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America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union
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America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  159 ratings  ·  45 reviews
The Mexican War introduced vast new territories into the United States, among them California and the present-day Southwest. When gold was discovered in California in the great Gold Rush of 1849, the population swelled, and settlers petitioned for admission to the Union. But the U.S. Senate was precariously balanced with fifteen free states and fifteen slave states. Up to ...more
ebook, 496 pages
Published April 17th 2012 by Simon & Schuster
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AMERICA’S GREAT DEBATE: Henry Clay, Stephan A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. (2012). Fergus M. Bordewich. ****.
This is a period in American history that we normally get rushed through in school, but turns out to be much more important than we realized. The period in the late 1840s saw several significant events: 1) The Mexican War, and 2) The discovery of gold in California. The Mexican War brought California, New Mexico and other future states to the Union and raised “p
Pam Johnson
I learned a lot more about the workings of the antebellum Congress, but this was a LOOOONNNNGGGG book. I also could have used a glossary with frequently-used terms. I kept forgetting what the Wilmot Proviso was.
M. Mangan
This book covers a crucial span in American history, but one which is barely covered in a paragraph in textbooks today. This debate postponed--and probably precipitated--the Civil War a decade later.

The readable and credible story unfolds as did the Senate debate: in a long, complex, and uncertain manner. Sometimes my contemporary impatience for the outcome would get the better of me. But as I read it I felt it was important to appreciate the protracted experience. And afterwards you realize th
Has a book ever jumped off a library shelf and into your arms, as if to scream: "Read me now, you fool!" It happened to me Monday, and I am so glad it did. AMERICA'S GREAT DEBATE by Fergus M. Bordewich (a name only his mother could like) is absolutely flat-out terrific. Published a few months ago, it brings history to life just as David McCullough's books do. Who would'a thunk a book about the Compromise of 1850 could be interesting, let alone fascinating? Well, in Bordewich's hands, it is. He p ...more
While at the Northshire Bookstore for Booktopia 2013 Manchester I asked the resident history book expert for recommendations on a book about the history of Congress (having read several presidential biographies and just seen Lincoln) and this was the closest he could recommend.

The book definitely delivered - it not only gave me a great picture of a year of Congressional history (at year that rivals the last few for partisan conflict and lack of a accomplishment) as well as new a appreciation for
I first learned about the Compromise of 1850 in American History. Bringing law and order to territories won in the Mexican War would upset the balance of power between North and South crafted in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, seriously threatening to dissolve the Union. Fergus Bordewich fills in a lot of details, both of the political machinations that led to its passage and the characters who were at the center of this pivotal time of US history. We meet the Old Lions (Clay, Webster, Calhoun, ...more
This book is a detailed but lively narrative of one of the least understood events in antebellum history. Most of us know some of the outcomes of the Compromise-California admitted as a free state, stronger Fugitive Slave Law-but not the torturous processes nor the complex players involved. The book makes it easier to understand why antebellum Americans grew tired of debating slavery and its expansion westward and why, a decade after the Compromise, further debate resulted in war.
This book was LOADED with detail. I have read well over 100 books on this period of time in our history. I am now starting with books leading up to the Civil War and I count this as one of the tops. Just a note though...this book is a slower read. Because of the detail and trying to keep information straight, I was only able to read about 20 pages per day.
I highly recommend this book. I've read tons of books on the civil war, but none on the key period leading up to it. The 1850 debate is fascinating and Bordewich does a tremendous job making the story come alive. It's terrific.
Michael Barker
A great book about one of my favorite topics. It was great to spend the last week with my old friends Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, Sam Houston, and the incredible Henry Clay.
Dan Thom
I stopped reading the book because I am just not interested in reading history books anymore. I try to revive my interest, but it does not seem to work.
A lively political history of the Compromise of 1850 and the roles of race and slavery in shaping its outcome.
Donna Herrick
Ok, so the Compromise of 1850 did postpone our war over slavery, and it postponed that war until a softhearted president with a spine of steel was in office to guide the war to a just conclusion. I am still astonished about the pro-slavery arguments. It amounts to self-delusion and self-serving an a scale not seen until Nazi Germany. I suppose it is easier to see the venality of those arguments in hindsight.

Also amazing to see is how the pro-slavery South still controls national policy today, a
victor harris
I didn't care for the topic, but the writing is excellent so made it enjoyable anyway.
Knife-edge history:
Compromise of '50 saved
Us just long enough.
In 1850, the U.S. Congress met for 301 days. A record then and probably still a record. Rapid transportation was not so rapid then as it is now, so the congressmen couldn't jet back to their districts every weekend. They were pretty much stuck there when they were in session. Tempers flared, all were totally exhausted and sick to death of one another and of the issue that kept them there. On one occasion one of the senators threatened another with a pistol, one or two were forced to be away from ...more
This book stands very near what truly good narrative history should look like. Though I am a well-studied devotee of mid-19th century America, I found a few new insights from Bordewich's well-researched account. More noteworthy are the colorful portraits of the national political leaders, a veritable gallery of statesmen and rogues (and everything in between) at the center of the storm that culminated in the Compromise of 1850. Among those who come vividly to life are the revered but ill-fated a ...more
Andy Miller
An excellent history of the Senate debates in 1850 about slavery and America's territorial expansion. While the author, Fergus Bordewich, focuses on the debates, he gives enough history of the preceding events such as the California gold rush which pushed the issue of California statehood, the Mexican American War which added great territory to the United States, and the lives and backgrounds of the Senators who led the debates

