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Henry Clay (1777 -- 1852) had his finest hour when he brokered the Compromise of 1850 late in his life. The Compromise resolved seemingly irreconciliable differences between North and South resulting from the Mexican War. The issues involved the expansion or the curtailment of slavery. By fashioning a delicate series of measures, the sections were able to resolve their differences for a time. When Civil War came ten years later, the North was much further along in industrialization and in political will than had been the case in 1850. The North also had bought time to find a new leader in the person of Abraham Lincoln. Thus, the Compromise of 1850 played an essential role in ultimately keeping the United States together.
Robert Remini's short, elegant new book "At the Edge of the Precipice" tells the story of the Compromise of 1850 and of Clay's role in it. Remini examines the factors leading to the near break-up of the Union in 1850 that showed why compromise was both difficult and essential. He offers a detailed look at the legislative process and the play of various political interests in enacting the Compromise. Clay's strengths and contributions to the Compromise are emphasized as are his failings. At the end, it fell to Stephen Douglas to bring the process to a conclusion.
Remini's book is of avowedly more than historical interest. He tries to teach a lesson about what compromise is and why it is important. To be successful, for Remini, a compromise must give each party something of value so that each may claim success regarding something of essential importance. Conversely, each party must be prepared to negotiate and not press certain matters that are of less importance. Polarization, distrust, ill-will and sometimes violence can be the results of a failure to compromise. In his Preface, Remini writes:
"This point is especially important today when the nation faces myriad problems, both foreign and domestic, that defy easy solutions, and that will, in all likelihood, require both major political parties to agree to compromise their differences. With severe economic problems that threaten to pitch the nation into a deep recession; with other domestic issues, such as health care, energy, immigration, and social concerns such as abortion and gay marriage; with wars in the Middle East that verge on escalation throughout the region; and with terrorism rampant around the globe, compromise on the part of the nation's political leaders, and the leaders of other countries, becomes all the more necessary."
We learn more about compromise as the narrative unfolds. Henry Clay had ran unsucessfully for president three times and had sought his party's nomination on two other occasions. Ill, elderly and discouraged, he reluctantly accepted a call to return to the Senate in 1849 after being denied the Whig presidential nomination in 1848. With no further presidential opportunities open to him, Clay acted with a large degree of disinterestedness. As a patriot and an American, his goal was to hold the Union together.
Clay also saw that many issues divided the country and that a successful compromise package would need to deal with seemingly disparate issues. Thus, Clay fashioned a series of proposals involving 1. the admission of California to the Union; 2. the organization of the Territory of New Mexico 3. the boundaries of Texas 4. Federal assumption of the debts of the former Republic of Texas 5. the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia; 6. buying and selling of slaves in the District of Columbia and 7. a fugitive slave law to allow southerners to recover runaway slaves. The proposed compromises gave something to each party, and Clay fought for them with force and eloquence. After much debate including missteps along the way Clay's proposals became the basis of the Compromise of 1850.
Remini offers lengthy accounts of the eloquence of the "Great Triumvirate" of the Senate -- Clay, Webster, and Calhoun -- as they addressed the proposed Compromise in their near final hours. He also shows how rising politicians such as Douglas and William Seward played a role in the Compromise. Douglas showed great political skill in securing the enactment of the components of the compromise as separate items of legislation after Clay, against his better judgment, had put all the components in a single package which could not garner sufficient legislative support. Seward gave a speech in the Senate which he invoked God and religion against the Compromise and its concessions to slaveholders. Remini's account suggests that such appeals are unlikely to be useful or successful.
As a prelude to his treatment of the Compromise of 1850, Remini discusses compromise in the creation of the Union beginning with the Constitution. But he focuses on Clay's lifelong role as the "Great Compromisor" in which ideological extremes are put aside to try to achieve consensus. Clay had taken this role many times his life, especially in securing passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and in helping to defuse the secession crisis with South Carolina and Nullification in 1832 -- 1833.
Remini is the historian of the U.S. House of Representatives and the author of many books on American history which focus on the pre-Civil War Era. This book teaches a great deal about an important event in United States history and about a great, if flawed, statesman, Henry Clay. Equally important, the book is also a meditation upon the importance and the nature of political compromise.
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