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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

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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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: #1,882,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At the Edge of the Precipice is a well-written, concise history of how Senator Henry Clay engineered compromises that preserved the Union, prevented secession, at least until 1860. This book by an Emeritus Historian of the House of Representatives presents the essence of various conflicts that would eventually lead to the Civil War: Federal Government and its powers vs. States' Rights; Human Freedom/Dignity vs. Property Rights; Omnibus Compromise bills that focus on a single problem vs. singular bills to deal with various sub-problems; "We, the People. . ." vs. We, the several States within the Union.

Remini shows how Clay's battle to move away from party ideologies to focus on problem solving and, therefore, compromise, shows us the historical antecedents to today's similar conflicts, ones that have brought current Congress into gridlock, with some steadfast in their all or nothing at all approach.

This book should be required reading for everybody in the US Congress, The House and Senate alike!
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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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Format: Paperback
I love Remini's work, even though I am no fan of Andrew Jackson. His full-length biographies, for me at least, set the standard by which other biographies should be measured. Even his shorter works are entertaining to read and are always informative. So this book, Remini's final offering, comes as something of a disappointment.

The narrative is much more straightforward and lacks the polish of earlier works, and the actual subject treatment is rather cursory. A very complex subject is dealt with in less than 150 pages, and anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the antebellum era will be left none the wiser. At best, this is an introductory work, probably suited for advanced high school students or non-specialist college students. Anyone coming to this book hoping for a deep, thorough analysis will likely come away feeling less than satisfied.
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