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America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union Hardcover – April 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“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 stake--as Fergus Bordewich reminds us in his stimulating, richly informed America's Great Debate--was 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

About the Author

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of several books, among them Washington: The Making of the American Capital and Bound for Canaan, a national history of the Underground Railroad. As a journalist he has written widely on political and cultural subjects in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, American Heritage, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439124604
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439124604
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

FERGUS M. BORDEWICH is the author of six non-fiction books: America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union (Simon & Schuster, 2012); Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008); Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005); My Mother's Ghost, a memoir (Doubleday, 2001); Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 1996); and Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China (Prentice Hall Press, 1991).

In his newest book, America's Great Debate, Bordewich tells an epic story of the nation's westward expansion, slavery and the Compromise of 1850, centering on the dramatic congressional debate of 1849-1850 - the longest in American history - when a gallery of extraordinary men including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William H. Seward, and others, fought to shape, and in the case of some to undermine, the future course of the Union.

He has also published an illustrated children's book, Peach Blossom Spring (Simon & Schuster, 1994), and wrote the script for a PBS documentary about Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Jefferson's University. He also edited an illustrated book of eyewitness accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Children of the Dragon (Macmillan, 1990). He is a regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine, mainly on subjects in nineteenth century American history. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and daughter.

Bound for Canaan was selected as one of the American Booksellers Association's "ten best nonfiction books" in 2005; as the Great Lakes Booksellers' Association's "best non-fiction book" of 2005; as one of the Austin Public Library's Best Non-Fiction books of 2005; and as one of the New York Public Library's "ten books to remember" in 2005.

Washington was named by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post as one of his "Best Books of 2008."

Bordewich was born in New York City in 1947, and grew up in Yonkers, New York. While growing up, he often traveled to Indian reservations around the United States with his mother, LaVerne Madigan Bordewich, the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, then the only independent advocacy organization for Native Americans. This early experience helped to shape his lifelong preoccupation with American history, the settlement of the continent, and issues of race, and political power. He holds degrees from the City College of New York and Columbia University. In the late 1960s, he did voter registration for the NAACP in the still-segregated South; he also worked as a roustabout in Alaska's Arctic oil fields, a taxi driver in New York City, and a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter.

He has been an independent writer and historian since the early 1970s. His articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Atlantic, Harper's, New York Magazine, GEO, Reader's Digest, and others. As a journalist, he traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, among many others. He also served for brief periods as an editor and writer for the Tehran Journal in Iran, in 1972-1973, a press officer for the United Nations, in 1980-1982, and an advisor to the New China News Agency in Beijing, in 1982-1983, when that agency was embarking on its effort to switch from a propaganda model to a western-style journalistic one.

America's Great Debate joins Bordewich's two previous books in exploring from a new angle the ways in which slavery and sectional conflict distorted American democracy in the years before the Civil War. In the aftermath of the Mexican War, new conquests carried the United States from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. How would the newly acquired empire be governed? Could it even be governed? Would that empire be slave or free? California's request to join the Union as a free state in 1850 pushed slavery's defenders to the brink of armed conflict. Many Americans expected secession and civil war to begin within months, if not weeks. The prevention of war through ten months of fierce debate was one of the greatest political achievements in American history. The compromise that resulted preserved the Union for another decade, ultimately enabling the North to ready itself for a war that it could win. America's Great Debate vividly recounts that story.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Steve Crawford on May 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Believe me, I hadn't been thinking a whole lot about the Compromise of 1850 lately but an excellent review of this book in the Wall Street Journal piqued my interest -making me realize how little I actually knew about that crucial time, less yet how pivotal the events were in American History and how integral they were to the Civil War 10 years later. Not only does this book read like a gripping novel, but it provided me with a truly new and genuinely expanded understanding of how the US arrived at the War Between the States! 1850 was just the first skirmish, so to speak, a first spark that was extinguished, unlike the next spark that would engulf the nation. But yet more enlightening for me was the concept that had the war actually begun in 1850 there is a strong likelihood that the Confederates could have emerged victorious!

The insights into the workings of Congress alone are worth the price of admission. And, oh, what a cast of characters that jump from the pages full of life: Stephen A.Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Millard Fillmore, Henry Clay, John C Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston. I have to quote a line here from the dust jacket that says it all: "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."

