Perhaps this story sounds familiar: The United States of America teeters on the brink of wholesale collapse, its elected representatives unable or unwilling to address fundamental problems related to race, class, and the country's role in the world economy. Government shutdown and civil unrest loom—unless today's elder statesmen pass a series of compromise measures that will preserve the union for posterity.
But this isn't a story about 2018, no matter how neatly that abstract narrative might seem to fit our own age. Rather, it's a brief sketch of the American political situation in 1850, when Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers were debating how to resolve border issues in the new states and territories of an expanding country, reform the laws empowering the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution, and adjudicate the legality of slavery in territories seeking statehood. What mattered then, as now, was that our elected representatives were given an opportunity to make truly hard decisions about a looming catastrophe—in their case, the future of the slave system—and failed to do so. Instead, ideologues hurled invective at each other while moderates bought time by talking about unity and patriotism; reluctant to push for wholesale abolition, many moderates preferred to claim that forces outside their control, such as the possible failure of slavery in the desert climate of the Southwest or its slow demise due to demographic growth in the North, would resolve the nation's problems without bloodshed.
That "Great Debate," which raged from January of 1850 until the various parts of the Compromise of 1850 were passed separately that September, is the subject of historian Stephen E. Maizlish's new book, A Strife of Tongues: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War. Maizlish, who was himself a participant in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California–Berkeley in the early 1960s and is now a professor at the University of Texas–Arlington, spent years reading all the House and Senate speeches related to the Compromise of 1850 that were published in the Congressional Globe, as well as a good deal of the surrounding correspondence between congressmen and their friends, constituents, and spouses. What Maizlish reveals is a Congress full of legislators who were mostly unwilling to confront the stark realities of their situation, and whose months-long debate served to instruct Northerners and Southerners alike about how dramatic their ideological differences were, inflaming tensions among ordinary citizens.
"When you're dealing with politics and political history, a lot of effort is expended looking at voting strategy and that sort of thing," Maizlish says. "But these speeches, which hadn't been studied systematically and in some cases hadn't even been cited before, mattered well beyond that." The language these legislators used in their communications highlight the regional differences that grounded the debate over the Compromise. Furthermore, the dissemination of this heated partisan rhetoric across the country via the Globe—at the time, a major technological advance for communicating ideas quickly—ensured widespread participation in the Great Debate. These messages were devoured by interested constituents in home districts who read them in local papers, often aloud amid circles of listeners from various socioeconomic backgrounds united in a concern for both their state's future as well as the nation's.
What Maizlish found, from his careful review of these primary sources, was a public debate that played out in highly ideological terms—and in which partisan rhetoric sometimes stood in for meaningful action. At base, nearly all Northerners, no matter how "moderate," opposed slavery on some level and merely differed about the degree of federal oversight required to regulate or check its spread. And nearly all Southerners, regardless of their fondness for the unity forged in the American Revolution or their zeal to maintain the union, saw slavery as the bedrock of the economies in their regions. Elderly congressmen in both regions, somewhat more restrained than their younger colleagues, invoked notions of civility and politesse, not so much out of the goodness of their hearts but because many were seeking to buy a few more years of peace at all costs, perhaps until they themselves secured the peace of the grave.
There was a selfishness inherent in that sort of rhetoric because, as Maizlish notes, slavery was a terrible problem that wasn't going anywhere, at least not through discussions focused on civility and restraint in lieu of leading the country away from slavery and the dangerous expansionist schemes propounded by extreme pro-slavery congressmen. As a result, Congress was unable to arrive at a legislative solution to halt a slave system that was growing increasingly profitable—so profitable that the most radical Southerners were willing to voice their support for a slave empire encompassing Cuba, Central America, and South America. (The parts of the Great Debate that didn't speak to this deep ideological division between slavery and free labor were either extremely technical and concrete, such as the detailed discussion of the Texas-New Mexico border issue, or avoided almost entirely until the very end, as was the case with the Fugitive Slave Law that few Northern congressmen, residing as they did in states that were either flouting or laxly enforcing the existing law, had any desire to discuss.)
Everyone involved knew the stakes even before the Thirty-First Congress convened in 1849. South Carolina Democratic Representative William Colcock's wife Emmeline wrote to her mother that she expected the upcoming session to "be a very stormy one as the slavery question will be most prominent and very hostile feelings exist on the subject." As the session unfolded, a pair of congressmen alternately referred to the emotionally charged proceedings, which were filled with accusations and insults, as a "strife of words" or a "strife of tongues," alluding to Psalm 31 of the Old Testament: "Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee. ... Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.
