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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.
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.