that Stephen Douglas never cared about, that Henry Clay chose not to see, that Daniel Webster forgot: the moral dimension...