The 10-month struggle in the U.S. Congress in 1850 to resolve questions about the status of the new territories gained in the Mexican War and the future of slavery in present-day New Mexico and Utah could have turned out differently. In reading the officially reported speeches given by a quite diverse group of senators, who felt passionately about their beliefs, one feels that secession by Southern states and the war with the North was imminent.

Three legendary figures in American history—Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun (who was in ill health and died during the session)—participated in the debate. Clay’s leadership was crucial. His Omnibus bill, as it was most often called, proposed eight resolutions that, taken together, he said, represented “a great national scheme of compromise and harmony.” But Clay’s approach unraveled, and Senator Stephen Douglas adroitly saw that the larger proposal was divided into individual bills on which congressmen could vote (or abstain) based on their political interests.

Fergus M. Bordewich brings this dramatic Washington, D.C., setting—as well as California, Texas, New Mexico, New York and Cuba, among other places—to illuminating life in America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union. The difficulties of the Congress became apparent when it took 63 roll call ballots to elect a Speaker of the House of Representatives. In the Senate there were both proslavery and antislavery Whigs and Democrats and slave owners who were Unionists. At one extreme, Jefferson Davis said that human bondage was fully justified by the Bible, validated by the U.S. Constitution and a blessing for the slaves themselves. William Seward, on the other hand, declared there was a “higher law than the Constitution”: God’s law that commanded Christians to disobey laws they considered unjust, in particular those that upheld slavery. Bordewich notes that in the 20th century, civil disobedience on moral grounds would become familiar, but in 1850 Americans on all sides thought such behavior would lead to anarchy.

The author also focuses on the two presidents who served during this period. Zachary Taylor agreed to run as the Whig candidate for president with the understanding that he would be independent of party demands. He refused to campaign at all or to express views on perennial issues. As president, it developed that he was opposed to a compromise. But he died on July 9, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, was in favor of the compromise. Bordewich sees Fillmore as the “most elusive” of all the central figures in the debate. His political base in New York state was a center of Underground Railroad activity and he detested slavery. He saw it, though, as a political problem rather than a moral one and thought the federal government did not have the authority to be for or against it.

Fillmore immediately signed all of the bills that were part of the Compromise except for the Fugitive Slave Act, a drastic overhaul of what many in the South regarded as the ineffectual 1793 law of the same name. He hesitated and perhaps agonized over it for two days before signing it into law. It may have been as much a political calculation as anything else, as he planned to run for the presidency in 1852 and had to consider whether it would be wiser for him to offend the North or the South. As events went forward, Bordewich notes that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill “would have a more far-reaching impact on the nation’s slavery crisis problem than any other facet of the compromise.”

At the end of the day, California was admitted to the Union as a free state, the New Mexico and Utah territories were created with the issue of slavery to be resolved by popular sovereignty, a Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute was settled in favor of Texas, slave trading was ended in Washington, D.C., and there was the harsh Fugitive Slave Law, which the author considers “the single most intrusive assertion of federal authority enacted during the antebellum period.” And, of course, the Compromise held until the Civil War.

Bordewich, whose other books include Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America and Washington: The Making of the American Capital, has written a rich work that transports us back to a time when leaders realized that only compromise would hold the Union together.

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