Donald E. Graham
America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Unionby Fergus M. Bordewich, Norman Dietz
The “stimulating, richly informed” (The Wall Street Journal) story behind the Compromise of 1850, which preserved the Union on the eve of the Civil War—“original in concept, stylish in execution…provides everything history readers want.…The characters seem as vivid, human, and understandable as those who walk the halls of Congress today” (The Washington Post).
The Mexican War introduced vast new territories into the United States, including California and the present-day Southwest. When California settlers petitioned for admission to the Union, Congress was presented with a seemingly intractable dilemma: with the Senate precariously balanced at fifteen free states and fifteen slave states, would California be free or slave? So began an unprecedented crisis in American government and the longest debate in Senate history.
Fergus Bordewich tells the epic story of the Compromise of 1850 with skill and vigor, bringing to life two generations of senators who dominated the great debate. Luminaries such as John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay were nearing the end of their long careers, while rising stars such as Jefferson Davis, William Seward, and Stephen Douglas would shape the country’s politics as slavery gradually fractured the nation.
The Compromise saved the Union from collapse, but it did so at a great cost. America’s Great Debate takes us back to a time when political compromise was not only possible, but imperative for the survival of the nation.
Donald E. Graham
—Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln: President-Elect
“Anyone whose eyes have glazed over at the numbing details of the Compromise of 1850 should read this compelling narrative of that famous event. Focusing on the colorful personalities who fought out the issue of slavery on the floor of the Senate in 1850, Fergus Bordewich shows how they forged a settlement that avoided war but laid the groundwork for the Civil War that came a decade later.”
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“In this exhaustively researched and brilliantly constructed work, Fergus Bordewich offers a spellbinding account of a nation teetering on disintegration, as its lawmakers, gripped by suspicion, anger, and hatred, ultimately mustered a grudging agreement—an act of ‘collaborative statecraft’—to sacrifice parochial interests for national survival. In Bordewich’s skillful telling, Congress at its inherent worst, in response to the volcanic stresses of that era, for the moment, became Congress at its potential best.”
—Richard A. Baker, U.S. Senate Historian Emeritus
"[A] vivid, insightful history of the bitter controversy that led to the Compromise of 1850 . . . Political history is often a hard slog, but not in Bordewich's gripping, vigorous acount featuring a large cast of unforgettable characters with fierce beliefs."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A peerless narrative of one of the most momentous—and ambiguous—episodes in American history: the compromise that both saved the Union and, ultimately, destroyed it.”
—Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening
"Today's political differences pale in significance when compared with those that confronted Congress in the mid-19th century. What was at stake--as Fergus Bordewich reminds us in his stimulating, richly informed America's Great Debate--was nothing less than the survival of the nation."
—David S. Reynolds, The Wall Street Journal
"Original in concept, stylish in execution, America's Great Debate, by Fergus Bordewich, provides everything history readers want. . . .[the] characters seem as vivid, human and understandable as those who walk the halls of Congress today."
—Donald E. Graham, The Washington Post
"A perceptive and tremendously witty book about the compromise that held the US together in the decade before the Civil War."
—Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor
"A lively, attractive book about a fearsome and almost intractable crisis: the tangle of issues involving expansion and slavery that confronted the political class of the United States in 1850. . . . Bordewich, the author of several books on American history, is a good writer—he knows when to savor details, and when to move things along."
—Richard Brookhiser, The New York Times Book Review
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Meet the Author
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of several books, among them America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history. His articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. He lives in San Francisco. Visit him at FergusBordewich.com.
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I've read other works (books and articles) by Fergus Bordewich. All are interesting, informative, easy to read, and easy to understand. America's Great Debate … is no exception. A great book !!! Very well researched and documented with 61 pages of notes, 16 pages of black and white photographs, and two very helpful maps. I learned so much. Not only about the Compromise of 1850 but also about an era that I somewhat took for granted. Bordewich does a magnificent job describing individuals and events. He frequently enhances his anecdotal material with informative (and amusing) parenthetical explanations. The working of the House and Senate during the antebellum period is well described --- particularly in Chapter 23, The Omnibus Overturned. Some sections could stand alone for future publications. I look forward to interesting and informative magazine articles by Bordewich. Bordewich makes a convincing case that absent the Compromise, the 15 Slave States could have (and were so inclined) to pull off secession; thereby creating a precedent for two or three or more “copy cat” breakaway nations. The 1850 Compromise effectively bought time (through April 1861) for the developing American republic. America's Great Debate … is most informative and enjoyable not only to amateur historians like me, but also to professional historians, public servants, teachers, and many others. I spent a good portion of my 32+ year Federal career as a training officer teaching, developing, and administering courses in public policy --- mostly in the area of finance and accounting. My university training was accounting. Fortunately, I also acquired solid background in history and public policy, which benefited me tremendously in the classroom and in course development. Had America's Great Debate … been available I would have strongly recommended them as excellent background to my instructors.
This is a great story about a very critical time in our shared history. Bordewich does a good job portraying the involved individuals and setting the scene. This is a very readable book on what some might consider a dry subject. It reminds us that when we are tempted to say that our current political situation is dysfunctional and in crisis, maybe we should re-visit history before being quite so vituperative. If we are currently in crisis we would can at least take some solace in recognizing that this is not the first (nor the last) time. Highly recommend this book.
A thorough treatment of the subject matter, yet easy to read and appreciate. This book brings the players of the 1850 compromise to life. It is worth the time invested.
I am one, while reading a book, who writes notes and uses a highlighter. More than one marker will be needed before this book is finished. Antebellum at its best. Worth every penny.