Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s

By Olsen, Christopher | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s


Olsen, Christopher, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s. Ed. by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Pp. 231, notes on contributors, index. Cloth, $49.95.)

This is the third book in the series "Perspectives on the History of Congress, 1801-1877," edited by Donald R. Kennon, although the essays in this volume are only loosely tied to the history of Congress. Paul Finkelman does not even try to suggest common themes among the essays in his wonderfully written introduction. His own implicit theme is that national leaders failed to provide leadership during the decade, and he indicts the presidents after Polk for being particularly inept ("Fillmore's utter incompetence," for instance), (p. 3) Congress, he concludes, "only made the crisis worse" with the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act. (p. 2) He also maintains that there was just one issue - slavery, of course - that drove the crisis of the 1850s. These arguments actually contradict several essays that explicitly de-emphasize slavery or do not really engage the history of Congress.

The first two chapters, by Michael Holt and Finkelman, address the Compromise of 1850. Holt summarizes his previously published work on the topic (he does not include notes), and his emphasis on the party politics and patronage battles that shaped the legislation will be familiar to many readers. Finkelman's essay is an extended critique of the Compromise (he calls it the "Great Failure") and congressional leaders who supported it. He is especially critical of Robert Remini (At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union [2010]) and other authors of what he terms the "heroic analysis" of the Compromise. For Finkelman, instead, the Compromise was so one-sided that it "left southerners arrogant [but] then angry when their legislative victory turned out to be a mirage." (p. 79) As in some of his previous work, Finkelman highlights the Fugitive Slave Act as the most important - and flawed - part of the Compromise. Anyone looking for a summary of the Compromise and its impact on antebellum politics would be hard-pressed to do better than these two chapters from two of its best and most celebrated historians.

Each of the subsequent chapters addresses some aspect of the 1850s and sectionalism. Matthew Glassman's analysis of the Oregon admission and the statehood process - particularly the "balance rule" - most directly considers Congress and its role in sectionalism. He argues that the statehood process itself was "inherently controversial" (p. 83) with or without slavery, and that historians should examine more completely the other factors that influenced admission of new states. …

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