Sunday, April 15, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I was so happy to receive an email from Simon and Schuster about a month ago asking me to review an advanced copy of America's Great Debate by Fergus M. Bordewich (due to be released on April 17) on my blog. Are you kidding me? A free history book? Count me in anytime!

I was familiar with Bordewich from previously reading his Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Bordewich is not an academic historian, rather, his background is in journalism, which comes through loud and clear in his writing style. This writing style makes for easy reading and helps the reader with visual settings as the author paints virtual word pictures. For example, on pages 102-103, in describing Washington D.C. in 1850, Bordewich writes, "Washington was the nation's only truly national city, where sleek Yankee businessmen, slave-driving southerners, swaggering bravos from New York's immigrant ghettos, sombrero-wearing Texans, sober Quakers, delegations of feathered Indians, backwoodsmen from the far reaches of Tennessee and Missouri, impassioned abolitionists, African Americas both enslaved and free, and assorted sharpers, and hustlers of every conceivable kind mingled in its lobbies and smoky back rooms."

America's Great Debate tells the story of the Compromise of 1850; the deal that was struck between the North and South in the halls of Congress in order to prevent a serious threat of secession. After the war with Mexico and with gold being found in California, our nation expanded rapidly in territory. The conflict here was, were the territories to be slave or free? Would a balance of power be kept to insure majority rule and minority rights?

The author brings to life the legends of the epic deal. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and Stephen A. Douglas become to the reader the larger than life figures they were at the time. Their strengths (logic, open mindedness, love of union and liberty), and also their weaknesses (tuberculosis, old age, alcoholism, hubris) are examined fully. During the drama, heated debates that produced fist fights and drawn pistols also brought reasoned discussion. Bordewich tells the lively story well.

Of all the characters that received attention, Calhoun comes in the least. And while I can certainly understand why, as he was sick and did die during the debate (March 31, 1850) his role and who he was and what he stood for still had a huge impact on the compromise. I was somewhat disappointed to find the author did not include an important part of Calhoun's (March 4) speech, which was read by Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia due to Calhoun's advanced illness. In part of the speech Calhoun explained why slavery was so vital to the South. It was not only its economic importance in terms of what monetary value slaves were and produced, it was also social chaos to the South to free them: "On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation [master and slave] as one that cannot be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation and wretchedness; and accordingly they [Southerners] feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it." Those are some pretty strong words and images; "poverty, desolation and wretchedness..."

As history is often written to inform us about the past and help us make decisions in the present and about the future, I think our present legislators would do well to read America's Great Debate. It seems that the statesmanship so prevalent then, even by those men of otherwise dubious characteristics, is lacking from the halls of Congress today. Our current lawmakers could learn a great deal from the examples of Clay and Douglas. To put aside party in favor of the nation's greatest good is something that is currently needed.

I appreciated the author's extended discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was a vital part of the Compromise, as it was the one strong part of the deal that the South received. It is my opinion that the Fugitive Slave Act, and the North's refusal to honor and uphold it, was what provided the South with Constitutional grounds for secession in 1860-61. At least that is my reading of many of the states' declarations for secession.

I only found a few minor errors in the text. On page 41, James Murray Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, is referred to as James W. Mason and is listed as the same in the index. On page 92 Cassius Marcellus Clay is referred to as Henry Clay's nephew. I have always read and understood that C.M. Clay was Henry Clay's second cousin. And, on page 172, C.M. Clay is called Henry Clay's abolitionist nephew. While I would certainly call C.M. Clay an emancipationist, in that he favored a gradual and compensated freedom for slaves, which would in turn benefit poor whites in Kentucky, I would not call him an abolitionist (one who favors immediate and uncompensated emancipation.) Finally, on page 93 it says that C.M. Clay was a slave owner. He did indeed own slaves, but by the time being discussed by the author (1849-1850), he had freed them.

I found America's Great Debate a wonderful read. The importance of this event to our nation's history cannot be denied and the way it is told here should make the Compromise of 1850 more approachable to a wider audience. Good history is a good story about the past supported by solid evidence and sound interpretation, which is what I believe the author has produced here.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give America's Great Debate a 4.5.

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