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Book Review: At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union by Robert V. Remini

Posted By Ed Voves On June 2, 2010 @ 9:56 am In History,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union
by Robert V. Remini
Basic Books, 200 pp.
CLR Rating:

Stay of Execution

In the American political vocabulary, compromise is a word with a lot to answer for.

In the history textbooks, compromise usually comes off in a positive way. It denotes a cooperative agreement between two contending parties or rival factions. Everybody gives something. Everybody gets something. A crisis is averted.

Political compromise in the United States has a darker side to its nature, as well. To uphold the status quo, the human rights of quite sizable groups of people, often those with no meaningful power or influence, are sacrificed. These “outsiders” give much, get little or nothing and the embers of future crisis are stirred.

Never was this truer than in 1850. In that year, an aging political titan, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, tried to broker a compromise solution to a tangle of issues linked to slavery. The seemingly intractable dispute had brought the states of North and South to the brink of Civil War.

In a spirited new account of the events leading up to the Compromise of 1850, Robert V. Remini quotes Clay’s impassioned speech in which he implored Congressional leaders “to pause – solemnly to pause – at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken into the yawning abyss below.”

According to most interpretations of the Compromise of 1850, Clay succeeded in the short term. He placated agitation by Southern extremists for their states to secede from the Union, while securing some concessions for the anti-slavery forces. But his effort failed to resolve the fundamental difference in opinion over the place of slavery in a democratic America.

Clay’s clutch of compromise bills in 1850 aimed to provide a permanent solution to problems arising from the threatened spread of slavery to California, New Mexico and Texas. These territories were the spoils of the victorious war against Mexico, 1846-48. Similar disputes had arisen concerning the presence of slavery in states carved out of the earlier Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Clay was a master strategist of the trade-off, a political horse trader who balanced one concession to the South with one for the North. But the volatile political situation following the Mexican War was a far cry from the “Era of Good Feelings” when Clay had stage managed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. By the terms of that deal, one slave state was admitted to the Union for every new free one. A great deal had changed, however, over thirty years and Clay’s room to maneuver was far more restricted.

In 1850, the best that Clay could do was to coax Southern politicians to agree to halt the selling of slaves in the District of Columbia. The payback was the Fugitive Slave Act. Nicknamed the “Bloodhound Law,” it legally bound law enforcement officers in the North to assist in the seizure of escaped slaves, punishing anyone who assisted the runaways. These slavery-related bills were passed, despite widespread anger in the North over the Fugitive Slave Act. Additional legislation secured the admission of California as a free state and the settlement of a border dispute between Texas and New Mexico. North and South stepped back from the precipice. But the flames of sectional strife had hardly been doused by the Compromise of 1850 than renewed contention broke out again, this time in “Bleeding Kansas.”

One of the leading historians of the early American Republic, Remini revives the issues and protagonists of this watershed event in U.S. political history. Remini, a master stylist, presents in dramatic fashion the legislative battles that brought Clay’s compromise to the brink of success and then, in a stunning reversal of fortune, to the edge of defeat. Clay made a major miscalculation, trying to wrap all his proposals in a single, over-arching bill, nicknamed the “omnibus” for the new horse-drawn street cars. In the end, a younger politician, Stephen A. Douglas, saved the day by guiding the bills separately through the Senate.

This brief account of Remini’s narrative follows the conventional lines of U.S. history. But Remini, the old master historian, has an ace insight up his sleeve. Though the Compromise of 1850 did not prevent the Civil War, Remini contends that it saved the Union by delaying the conflict for 10 years. In the decade of the 1850’s, the North grew in population and in economic and industrial strength while the South stagnated. A new generation of pro-Union leaders came of age during those years, so different from the ineffectual U.S. presidents of the 1850’s. The unintended, but crucial, outcome of Clay’s efforts, Remini writes, was to give “the North ten years to find a leader who could save the Union. His name: Abraham Lincoln.”

If the actions of major historical figures like Henry Clay often have unintended consequences, there are broader historical trends that need to be considered as well. This is where Remini’s account falters. While he is correct in regarding the ten-year hiatus between the Compromise of 1850 and the Secession Crisis of 1860 as a key factor in saving the Union, he offers little or no statistical documentation. And in matters of this kind, as Gustave Flaubert was fond of saying, “God is in the details.”

