The Wall Street Journal
Fisticuffs on the floor of Congress, Southern threats of secession, saber-rattling over slavery in new states. And then: compromise.
Congress is mired in conflict. The opposing parties play a tense game of brinkmanship. Crisis looms. Recent standoffs over ObamaCare and the debt ceiling have given rise to such circumstances—and crisis may loom again, before long, over any number of hotly contested matters. But 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.
America’s Great Debate
By Fergus M. Bordewich
The source of the conflict was the question of what to do with the vast expanse of territory that the U.S. had won in its war against Mexico, a swath of land stretching from Texas to current-day Utah and west to the Pacific. For Southern extremists, this territory raised the bright possibility of a powerful western slave empire—a nightmarish prospect for antislavery Northerners, who insisted that the new lands be preserved for freedom.
The dispute, Mr. Bordewich vividly shows, almost caused the nation to unravel in 1850. Proslavery senators like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Robert Toombs of Georgia intimated that if the South’s demands were not met, it would secede and form a nation of its own. These fire-eaters considered slavery a wonderful institution, blessed by the Bible and sanctioned by the Constitution. Their opponents replied that slavery was a mockery of true religion and a betrayal of America’s ideals. New York Sen. William H. Seward noted that while slavery was, strictly speaking, constitutional, it violated “a higher law than the Constitution”—the law of morality and justice.
Passions ran so high that real or threatened violence—fisticuffs, gun-pointing, duel challenges—erupted on the floor of Congress. There were constant rumblings of imminent war. The hatchet-faced, coldly logical Calhoun did not dislike the North but said that it was difficult “to see how two peoples so different and hostile can exist together in one common Union.” The fiery Toombs declared: “I am for disunion.” If slavery was banned from the West, he added, “as far as I am concerned, let discord reign forever.”
A number of Southern states prepared to send troops to Texas in support of its plan to take over of the territory of New Mexico and plant slavery there. President Zachary Taylor, appalled, said he would personally lead an army against any force that attacked New Mexico. Meanwhile, the Venezuela-born soldier Narciso López, having consulted with several proslavery leaders, invaded Cuba with a “filibustering” expedition—as such freelance military forays were known—in a failed attempt to win that Spanish island for the South.
A national catastrophe was averted thanks to the time-tested Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, a Whig senator, and an energetic young Democratic senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. Though they belonged to different parties, Clay and Douglas saw that the nation could be saved only through compromise. Clay proposed a broad-ranging measure that made concessions to both sides. (It was called the “omnibus bill” because it was compared to a bus carrying different types of passengers.) To satisfy the North, the bill admitted California as a free state, protected New Mexico against Texas’s aggression and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. To the South, Clay’s measure offered a strict new fugitive-slave law, by which Northerners who aided runaway slaves were subject to imprisonment and a heavy fine.
Abolitionists regarded the Fugitive Slave Act as an odious measure that turned the North into a Southern-dominated police state where hapless fugitives had no legal protection and even free blacks risked being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Most shocking to the antislavery faction was that Daniel Webster, the famed senator from the antislavery state of Massachusetts, strongly defended the Fugitive Slave Act, regarding it as necessary for preserving the Union. Many Northerners branded Webster a devilish turncoat.
Still, the forces for compromise emerged victorious. After more than 300 days of wrangling, Congress passed the omnibus bill in September 1850. The compromise proved to be a fragile truce. It was battered by the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened up the western territories for slavery and was demolished in 1857 by the Dred Scott decision, which denied citizenship to blacks. Hostilities came to a boil, of course, with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the South’s secessionist response to the antislavery president and civil war.
Mr. Bordewich argues persuasively that the Compromise of 1850, though only a temporary fix, had a positive effect on American history. Had war broken out in 1850, he asks, who can tell what the result would have been, especially since the likes of Lincoln and Grant were not yet in leadership roles? Had the nation been peacefully divided—with, say, the South leaving the Union and California being assigned separate nationhood or chopped into two or more states—it is easy to imagine a fractured, rivalrous continent that might never have coalesced into a mighty engine of wealth and a global superpower. “America’s Great Debate” leaves us with an important lesson: In periods of political stalemate, compromise—even imperfect compromise—is preferable to a mulish adherence to long-held views.
Mr. Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author, most recently, of “Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America.”