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  • A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil Warby Stephen E. Maizlish
  • Marius Carriere
A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War. By Stephen E. Maizlish. A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era. ( Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 312. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8139-4119-6.)

In A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War, Stephen E. Maizlish explores the ideological origins of the U.S. Civil War and attempts to understand the Compromise of 1850 in the context of the moral world of the 1850s. Maizlish describes the debates on the compromise as a conflict of words and argues that the words were not abstractions. While Americans after the Civil War, as well as some historians, wanted to believe that the war could have been avoided because there were few, if any, ideological differences between the sections, Maizlish posits that analysis of the debates proves differently. To him, there were significant ideological and cultural differences between the North and the South, and he delves deeply into the words of the members of the Thirty-first Congress to demonstrate those differences.

Maizlish's analysis covers the nine months of debate over the Compromise of 1850, when white northerners and southerners expressed their beliefs of why slavery should or should not be extended to the territories acquired from the U.S.-Mexican War. Beginning with the virtual impossibility of electing a Speaker of the House in 1849 and ending with the final passage of the compromise, Maizlish explores how the positions of the North and the South were not easily reconciled.

For example, the South believed strongly in state equality, or states' rights. To white southerners, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed state equality. Representative Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia argued, for instance, "that land acquired by 'common blood' … should 'be opened up'" to be enjoyed equally by all citizens of the United States (p. 82). If white southerners were denied the right to take their enslaved property into the western territories, they feared the South's isolation and its own enslavement. However, northerners, such as New York senator William H. Seward, looked at the issue of state equality from a different point of view. Maizlish notes that Seward's "higher law" speech in March 1850 appalled the South. To white southerners there was nothing higher than the Constitution, which they viewed as guaranteeing state equality. To northerners, however, the Union was formed by the people, not the Constitution.

To white southerners, such as John C. Calhoun, there was a unity of opposition to slavery in the North; those opposed to the Wilmot Proviso could also be against slavery's expansion. Even northern Democrats had no choice in opposing slavery extension if they wanted to survive politically. As Maizlish writes, northerners heard different words that defined their sense of the Union. To them, it was a permanent union that did not guarantee sectional equality or "a 'perfect equilibrium' of states," as northern Democrat Lewis Cass asserted (p. 107).

Maizlish also explores how gendered themes played out in the debates. The conflicting images presented by the North and the South made the debates difficult; the gender attacks made it next to impossible for compromise. Both sides charged each other with effeminacy and challenged each other's [End Page 691]manhood. Maizlish includes a quantitative analysis of the use of gendered language during the debates in an appendix, which also includes several charts.

The research in both primary and secondary sources is exhaustive. Maizlish has read more than 1,700 letters, speeches, and comments of more than half of the members of the Thirty-first Congress. In another appendix, he lists the names of the senators and representatives he has quoted. The politics of slavery take on a new meaning with A Strife of Tongues, for, as Representative Abraham Venable said, "Words … become things" (p. 193). This reviewer is not sure political historians will come around to Maizlish's view, but this book is a must-read...


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