America's Great Debate

Fergus M. Bordewich has penned a perceptive and tremendously witty book about the compromise that held the US together in the decade before the Civil War.

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    America's Great Debate
    By Fergus M. Bordewich
    Simon & Schuster
    496 pp.
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While it sometimes seems that we are the generation that invented political rudeness and disrespect, the truth is that the business of running this country has always been loud, messy, and even mighty close to hopeless at times. But for better or worse, we've managed to function, if barely.

Once upon a time, an exhausted, heat-addled, and heat-packing Congress even managed to stop dithering and prevent a war. Thanks to a tremendously witty and perceptive new book, readers get a ringside seat that allows them to smell the capitol's tobacco-splotched carpet, see the withered faces of desperate men, and hear the epic speeches of the wise and the not-so-wise.

The time: 1850, more than a decade before the Civil War. The place: The capital of a country that didn't quite know what to do with a tremendous new chunk of land out west. Our guide: Historian Fergus M. Bordewich, author of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union.

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The big issue was whether the South would get its way (slavery now and forever) even though it was greatly outnumbered by people in the North. Compromise had helped create the United States and, so some hoped, it would triumph once again.

Political compromise is a sticky wicket, however. It requires people to give up things they want and risk turning off voters. And compromise is an even tougher proposition when you have what the author calls a "paralyzed system."

Bordewich has a delicious appreciation for the absurd, from congressmen drawing weapons on the floor of Congress ("Shoot him! Shoot him!" urges one House member's colleagues after a fight broke out) to the crazy-making Mississippi senator who looks like "a balding and extremely irritating elf" and the Alabama senator who votes the wrong way in the end, perhaps because he was drunk.

Through it all, Bordewich weaves a story of political men who share our foibles but are different in major ways too.

On one hand, they're prone to flowery language that sounds positively sappy and long-winded today. You might even say that endless speechifying could kill. Consider poor Zachary Taylor, who's forgotten today but comes across as a fairly competent and smart president during this crisis until the heat got to him. One day in 1850, he spends hours wilting in the hot summer sun listening to men honor the first president by yapping endlessly. He goes home to cold milk, cherries, and his own demise.

Amid the speechifying come broadsides that sound both prehistoric (a North Carolina senator declares slavery was the practice of "the wisest and best men that ever lived upon the earth") and positively modern (a Virginia senator warns that killing off slavery would usher in the horrors of socialism). There's much to appreciate about that era, however. When they manage to shear the excess off their verbiage, many leaders speak in poetic and "splendid" language that brought honor to politics.

Their ways with words turn top politicians into the rock stars of their age, lavishly adored and even mobbed by their fans. Women actually swoon around Henry Clay – the distinguished if persnickety senator who somehow failed to become president – even as he wizens into a decrepit old age.

Maybe the trust gap between politicians and the public was smaller back then compared to our day, when well-earned cynicism keeps so many of us from joining those smiling, clapping crowds who sit behind candidates in high-school gyms.

It takes months and months of agonizing, lasting into a horrible Washington D.C. summer, for the bitterly divided Congress to hammer out a grand agreement. Finally, a man named Stephen Douglas – yes, the guy who debated Lincoln – pushes things forward through the power of his "personal magnetism, locomotive energy, an amazingly acute reading of the minds of his fellow senators…. and yes, towering hubris."

Maybe humility is an overrated virtue in politicians. Good thing it's so rare!

The ravages of the Civil War were still to come. For many Southerners, as the author writes, "secession had already taken place mentally and emotionally." And for many in the North, "the sentiment of an indissoluble union was hardening into an ideology for which they would soon be willing to fight and die." Our politics are still dysfunctional, but there's a big difference between then and now. To borrow a phrase Americans hear every year, the state of our union is strong. And we no longer need any great compromise to keep it that way.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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