Statesmanship in a divided era

September 28th, 2012

For the last several weeks, we have been commemorating each of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the day in history on which they occurred. But there was a great national debate that took place almost ten years before the Lincoln-Douglas debates that is also worth studying, and doing so will help us to better understand the context and arguments in the debates of 1858.

Reviewing Fergus M. Bordewich’s recent book America’s Great Debate for The Wall Street Journal, David S. Reynolds explains:

[T]oday’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.

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. […]

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.

 Read Reynolds’s whole review here.

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