Sunday, November 21, 2010

At the Edge of the Precipice by Robert V. Remini

[This book is part of phase one of my extended Civil War 150th Anniversary Challenge.]

It's rare that I get to read a book that came out the same year that I'm reading it, but this one jumped out on the shelf for me, in light of my plans to read books about the time before the Civil War for the rest of this year.

Remni's book features Henry Clay, a man who probably should have been a United States President, but never quite made it. He certainly tried enough times, but due to being the go-to man for compromise he always had just enough enemies that finding an electoral majority eluded him.

In this book, Remini acts almost as an apologist for Clay's role in making Faustian bargain after Faustian bargain regarding the worst sin this country is responsible for--the legalization and continuation of slavery. His main argument is that had the country split in 1820 (or later, and of the biggest focus in this book, 1850), there is no way that the forces of the North could have kept the South in the country, and further evils may have come about as a result.

What those evils are get left to the reader's speculation. Presumably it's that slavery would have continued for decades longer. That's certainly the implication when your book claims early on that the North needed another 10 years to prepare itself for war. I'd buy that argument except for one thing--it's not like the North was stockpiling weapons in safe territory or building up the size of its army. Hindsight might show that the North was better ready to fight for Union by 1860, but I don't think that was on Clay's mind. To imply that he was keeping the union together in order to wait for the right time to shut down the South's ambitions doesn't make any logical sense to me, hence why I feel that Remini is acting as an apologist.

The fact of the matter is that this book, in sticking only to the political wrangling and power games in Congress (logical, given Remini's role as a historian of the US House of Representatives), evades the central problem of looking at this period of history. While Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and others strove for oratory points, real Americans were being subjected to cruelty day after day. They were beaten, taken from their families, and assaulted, and America allowed it to happen for almost the first 100 years of its existence. (America then allowed it to happen again in a different form for the next 100 after that, and let's be honest, there's still issues here in the first 30 years or so of this third American century.)

Because the book is so heavily focused on Clay's desire to save the union at all costs, we don't get a look at those costs. It's interesting to read about how Clay, Webster, and others who might not have liked each other, worked in the end to delay what was certainly inevitable, if they really stopped to think about it. When Franklin, Jefferson, and others tell you that slavery is going to be a problem, no amount of redrawing borders or parliamentary wrangling is going keep things neat and tidy.

Though I was not happy with the tone of the book in terms of its dismissal of keeping African Americans in bondage for years, I do think it does a good job of showing that Congress really never has been good at fixing problems in this country. I think we have a myth that American government was better in "the old days" and a book like this shatters that to pieces. Look at how stubborn actors used their grudges to keep legislation at bay. See how Presidents fight members of their own party for control of the agenda. Note how legal tricks can doom a bill without getting off a single solid vote. Watch as crass men like Stephen Douglas rise to power by letting dreams die. Say what you really mean, as William Seward did, and watch as your political career dies.

It's sad when you think about it, but extremely instructive. Why think that today's politicians can make anything work when it didn't work before? Reading a book like this is almost enough to make you turn in your voting card.

In the end, At the Edge of the Precipice doesn't work well as a justification of Clay's actions in Congress as the slavery issue simmered. Since that's what the book was written to do, I don't think it serves its subject well. In order to make the claim, Remini would have needed to do more than just record the facts and give a few pieces of commentary. He'd need to dive deeper into the wider world of America at that time, something that doesn't happen in a book that's less than 200 pages.

As a book that shows how America's governmental system may be better than the rest, but still can't solve major problems, this book is a history lesson that doesn't give a lot of hope for the future as issues such as immigration, the environment, education, and job creation loom ever larger in the public's mind. That's the true story this book tells, and rather than a dream of possibility, it looks more like a nightmare. I don't think that was Remini's intention, but it certainly played out that way for me. Perhaps you'll have a different take.

Civil War Score: I don't see this as being a necessary read for anyone, unless you are very much into the history of Congress, Henry Clay, or early 19th Century American History. It's very much a niche book.

1 comment:

  1. The Compromise of 1850 most definitely vastly increased the ability of the North to win the civil war that was coming over slavery, though Clay's goal was simply to save the Union.

    The US had 23 million people in 1850. The first 7 states to secede in 1860 had 3.8 million people in 1850; the four which seceded after Sumner had 3.5 million people. The four states with slavery which never seceded had 2.3 million people in 1850. All told, the future Confederacy made up 7.3 million people and the south as a whole 9.6 million out of 23 million, which is to say, close to half the population.

    During the 1850s, two things happened: the North massively grew in population and industry and the Upper South increasingly moved away from slavery and towards industry and free farming. The result is that less than half the South seceded in 1860 when the whole thing might well have gone in 1850. (Though four more seceded when fighting broke out).

    In 1860, the US had 31,443,321 people total. In 1860, the first 7 states to secede had 4,969,141 total people (2,312,352 were slaves and 2,646,789 were free.) The secession of the Upper South greatly increased the South’s manufacturing capacity by adding Richmond and Nashville to the South’s ranks, and increased its manpower, food, and wealth, adding 1,208,758 slaves and 2,935,433 free men to the population of the Confederacy, which ended up with 9,103,332 total residents (3,521,110 slaves and 5,582,222 free (almost all White).

    In other words, out of the 8 million extra Americans between 1850 and 1860, 1.3 million went to the future Confederacy and 6.7 million to the future Union.

    All of these changes meant that the longer you delayed secession, the better the odds that the North would win the fight.

    The North spent the 1850s preparing for war by growing a massive industrial base, outgrowing the South in population, and strengthening anti-slavery sentiments so that a Union victory would be more likely to result in the abolition of slavery itself.