During the 1850’s, America’s population and economy soared. A search of the Census of 1860 shows that the U.S. population rose from 23,191,876 in 1850 to 31,443,321. But 3,953,761 of the 1860 figure were African American slaves. Of the 27 million white Americans in 1860, only 8 million lived in the slave-owning South. In some southern states, black slaves outnumbered whites. In Mississippi, for instance, African American slaves composed 55% of the population. Immigration from Western Europe added significant numbers to the white population of the free states of the North and Mid-West, while few settled in the South.

The demographic battle was not the only one being lost by the slave-owning South. The wealth generated from the sale of cotton and other agricultural products masked the growing economic impoverishment of the South. The boom in American railroad building during the 1850’s, rising to 28,919 miles of track in 1860 from 8,571 in 1850, bypassed much of the South. Huge swathes of “Dixie”, especially the states of the Deep South like Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, were left dependent on wagon and riverboat transport. By contrast, the developing states of the Mid-West like Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin witnessed a staggering rail increase from 46 miles of track in 1850 to nearly 5,000 miles in 1860.

The South’s military supremacy was on the wane as well. Traditionally, the South had supplied the cream of the officer corps of the U.S. Army and to a lesser degree the U.S. Navy. During the Mexican War, most of the troops were from the South as well, though Irish immigrants supplied some of the rank-and file of the Regular Army. The North was distinctly unmilitary. But during the 1850’s, the Industrial Revolution began to revolutionize warfare. Ironclad ships, breech loading rifles, long-range cannons and the use of canned food as military provisions were key innovations of the 1850’s, all of which favored the technologically advanced states of the North, especially New England, New York and Pennsylvania.

Population and economic factors like these might be accounted as “after the fact” information, unavailable to decision makers at the time. But in fact, these social trends were cogently presented in an amazing book published in 1857. The Impending Crisis of the South, written by Hinton Rowan Helper, analyzed many of these developments which were already apparent from the 1850 Census data. Helper urged the South to phase out its slave-based economy in favor of industrial development similar to the North’s. His arguments met with scorn in the South and his book was widely banned, including in his home state of North Carolina.

Remini’s book presents little of this information. The resulting lack of perspective makes it difficult to assess why Clay’s effort ultimately failed. Why did rising Southern leaders like Jefferson Davis arrange themselves in opposition to the prevailing social and economic trends outlined in The Impending Crisis of the South? Davis was an intelligent and able man, born in Henry Clay’s state of Kentucky like his eventual opponent, Abraham Lincoln. Yet Davis closed his mind to a future for America that did not include slavery.

Perhaps the reason for such diehard resistance in the South can be traced to moderates like Henry Clay. For all his patriotic zeal, Clay could not accept a vision of America where African Americans could live as free citizens. Clay, a slave owner sympathetic to gradual emancipation, favored the founding of Liberia as an African colony for freed slaves. Because of the “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country,” Clay asserted in reference to freed slaves. “It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.”

The Compromise of 1850 was thus a political settlement that excluded that segment of the American population most affected by the dispute, namely the over three million African American slaves. Like the 1938 Munich Agreement between Adolf Hitler and British leader Neville Chamberlain that decided the fate of Czechoslovakia without consulting the Czech government, the Compromise of 1850 settled the fate of millions of Americans by excluding them from any part of the bargain.

Once the Fugitive Slave Act became the law of the land, there was thus no hope of freedom or of living as free citizens for the millions of African American slaves. What appeared to Clay and his colleagues as a quid pro quo bargaining point became a crisis of conscience for many of their fellow citizens. On June 5, 1851, a response to the moral impasse created by the Compromise of 1850 appeared in the abolitionist journal, National Era. It was the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published as a complete novel in 1852, Stowe’s sensational tale sold 300,000 copies in its first year of publication.

As with The Impending Crisis of the South, Remini fails to consider the impact or import of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an unaccountable omission. Stowe’s novel effectually trumped all of Clay’s political calculations, proving by the phenomenal response of its international acclaim that there could be no lasting political settlement in the United States while Americans lived in bondage.

By focusing his narrative entirely on political maneuvering in Washington, Remini gilds Clay’s reputation to an unwarranted degree. Remini approvingly quotes Senator Henry Foote’s claim that “had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-61,” the Civil War would once again have been avoided. Given the almost immediate failure of the Compromise of 1850 to promote anything more than a brief truce, further legislative attempts of that type would certainly have been rejected by Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens and other Southern leaders intent on creating a nation with liberty and justice for some.

This contradiction at the heart of the Confederate States of America festered in the resolutions of Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850. Any act or law that compromises the democratic and human rights of some Americans ultimately compromises the sacred ideal of liberty and justice for all.


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