2012-01-26 / Opinions

Book Review

At the Edge of the Precipice

Restless as we are currently, over the dithering and animosity in the Congress of the United States, it’s oddly comforting to read about the difficulties of the past.

Robert Remini, historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, has been studying and writing about American history for a number of years. He says in the Preface to At the Edge of the Precipice, “It has been proven time and time again that little of lasting importance can be accomplished without a willingness on the part of all involved to seek to accommodate one another’s needs and demands.” That sounds fearfully familiar, doesn’t it?

He is referring, though, to the situation in 1850. He explains that the “Founders” of this nation had to put together a “bundle” of compromises to write the Constitution. Later, in 1820, Henry Clay presided over the House as Speaker. Unattractive in appearance, he was a masterful orator and an accomplished politician. He was influential in bringing about the Missouri Compromise and became known as the “Great Compromiser.”

The Missouri Compromise was an attempt to settle the question of whether new states entering the Union would be slave or free. Missouri was to come in as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery would be excluded in the territory above the parallel 36 30’ north (except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.)

A quarrel over the tariff broadened into arguments over nullification and secession, as the South grew increasingly worried about domination from the North. The differences continued after 1820. Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson became enemies when Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams when the House had to break a tie between Jackson and Adams, giving the 1824 election to Adams.

When the sectional quarrel renewed during 1832, Jackson as president threatened military action when South Carolina announced nullification of a tariff law. By that time, Clay was in the Senate. Though he supported the tariff, he was urged by his friends and “protectionists” to come up again with a way to keep both sides calm. It seemed that civil war could not be avoided.

This was the period when Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, along with Henry Clay, were giants in Congress. Once again, Clay led an effort toward compromise, and a substitute tariff bill passed and was signed by Jackson. President Jackson commented at the time that the threat of disunion would probably appear again.

In 1848, the issue of slavery in the new territories of “Manifest Destiny” rose. Clay, 75 years old, had retired to his home in Kentucky. He was called out of retirement to run for the Senate and save the Union yet again in his role as the “Great Compromiser.” He owned slaves himself but argued for gradual emancipation. Although he had not been elected president, he was considered to be the most popular man in the United States.

Democrats controlled the Senate and the House. Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens of Georgia spoke forcefully against the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed amendment that would forbid slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico. Election of the Speaker of the House was stopped by dissension over the bill. The House was chaotic with shouting, and a fistfight degenerated into a melee. After a gun was drawn in the Senate over the controversy, things finally became more rational.

The Compromise bill that might pass in the Congress would probably be vetoed by President Zachary Taylor. However, when Taylor died suddenly, Vice President Millard Fillmore, a friend of Clay, succeeded to the presidency. The carefully designed “omnibus” bill was defeated, and Clay went home to recover.

Senator Stephen Douglas took up the struggle, and the Compromise of 1850 was passed. Remini considers the Compromise of 1850 one of the most important events in our history. It delayed the civil war for 10 years, and “those 10 years were absolutely essential for preserving the American nation.” In 1850, the South “unquestionably would have made good its independence.” The North during the interim furthered its industrialization, and found “a statesman who would provide the wisdom and leadership the Union needed.”

At the Edge of the Precipice is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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