At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union

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Overview


In 1850, America hovered on the brink of disunion. Tensions between slave-holders and abolitionists mounted, as the debate over slavery grew rancorous. An influx of new territory prompted Northern politicians to demand that new states remain free; in response, Southerners baldly threatened to secede from the Union. Only Henry Clay could keep the nation together.

At the Edge of the Precipice is historian Robert V. Remini’s fascinating recounting of the Compromise of 1850, a titanic act of political will that only a skillful statesman like Clay could broker. Although the Compromise would collapse ten years later, plunging the nation into civil war, Clay’s victory in 1850 ultimately saved the Union by giving the North an extra decade to industrialize and prepare.

A masterful narrative by an eminent historian, At the Edge of the Precipice also offers a timely reminder of the importance of bipartisanship in a bellicose age.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The National Book Award-winning biographer of Andrew Jackson focuses on Henry Clay, who as an aging, ill Kentucky senator spearheaded the Compromise of 1850, a complex balancing of Northern and Southern interests that averted Southern secession. The compromise guaranteed that California would be a free state and New Mexico and Utah free territories; gave Texas $10 million in return for its relinquishing its claim to parts of New Mexico; the enactment of a more effective fugitive slave law; and the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The compromise gave the North 10 years to industrialize and find a leader in Abraham Lincoln who could restore the Union. Clay, who also delivered the 1820 Missouri Compromise, emerges as a complex figure, a slave owner who regarded slavery as an evil that betrayed American values. He was an electrifying orator and remarkable statesman who lacked discipline (he indulged in carousing, gambling, and drinking). Not all readers will linger over the legal details of the compromise, but Remini ably dissects a dangerous moment in the nation's history and the remarkable but flawed man who ushered the nation through it. (May)
From the Publisher

Library Journal
“Award-winning historian Remini…draws on his immense knowledge of antebellum American politics and sectionalism to give an informed and lively recounting of the (in)famous Compromise of 1850…. Remini’s great strength is making sense of the many and various personal and political interests entangled in the slavery issue and in showing how the ‘great men’ like Henry Clay tried to manage sectional reconciliation and their own ambitions.”

Publisher’s Weekly
“Remini ably dissects a dangerous moment in the nation’s history and the remarkable but flawed man who ushered the nation through it.”

Booklist
“Condensed with well-dramatized brevity, Remini’s account will captivate the American-history audience.”

Shelf Awareness
“Robert Remini paints a vivid portrait of Henry Clay in this tightly focused analysis of a critical moment in United States history…. A finely detailed examination of the art of compromise in politics as well as a splendid testimonial to Henry Clay’s inestimable value in our nation’s history.”

Washington Times
“[Remini] narrows his focus to Clay’s last great struggle, the Compromise of 1850, and argues quite persuasively that good politics demands great men.”

Roll Call
“Remini, the House historian, provides an engaging narrative brimming with dialogue from historic figures such as Vice President John C. Calhoun and Sen. Stephen A Douglas and detailed descriptions of action on the Senate and House floors…. For fans of legislative wrangling, the book is a joy to read as it follows the multiple deaths and rebirths of Clay’s compromise until finally reaching success, albeit in modified terms. It is a story that will be familiar to observers of today’s Congress…. Ultimately, Remini’s main purpose is not to dwell on the policy details but to explore how and why some Congressmen were willing to engage in the give-and-take of lawmaking and to lament the lost art of compromise.”

Louisville Courier-Journal
“Remini’s short and accessible book…explores an aging and ailing Clay’s final effort – the Compromise of 1850…. As our country confronts polarizing issues and our politicians reject compromise, we could use Henry Clay.”

Library Journal
Award-winning historian Remini, best known for his three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson, draws on his immense knowledge of antebellum American politics and sectionalism to give an informed and lively recounting of the (in)famous Compromise of 1850, which for a moment deflected Southern secessionist threats but also outraged Northerners because of the Fugitive Slave Act it included. Remini's great strength is making sense of the many and various personal and political interests entangled in the slavery issue and in showing how the "great men" like Henry Clay tried to manage sectional reconciliation and their own ambitions. He takes a long view of political compromises, reminding readers that trust and political skill had made prior compromises work and thereby suggesting why the 1850 concoction postponed rather than resolved a crisis of Union. If Remini too often makes bold assertions about "what might have been" had so-and-so happened, or not happened, especially in declaring that the South would have won a civil war if it had broken out in 1850, he does provide a valuable lesson in legislative management that will profit students of history and government. VERDICT An instructive book recommended especially for college and university students.—Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Heather Cox Richardson
In a time of rapid change, economic instability and cultural divisions, Clay "understood that politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness," writes historian of the House of Representatives Robert V. Remini. In his elegant little volume called At the Edge of the Precipice, Remini notes that politics should be about governing, and politicians who cannot compromise cannot govern effectively.
—The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award winner and U.S. House of Representatives historian Remini (A Short History of the United States, 2008, etc.) revisits the Compromise of 1850 as an important, cautionary tale for today. Although Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas actually pressed for the passing of the separate bills that effectively became the Compromise of 1850, it was Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who hammered the various proposals by Northerners and Southerners into a shape that was acceptable to both, then argued passionately on the Senate floor for "assured peace and restored harmony to all the remotest extremities of this distracted land." Remini breaks down the debate into palatable pieces for the lay reader. After the Mexican war, California and New Mexico had to be configured into the Union, as well as the Mormon territory in Utah. The North wanted the territories to be free states, while the South desired an extension of slavery. Clay, coaxed back to the Senate from retirement, decided an urgent compromise was needed to placate the North as well as keep the Southern states from seceding in earnest. The compromise involved popular sovereignty for the new states, the settlement of Texas boundaries and resolution of its debt, the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and a more effective fugitive-slave law. Clay, a Kentucky slaveholder who had been converted to the benefits of abolition, made his political career years before as the Great Pacifier, having forged important legislature as Speaker of the House, such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and a compromise over the crisis on tariffs and protectionism in 1832-33. However, he had also been tainted by the "corrupt bargain"he supposedly made with John Quincy Adams in 1824 to gain the appointment of secretary of state. Remini skillfully presents the debates by the Great Triumvirate-Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster-and decides that Clay's compromise ultimately saved the Union by allowing the North ten years to prepare for war and to nourish the great leader it needed-Abraham Lincoln. A fresh look at the value of compromise in advancing the general interest.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465012886
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/11/2010
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert V. Remini, historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, has been teaching and writing about American history for more than half a century. He has written more than twenty books, including the definitive three volume biography The Life of Andrew Jackson, which won the National Book Award (1984). His other books include biographies of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and Joseph Smith. His Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars won the Spur Award for best western nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. He lives in Wilmette, Illinois.
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