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America’s Great Debate
Wholly enjoyable study of an earlier era of intense political partisanship. Review by Kirkus Reviews

HISTORIAN BORDEWICH (Washington: The Making of an American Capital, 2008) 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.