Now, lately, I'm thinking about the Compromise of 1850 a lot thanks to this marvelous historical tome. Highly recommended.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bradley Nelson on September 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover
At first I was going to say that this is a book only for history buffs, to keep casual readers from wasting their time, but I don't think it's even for all history buffs, because I am one and I didn't care for this book. It's not terrible, but it's just too much of conveying-all-the-facts and not enough historical-analysis-of-events.

This book is all about debate. But the problem is that debate (especially political debate) gets to be pretty convoluted and complex. Bordewich seems to leave nothing out. Every idea, every proposal, every speech, every piece of minutia is included. It gets to be a bit head-spinning as the story line seems to lurch back and forth through varying versions of varying ideas.

Now, I'm not saying it's all bad. It's a very laudable effort. This is a daunting topic and I'm glad Bordewich took it on, but it seems like this book could have benefitted from a bit more editing or a better approach. It's far too overwhelming to comprehend for the average reader. Unless you enjoy the nitty gritty of political and legislative debate, this book is probably not the best book for understanding the 1850 compromise.

The subtitle is also a bit misleading. It seems to suggest that Clay and Douglas will feature equally in this book, but they do not. Douglas gets limited mention until near the end when he manages to do what Clay had failed to do, but even then Douglas seems like a minor character in this grand scheme. This is not so much a complaint about the content of the book, but of the poorly chosen subtitle.

All in all, if you are interested in the debate over slavery and the causes of the Civil War, this is probably worth reading, but it might be worth taking the time to become fully familiar with the 1850 compromise first so everything will make sense.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By avidreader on May 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read short chapters or paragraphs in other books about this period of history and I have read many biographies of Clay and Douglas but here th author gives us an exciting detailed presentation of what went on. And the little details are what make the story even more interesting. If you are intersted in the Civil War era then you have to read this book to see what delayed the war for a few years and it gives you more of an insight as to what really was the cause f the war.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 6, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Reading Brodewitch's account of the debate over the Compromise of 1850 was like reading the New York Times today. A country bitterly divided, no middle political ground, and issues so serious it would change if not destroy the nation. Brodewitch makes Clay, Webser, Calhoun, and even Stephen Douglas come alive as we watch them struggle to cobble together the compromise that saved the Union, if only for a short time. Their courage to put country over party was the key to their success.

I agree with Brodewitch's conclusion that the Compeomise of 1850 gave the North a precious 10 years it needed to get ready for the war that came. The North became radicalized over the Fugitive Slave Law and began to muster the will and the means to fight and win the war with the South. I am left to wonder if a Clay or Douglas will emerge today to forge an economic compromise we so desperately need today?

Great history well told.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. L. Huff on December 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
How cut off Americans are from their own past, having no idea how Congressional cliffs are as old as the institution itself. Fergus M. Bordewich shows in his great reconstruction how they can be avoided for a time; but once passions are so deeply stirred not even a Henry Clay can make a deal permanent, let alone an Obama. The drama of the times was embodied in the flesh and blood of these men, their preserved debates the dried bones that have bored generations of high school students. Yet Bordewich has shown there's still residues of fresh meat remaining and has seasoned them out for modern consumption. He's on the money when he writes that had the Compromise not worked in 1850, secession would have succeeded with only token resistance.

There are great side stories along the way, part of the general narrative but fascinating in their own right: the near-war between New Mexico and the Federal government, on one side, and Texas. And the first Cuban "Bay of Pigs", sinking into parallel disaster. Calhoun's prophecy, as to the limited good of the Compromise and how soon it would unravel, was as Bordewich writes, "precisely, eerily correct": though John C. had much to do with its posthumous fulfillment. It's as if East and West Germany had been yoked together in the same federal union, seeking compromise with "fugitive slaves" in the balance. Making Robert Hunter of Virginia, the Chairman of the Finance Committee, sound like a Tea-Party intransigent indeed on p. 190: "Your socialist is the true abolitionist, and only he fully understands his mission . . . the institutions of property are to be shaken and disturbed."

But there are a few chips and cracks in Bordewich's masterful edifice. On p.
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