In this vivid, insightful history of the bitter controversy that led to the Compromise of 1850, journalist Bordewich (Washington: The Making of the American Capital) reminds us that Southerners dominated all branches of the federal government until 1850. Every president had owned slaves except the two Adamses, and Southern states still made up half of the Senate. The territorial bonanza after the 1845–1847 Mexican war threatened their control because California and New Mexico’s governments excluded slavery. Outraged Southern leaders refused to accept this, paralyzing Congress for months. A compromise designed by an aged Henry Clay failed, but was quickly revived and passed thanks largely to Stephen Douglas. It admitted California as a free state, put off the status of the remaining territory, and strengthened the fugitive slave law. Despite narrow passage and wildly abusive debate, it was a dazzling achievement that temporarily staved off civil war. Political history is often a hard slog, but not in Bordewich’s gripping, vigorous account featuring a large cast of unforgettable characters with fierce beliefs. 16 pages of b&w photos, 2 maps. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Apr.)
“Long before the crisis of 1860 there was the crisis of 1850. With page-turning narrative skill, Fergus Bordewich re-imagines this threat to the Union not only in terms of Northerners and Southerners, slavery advocates and freedom champions, but as a rite of passage between the old lions of the Senate and Young America—a transformation that would at least postpone secession and civil war. Few writers have ever brought this neglected moment to life more vividly.”
—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 stakeas Fergus Bordewich reminds us in his stimulating, richly informed America's Great Debatewas 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
Wholly enjoyable study of an earlier era of intense political partisanship. Historian Bordewich (Washington: The Making of an American Capital, 2008, etc.) recounts the amazing story of the cliffhanging compromise hammered out in both houses of Congress in 1850 that pitted the rival pro- and antislavery factions against each other and saved the country, temporarily, from dissolution. The war with Mexico four years before had added 1.2 million square miles to the western United States, while slavery, thanks to the cotton gin, had exploded exponentially. Would the new territories comprise slave states or free states? How to maintain the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives between them? Bordewich portrays a colorful cast of characters--Democrats, Whigs, Free Soilers and abolitionists--whose passionate rhetoric attained lyrical heights and brought the debate about America's very identity to the forefront. Chief architect Henry Clay, in ill health and at the end of an eminent career, brandished a fragment of George Washington's coffin and warned his colleagues of the dire consequences of disunion. Urging forbearance on both sides, Clay laid out the components of a plan accounting for the admission of California and New Mexico without restrictions (meaning they would decide themselves about slavery), resolving the disputed borders with Texas, abolishing the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and soothing Southerners' concerns over fugitive slaves. Warring factions--on the South, led by senators John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, and on the North, led by Daniel Webster and William Seward--threatened to defeat the omnibus bill, until the rhetorical arm-wringing by the "steam engine in britches" Stephen A. Douglas squeezed a compromise and the necessary passage. Acquiescence to the Fugitive Slave Law, however, would henceforth haunt the lawmakers. A thrilling history lesson filled with pistol waving in the Senate, "backroom confabulations," the death of a president and old-fashioned oratorical efflorescence.