Bordewich also cites heavily to the debates and original sources with
The 8-month long congressional debate, culminating in the ultimately flawed and long-term-wise untenable legislation which became known as The Compromise of 1850, is the topic of this fine piece of historical writing. The cast of characters (and some are "characters") is long, and multiple issues of contention are skillfully interwoven in this painstaking and elegant text by Bordewich. I was fortunate enough to hear him give a presentation at the History Center in St.Paul this past October which ...more
Josh Liller
I picked this book up for a college History term paper, but I would have wanted to read it anyway if I had been aware of it. I've read a short book on the subject and it has been touched on by several other books I've read relating to this time period in American history (most notably The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861) so I was familiar with the subject. However, Bordewich goes into great depth and covers many details which I was not aware of prior to this. Usually th ...more
Following up on my most recent posts, I just finished Fergus Bordewich's "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union". Although this book's subject is what has come down to us as the "Compromise of 1850", it could just as well have been "Strategies to Stop Obama". Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun and other slave holding Southerners as well as those sympathetic to them give us the language that we hear from the Tea Party and other Republica ...more
David R.
A fine but uneven treatment of the great Compromise of 1850. Bordewich straddles a fine line, seeming to argue that the effort to forge a compromise was worthy but at the same time disparaging the actual resultant legislation. His character studies are fascinating if flawed: Bordewich follows the current historical style of casting characters in a strong "black hat versus white hat" tone, and he is particularly harsh on the southern politicians, creating images that are simply too contrived.
Dave Ginger
A very thoroughly-researched work on a crucial, but not well-known, era in American history. While this was a slow read, it provided a detailed record of the political conflicts (some noble, some quite petty) in the Pre-Civil War era. If you believe that politics was more civilized in the mid-19th century than it is today, this book may change your opinion.
Excellent on a period of Amer. history that falls through the cracks. A mass of information on personalities, Congressional maneuvering, political shenanigans, wars we've forgotten about all clearly explained. I had no idea the admission of California, Texas, and New Mexico were such bloody and protracted precursors to the Civil War. I had no conception of the debt we 21st century Americans owe to Seward, Stephen A. Douglas, Sam Houston, and, who would have thought it, Millard Fillmore, the forg ...more
“AGD” highlights a very critical period of US History. While the Southern states were promoting secession, the Great Compromise of 1850 preserved the union for another decade. Unlike the Civil War in 1860-1864, the south likely would have been successful in 1850 seceding from the Union. The issues were the admission of California as a free state, slavetrading in DC, fugitive trade law, and territorial status for Texas, New Mexico and Utah. Political giants dominated the debate…Henry Clay, Daniel ...more
Wherein we find that Congress has been even more disfunctional than currently is the case (hard to believe as though that might be), but definitely much better theatre. It certainly played to a literally packed house on a daily basis.

Alas, the Grand Compromise - a package deal to admit California, adjust the Texas/New Mexico border to the dislike of Texas, allow slavery but not the trade thereof in D.C., and to allow slave owners to pursue their slaves in the northern states - only put off the C
The years cover are the the 1840's and 1850's. The location is the US Congress, and this well written narrative covers slavery, fugitive laws, and the US territories in the west, California, Utah, New Mexico and to lesser extend Oregon. Shall slavery be extended to these territories as a condition of statehood? The decorum of the discussions including violence makes todays Washington scene seem docile, polite and civil, but the stakes were more personal and slavery, especially for the South was ...more
Bordewich details Congress’ debate over the Compromise of 1850…and makes it fascinating! There are great characters here, from the intellectual giant and great compromiser Clay (whose very presence made ladies feel faint) to slavery- and states’ rights-proponent John Calhoun and other contrary, passionate, committed (and committable) politicians of the era. I learned a great deal about the events leading up to the Civil War, and was particularly struck by how much these people and events still i ...more
John Walker
Well written and a comfortable read. Both expanded and solidified my understanding of these events. Recognizes the efforts of the main players and yet recognizes the inevitability of secession and civil war. Of great interest was that Congress and the senate in particular were as partisan, obstinate, incompetent and crooked then as they are now; the giants of the time, Webster, Calhoun, Clay, et al. had many personal problems and issues,even if some remember them as perfect today.
This is a dense one that took awhile to get through, but damn what a fine book. This is an outstanding history of the Compromise of 1850. Sidenote: the author really gets off on adding hilarious, sexy descriptions of the legislators involved. A handsome, raven headed man from blah blah blah. Oh, and who the hell knew James Hammond from South Carolina was a creepy pervert. Look him up on Wikipedia why don't you.
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FERGUS M. BORDEWICH is the author of five non-fiction books: Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008); Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005); My Mother’s Ghost, a memoir (Doubleday, 2001); Killing the White Man’s Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (Double ...more
More about Fergus M. Bordewich...
Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement Washington: The Making of the American Capital Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century My Mother's Ghost: A Courageous Woman, a Son's Love, and the Power of Memory Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China

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