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  • A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War by Stephen E. Maizlish
  • Mark J. Stegmaier (bio)
A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War. By Stephen E. Maizlish. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018. Pp. 312. Cloth, $45.00.)

For those looking for a detailed account of the titanic nine-month congressional struggle over the complex set of issues that were resolved in the Compromise of 1850, this is not the work to consult. For books that discuss how Congress fought and labored over such a diverse set of issues in the first session of the 31st Congress—California statehood, territorial governments and the status of slavery in Utah and New Mexico, the volatile boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico, federal responsibility for the Texas debt, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and southern demands for a stricter fugitive slave law—the most comprehensive accounts are in Holman Hamilton's Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (1964), my book Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis (1996), Michael F. Holt's The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (1999), and Fergus M. Bordewich's America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (2012).

Stephen Maizlish's new book uses the 1850 contest in a new way. While providing a brief summary of the specific issues and the dynamics of congressional maneuvering during the tumultuous months from December 1849 to September 1850, Maizlish focuses on analyzing the Senate and House debates themselves to elucidate the respective ideologies that northerners and southerners were developing in regard to slavery and its expansion. These attitudes solidified by the end of the 1850s into very antagonistic views, which provided the basis for the coming of the Civil [End Page 311] War. Where many treatments of the 1850 crisis in reference to the debates of Congress in this session have concentrated on the famous Senate speeches of February and March, Maizlish refreshingly analyzes material from a broader array of Senate and House addresses. House members have generally remained unheard in the history books, but Maizlish recognizes that their orations also contain valuable information about the sectional crisis. The so-called bunkum speeches of House members finally get their due in this book. Aside from his use of the debates, the author's notes and bibliography display an exhaustive research effort in the manuscript sources and in printed primary and secondary literature (though a few newspapers from the North and South might have added further depth to Maizlish's insights).

The heart of the book's intellectual history approach is concentrated in chapters 1–4, where Maizlish identifies slavery expansion into the West as "the most critical issue" of the 1850 debates (27). Southern defenses of their claimed right to hold slaves as property in the common territories of the United States were met by equally vehement northern denials of such a right and assertions that the western territories should be devoted exclusively to the interests of free white settlers. Northern speakers declared that white settlers would not even migrate to a region where they would have to compete against masters with slave laborers. Related to the opposing concerns of northern and southern speakers over slavery expansion were their attitudes toward the Union: southerners, Maizlish says, saw the Union as "transactional" (93–97), with their continued loyalty to the Union contingent on whether southern rights, equality, and slavery were protected within it; northerners, by contrast, believed the Union was based on the principle of majority rule and that the Union was perpetual. Subsequent chapters cover matters of slavery and race, northern and southern criticisms of each other's societies and economies, the use of gendered language by both sides in debate, and the way in which members from both North and South cited events and leaders of the early republic to buttress their arguments. The reader will find these chapters well written and informative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 311-313
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-01
Open Access
No
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