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Publisher's Summary

The Mexican War introduced vast new territories into the United States, among them California and the present-day Southwest. When gold was discovered in California in the great Gold Rush of 1849, the population swelled, and settlers petitioned for admission to the Union. But the U.S. Senate was precariously balanced with 15 free states and 15 slave states. Up to this point, states had been admitted in pairs, one free and one slave, to preserve that tenuous balance in the Senate. Would California be free or slave? So began a paralyzing crisis in American government, and the longest debate in Senate history.
Fergus Bordewich tells the epic story of the Compromise of 1850 with skill and vigor, bringing to life two generations of senators who dominated the great debate. Luminaries such as John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay - who tried unsuccessfully to cobble together a compromise that would allow for California's admission and simultaneously put an end to the nation's agony over slavery - were nearing the end of their long careers. Rising stars such as Jefferson Davis, William Seward, and Stephen Douglas - who ultimately succeeded where Clay failed - would shape the country's politics as slavery gradually fractured the nation.
The Compromise saved the Union from collapse, but it did so at a great cost. The gulf between North and South over slavery widened with the strengthened Fugitive Slave Law that was part of the complex Compromise. In America's Great Debate, Fergus Bordewich takes us back to a time when compromise was imperative, when men swayed one another in Congress with the power of their ideas and their rhetoric, and when partisans on each side reached across the aisle to preserve the Union from tragedy.
©2012 Fergus M. Bordewich (P)2012 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"Political history is often a hard slog, but not in Bordewich's gripping, vigorous account featuring a large cast of unforgettable characters with fierce beliefs." ( Publishers Weekly)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Douglas on 03-03-18

Excellent. Very detailed. Entertaining.

I read this book immediately after finishing a book on the Texas revolution and a book on the presidency of James K. Polk. This really helped me get familiar with the period. The period between the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln is know for being a time when American politics were dominated by powerful congressmen. Fergus Bordewich paints a very detailed portrait of those men and the extraordinary work they did to help keep the Union of America together for another decade before the Civil War.

Something I found interesting was that Bordewich began the book on a very personal note, explaining what drew him to the subject. He talks about reading a quote from Daniel Webster--who is often portrayed as a friend of the abolitionist movement--in which the famous politician vigorously defends the Fugitive Slave Act. The author was puzzled at the contradictory elements. Thus, he was inspired to write about the famous Compromise of 1850. Not surprisingly, Bordewich discovers--as the reader will as well--that American politics were (as always) extremely complicated.

I did enjoy the author's introductory thoughts. I found his tone to be a bit annoying. He often writes as a critic looking back and judging events from 200 years ago by the standards of today, rather than as a classical historian. This is made even worse by the narrator's exaggerated style. I got used to both the author and the narrator after a short time. Speed listeners will have no trouble with this book or the narrator.

The author does a tremendous job of taking repetitive, monotonous congressional happenings and turning it into an exciting story. There are many dramatic moments. I thought Bordewich did a very good job of getting inside the heads of the various key players. He also offers a splendid wrap up and conclusion, explaining how these events would come to impact things in the future, and what things might have been like had the compromise not occurred.

One humorous thing I will remember about this work is Bordewich falling in love with the word, "fairly." The author uses the word not as it is mostly used today, to indicate justice or to mean "pretty good," but to emphasize surprise or extreme. As in: "Mary was delighted by the present and fairly beamed."

Anyway, at one point during the book, Bordewich uses the word in that sense continuously over the course of a few chapters, and then really doesn't use it much again. It was interesting.

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2 out of 5 stars
By Brad Stirrat on 11-11-15


The overall arc of the narrative is flat. The author here has created a kind of "scenic cruise" thru American history. It lacks any dramatic structure that might breath more life into the sheer details of the debate. Lots of interesting vignettes, but lacks a narrative force to pull the reader thru the story. Avoid it unless this is an area you are keen to get into the weeds on.

The narrator did an OK job, good enough for short or medium listens, but not strong enough to foster engrossing longer listens of over an hour.

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