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At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 11, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The National Book Award–winning biographer of Andrew Jackson focuses on Henry Clay, who as an aging, ill Kentucky senator spearheaded the Compromise of 1850, a complex balancing of Northern and Southern interests that averted Southern secession. The compromise guaranteed that California would be a free state and New Mexico and Utah free territories; gave Texas $10 million in return for its relinquishing its claim to parts of New Mexico; the enactment of a more effective fugitive slave law; and the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The compromise gave the North 10 years to industrialize and find a leader in Abraham Lincoln who could restore the Union. Clay, who also delivered the 1820 Missouri Compromise, emerges as a complex figure, a slave owner who regarded slavery as an evil that betrayed American values. He was an electrifying orator and remarkable statesman who lacked discipline (he indulged in carousing, gambling, and drinking). Not all readers will linger over the legal details of the compromise, but Remini ably dissects a dangerous moment in the nation's history and the remarkable but flawed man who ushered the nation through it. (May)
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From Booklist

The author of such definitive histories as Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (1991) here turns in a case study of the Compromise of 1850. It was not the first deflection of civil war by Clay, who engineered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the resolution to the nullification crisis of 1832. But it may have been the Kentucky senator’s most consequential compromise if, as Remini argues, it postponed for a decade a war the North could not have won in 1850. Describing Clay’s view of compromise as victory for both parties and detailing the deadlock over slavery’s status in the territories, which needed to be broken to quash secession, Remini recounts the strategy Clay devised to placate the South’s grievances. Inaugurated with Clay’s speech, soaring oratory by Daniel Webster, and a bitter rebuttal from the dying John Calhoun, the debate over Clay’s compromise boiled until the death of President Taylor and the tactical talents of Stephen Douglas cooled down sectional acrimony and produced Clay’s compromise. Condensed with well-dramatized brevity, Remini’s account will captivate the American-history audience. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465012884
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,600,246 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on March 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This very brief book shows that slavery was such a contentious issue in American politics throughout the 19th century that it had to be continually battened down by compromise measures, lasting only until the next controversy. The author focuses on Henry Clay, perhaps the foremost politician of the era, and his role in effecting those compromises, especially his last one: the Compromise of 1850. The author makes the debatable claim that compromises among political elements are always better than the alternatives.

As the author explains, Clay was very involved in brokering the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and its key stipulation of the 36-30 latitude as a line of slavery demarcation and the lowered tariffs of the Compromise Tariff of 1833 - both to placate sectional differences. But the Mexican War of 1846-48 and its acquisition of vast Mexican lands ranging from Texas to the Pacific Ocean was highly disruptive to a fragile sectional balance. The author notes that the Wilmot Proviso, which was introduced several times in Congress during the War and sought to ban slavery from any acquired territories, confirmed Southern fears that their "peculiar institution" was under attack.

Clay, a thrice-defeated candidate for president, after 1848 recognized that the rhetoric and threats being exchanged among sections and segments of the country had reached perhaps an all time high in acrimony; intimations of secession were rampant on the part of the "ultras" from the South. The author gives Clay, now an old man, credit for selflessly using his considerable reputation and legislative skills in pushing for a compromise to smooth over this latest national crisis.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By George J. Heidemark on May 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Robert Remini is a true expert on Jacksonian America. His works on Jackson, Clay and Webster are classics as is his account of the Battle of New Orleans. This is a good book but not great. It is well written but at some points it is too short. The author reminds us of the essential role of compromise in American politics.He gives a brief overview of Henry Clay's storied career and then focuses on the Compromise of 1850.(He gives good but brief coverage to the various pieces of the Compromise including California's entry as a free state, the elimination of the slave trade in Washington D.C and of course the controversial Fugitive Slave Law.) This is a decent survey- I just wanted more. Stephen Douglas's crucial role in the compromises final passage needs more analysis. The author floats a fascinating 2 point thesis that needs more investigation.He says that the Compromise delayed a civil war which the South could have won in 1850 and that the delay of the war gave the nation time to elect a strong national leader- Lincoln who would lead the nation in its greatest challenge.I would have liked more time spent on these elements. An author with Remini's writing style and intellect has that ability.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lincoln on June 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful, concise analysis of the politics and issues behind the Compromise of 1850. I have always enjoyed Remini's work, and loved his earlier door-stopper of a biography on Henry Clay (written back in the 1990s). Think of this volume as a sort of "filet mignon" culled from that earlier work - composed of just the juicy morsels regarding the 1850 Compromise, removed from that larger biography. Some might be taken aback at the sliminess of the volume - but just realize, again, that this is not supposed to be an exhaustive look at all the roll calls, all the political machinations, behind the debates and passage of the Compromise, but a quick, yet incisive, overall "tree-top" look at it. For a "grounds-up" view, go to other works (like my all time favorite book on the Anti-bellum/pre-Civil War era, The Impending Crisis, by David Potter). But do buy/read this book. It deserves to be in any Civil War junkie's library - and I think would be a FANTASTIC introduction for anyone who is interested in the politics of that era. I bought it - and am glad I did, for I will re-read it many times again!!
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