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All government,—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act,—is founded on compromise and barter… Edmund Burke

The title of this post comes from Burke’s Speech on the Conciliation of America and it was finally the failure of prudence that led to the events that changed the American colonies into the American nation. After nearly seventy-five years it would again be the failure of compromise that would divide the American nation but with one decided difference. Both sides in the revolution struggled for over a generation – in good faith – to find a solution. When the revolution occurred there was no social upheaval and business went on as usual. With the civil war the South sought to exercise its legitimate political power and has assented to laws that limited those powers. Most of its statesmen knew – and even desired – to see the problems of slavery ameliorated and the institution abolished and certainly Henry Clay was a pillar of this school.

There were radicals – on both sides of the question – who have received attention that is disproportionate to their real influence. And some of the so-called anti-slavery radicals may have been wolves in sheep’s clothing since on the same day that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln signed a contract with Bernard Kock to use federal funds to remove some five thousand black men, women, and children from the United States to a small island off the coast of Haiti.

But this, given his true history, is less indicative of the hypocrisy of Lincoln than of the larger truth. Lincoln, and those who financed him, had no interest in compromise on any issue and no willingness to negotiate in good faith. They wanted a  revolution with social upheaval – one that would replace the sovereignty of the states with the ascension of the nation that would import as much cheap white labor as it needed by way of immigration and would be connected by national railroads that would stretch from sea to shining sea in fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. A long way indeed from this vision of Jefferson and the founders.

Although we know how the story ends reading about Clay’s efforts and realizing how his ideas and methods may still serve is worthwhile and Remini has done an acceptable job of presenting the story in brief here.

At the edge of the precipice : Henry Clay and the compromise that saved the Union    New York : Basic Books, c 2010 Robert V. Remini Clay, Henry, 1777-1852, Compromise of 1850 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xiii, 184 p. ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 161-173) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

In 1850, with Northerners demanding that slavery be outlawed in the vast new territory America had just acquired in the Mexican- American War, Southerners threatened to secede from the Union. Veteran statesman Henry Clay proffered a solution: the Compromise of 1850, which saved the Union from dissolution for the next ten years and gave the North time to build its industrial might so that it could defeat the South once secession was at hand. Historian Robert V. Remini masterfully shows how Clay’s recognition of the need for bipartisanship in times of crisis saved the Union—not once, but twice.

In 1850, America hovered on the brink of disunion. Tensions between slave-holders and abolitionists mounted, as the debate over slavery grew rancorous. An influx of new territory prompted Northern politicians to demand that new states remain free; in response, Southerners baldly threatened to secede from the Union. Only Henry Clay could keep the nation together.At the Edge of the Precipice is historian Robert V. Remini’s fascinating recounting of the Compromise of 1850, a titanic act of political will that only a skillful statesman like Clay could broker. Although the Compromise would collapse ten years later, plunging the nation into civil war, Clay’s victory in 1850 ultimately saved the Union by giving the North an extra decade to industrialize and prepare. A masterful narrative by an eminent historian, At the Edge of the Precipice also offers a timely reminder of the importance of bipartisanship in a bellicose age.


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