Then as now, concerned legislators rushed to wax poetic about the harmful effects of this "strife of tongues." In one chapter, Maizlish explains how the congressmen questioned each other's "manfulness" and manly honor in response to what they perceived as dishonest, self-interested, or bad-faith debating. In another, he describes how Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi Democratic Senator Henry Foote clashed over Benton's support for unconditionally admitting California as a state instead of backing Foote's plan to admit it only as part of an omnibus package of compromise measures. After Foote said that congressional decorum prevented him from denouncing Benton as a coward and Benton's advanced age shielded him from physical retaliation, Benton walked toward Foote in a threatening manner, and the younger senator responded by drawing his pistol.
"Words, sir, become things," observed North Carolina Democratic representative Abraham Venable in 1850, expressing the hope that bitter epithets directed at his fellow Southerners such as "Hotspurs, nullifiers, ultras, disunionists per se, and traitors" could be spun and reclaimed by the American people, those "great lexicographers," and given positive connotations, just as victory in the American Revolution had ennobled the world "rebels." Venable understood that, for people on the receiving end of these epithets, taking ownership of them was the first step in redeeming themselves via ideological victory, much as proud, self-proclaimed "deplorables" announced their support for Donald Trump, and "nasty women" rallied behind Hillary Clinton during the nation's tumultuous 2016 election cycle.
Daniel Webster, the moderate Whig senator from Massachusetts, decried the rough and ready language that he thought was preventing his colleagues from forming a consensus and "grappling all the people of all the States to this Constitution for ages to come." "Foolish speeches and violent speeches in both Houses of Congresses" indicated to this 40-year congressional veteran and former secretary of state that the "vernacular tongue of the country has become greatly vitiated, depraved, and corrupted, by the style of our congressional debates." Like perennial presidential candidate Henry Clay, who was 73 in 1850 and entering his fourth non-consecutive stint as a Whig senator from Kentucky, and Stephen Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois and a rising star in that party, Webster saw the great moral issue of the day, limiting the expansion of slavery into the territories or abolishing it entirely, as pointless rhetorical agitation that would lead only to national disintegration.
As the country teetered on the brink of collapse over the bondage of several million of its residents, great men of state seemed more worried about impolite language in an increasingly schismatic political sphere.
Although many of these moderates and their allies believed that issues related to region and climate would spell slavery's demise, or at least limit its spread (they claimed that slave gold mines and other hypothetical endeavors would fail in the harsh, dry sun in spite of their marked success in South America), Northern and Southern moderate politicians had strikingly different personal opinions about the benefits and morality of the enterprise. Few moderate Northerners, Maizlish noted, would rise to offer even weak support for slavery as a worthwhile economic system, while few moderate Southerners could conceive of its total abolition in areas where it was still profitable, such as the rich soil of the "Black Belt" states along the Gulf of Mexico. Their moderation was mostly rhetorical in nature: They sought a consensus that secured the status quo in their time, a consensus built on cooperation that kept the peace but left the great evil of slavery undisturbed.
"What we see from looking at the moderates and the language they used is a pronounced cultural difference of opinion on the subject," Maizlish says. "Though they wanted to keep the ship of state afloat, in the course of their moderation and calls for civility at all costs, they allowed it to drift toward disaster. They cared more about being polite and maintaining an unsteady status quo rather than resolving problems for posterity. They allowed the great problem of the era, the spread of slavery, to fester and grow."
But for Maizlish, the biggest takeaway from the debate over the Compromise of 1850 as it relates to present circumstances is the danger of extreme polarization. "When representatives fall into making absolutist statements, there is very little room for compromise or progress," he says. "That happened then and it is clearly happening now. And when representatives are fearful of challenging their constituents to think in terms of a larger good, and instead pander to their constituents' narrow prejudices in exchange for votes rather than assuming the burden of national leadership for themselves, disaster is at hand. Moderates need to lead and compromise, but they need to ensure they're compromising on the right matters, not just ensuring some weak 'peace for their time' that they win by caving to dangerous radicals, like those pro-slavery congressmen who refused to make necessary reforms."
In other words, reactionary firebrands standing athwart the tide of history should have been restrained, not handled with kid gloves by the moderates. "Radical pro-slavery senators, or other angry politicians who happen to be in the wrong, can't yell about the rightness of their wrong-headed cause and expect it to lead to anything short of national disintegration," Maizlish says. "And all leaders owe it to themselves to impel their constituents to do what is morally right. Great evils have to be pulled out from the roots by the current crop of caretakers, not left for future generations. That was true then and it remains true now."