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Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union

by Robert V. Remini

Pub Date: May 11th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-465-01288-6
Publisher: Basic

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.