Book Review: At The Edge Of The Precipice

At The Edge Of The Precipice:  Henry Clay And The Compromise That Saved The Union, by Robert V. Remini

I suppose this book may be considered as a bit of a teaser into Remini’s voluminous work on the life and career of Henry Clay [1].  Perhaps the most famous person to have never won an election to the presidency despite decades of trying to win that office (coming closest in 1844 when he barely lost to Polk because of his hostility to manifest destiny and the seizure of land from Mexico).  This book is all the more interesting because it is somewhat evident that the author is not very fond of Clay, or at least is highly critical of Clay as a womanizer, drinker, and gambler whose lack of focus and problems with arrogance greatly squandered his considerable and obvious gifts.  Be that as it may, the author is also quite interested in the tactical effects of the Compromise of 1850, all the more notable because it gave the North breathing room to develop its industrial capability so as to crush the rebellious south when rebellion was finally attempted as a way to stop the South’s demographic decline relative to the North and stave off the threat to the survival of the plantation slavery of that region.

The book is a short one at under 200 pages and consists of six chapters along with a preface and an aftermath that briefly looks at the period between the Compromise of 1850 and the Civil War.  The author begins with a look at the honored and consistent place of Compromise in the early political history of the United States, including Clay’s previous work as a pacifier of the problems within the United States like tarrifs and the entrance of Missouri into the Union (1).  The author then discusses the crisis of 1850 that resulted from California’s attempt to enter the United States as well as various other problems like the refusal of the people of New Mexico to be under Texan rule (2) and the return of Clay to the Senate after some years out of Congress.  After that the author examines a possible solution to the various problems in a comprehensive compromise solution that allowed every side to get something that they wanted but also give something to the other side (3).  The author then turns to the entrance of Webster on the side of Clay’s efforts at compromise and Calhoun’s efforts at encouraging Southern secession unless their demands were met (4).  After this there is a discussion of the disastrous attempts to pass the compromise in an omnibus bill that was unwisely agreed to by Clay (5) before the book ends at the successful efforts of Douglas to pass all of the components of the compromise separately after Taylor’s death and the accession of Fillmore to the presidency (6).

In reading a book like this, one gets a strong sense of the author’s point of view when it comes to Antebellum American political history.  For one, the author appears to have a strong moral worldview when it comes to judging the behavior of historical figures, connecting the personal failings of Henry Clay with the accusations of a corrupt bargain in 1824 that dogged him, and pointing out how his pride and arrogance failed his political judgment in 1850 when he unwisely agreed to put the parts of the Compromise of 1850 together in an omnibus bill that went down to spectacular defeat and encouraged extremists on both sides of the issue.  Overall, though, the author shows himself to be fond of principled and moderate tendencies that compromise in order to keep people together, but which stand on a bedrock of unity within the United States that was lacking among the political leaders of the 1850’s until the election of Abraham Lincoln.  That combination of firmness in desiring unity and a willingness to make peace by demanding less than what one would want in order to preserve good feelings is definitely something lacking in our own contemporary political environment.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: At The Edge Of The Precipice

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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