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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: #891,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Fergus M. Bordewich brings an excellent history and story of the great debate of 1850, which saved the Union but at the same time, I feel, showed that the United States could not continue to develop complex compromises for many more years before it would be torn apart.

There is an excellent cast of characters, most notably Henry Clay at the end of his career and life, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and others of great statesmanship, superb oratory, and intensely opinionated regarding their views on slavery, and its containment or expansion.

As you read through this book, you understand that the South was not interested in compromise, and certainly not in being a part of a Union that they felt was set up against them. I suppose that a bloody civil war was unavoidable and so it came about a little more than a decade later. No matter how stirring the prose, the oratory, the reasoning, and the appealing, it is evident that the nation was bent on self destruction. For those who would argue that the war was not about slavery, this book will certainly expel that idea. It was totally about slavery, and while it may have been disguised in states rights, it was about slavery.

This book is a good companion to We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 and provides excellent background material to help the reader understand that by the end of 1860, after the Lincoln election and prior to the inaugural, we were destined to be divided and resolve the political differences on the battlefields that proved to be the deadliest war in our history.
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