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Henry Clay Pulled the U.S. Back From the Edge

The country is sharply divided, lawmakers are savagely denounced and the willingness to compromise is in short supply. The debate over health care? Try the battle over slavery in the mid-19th century.

Having won its war against Mexico in 1848, the United States had significantly expanded its territory, pushing the question of slavery’s future, which had been relatively dormant in recent years, back to the center of public life and threatening to break up the union.

The last time the nation faced such a possible rupture, in 1820, then-Speaker Henry Clay (Ky.) helped craft the Missouri Compromise, which calmed sectional tensions and earned him the nicknames the “Great Pacificator” and the “Great Compromiser.”

Three decades later, Clay, then a Senator, was again drafted to ward off Southern secession. Clay deftly plays the role of indispensable man in Robert Remini’s new book, “At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union.”

Remini, the House historian, provides an engaging narrative brimming with dialogue from historic figures such as Vice President John C. Calhoun and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas and detailed descriptions of action on the Senate and House floors.

In one speech, as Clay sought to appease Senators from both the North and South, he urged his colleagues to embrace his proposal as “the dove of peace, taking its aerial flight from the dome of the Capitol, carr[ying] the glad tidings of assured peace and restored harmony to all the remotest extremities of this distracted land.”

Remini’s voice is ever-present, often providing running commentary on past and present Washington foibles. When Kentucky Democrat and future Speaker Linn Boyd notes that he is “astonished at the patience with which our constituents have borne our procrastination,” Remini adds, “a charge that could be repeated many times in the future, right to this very day.”

For fans of legislative wrangling, the book is a joy to read as it follows the multiple deaths and rebirths of Clay’s compromise until finally reaching success, albeit in modified terms. It is a story that will be familiar to observers of today’s Congress.

In the end, Congress passed a series of laws that persuaded supporters and opponents of slavery to coexist peacefully — at least for another decade. The legislative package admitted California to the union as a free state and ended the slave trade in Washington, D.C., which pleased Northerners. It also established Utah and New Mexico as territories without forbidding slavery there, finalized the boundaries of Texas and toughened the existing fugitive slave law, which pleased Southerners.

Ultimately, Remini’s main purpose is not to dwell on the policy details but to explore how and why some Congressmen were willing to engage in the give-and-take of lawmaking and to lament the lost art of compromise.

Clay in particular receives praise for his pragmatic approach.

“Clay was never rigid in his ideological thinking,” Remini writes. “He understood that politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness. It was about governing, and if politicians could not compromise, they would never govern effectively.”

These words seem out of place in 2010 with the emergence of ferocity on the left and right directed toward lawmakers who deviate only slightly from the ideological or party line.

When lawmakers are the subject of death threats and racial epithets, it is hard not to believe that the uglier side of American politics has returned. The country’s divisions are, thankfully, not as great as they were in 1850, but it is certainly peculiar that talk of “interposition” and “nullification” — first used by Calhoun in the 1820s — has cropped up around the health care overhaul.

In an interview, Remini declined to discuss whether he was frustrated with the state of politics, but he said he wrote the book in part to emphasize “the importance of compromise in getting anything done.”

Remini added that he sees contemporary lawmakers who remind him of Clay’s courage and character, though he did not name names. That, he said, “would be most impolitic.”

“I see on both sides men and women of goodwill who are intelligent and hardworking,” he said. “I think if they could come together, they could do a great deal for the country.”

Whether contemporary lawmakers can come together is uncertain. But for Remini, the lesson of Clay and his compatriots is clear. “1850 proved that compromise is the best solution to difficult problems,” he writes. “That principle holds as true now as it did one hundred and sixty years ago.”

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