A recent poll found that Congress has a lower approval rating than root canals, colonoscopies, cockroaches or Genghis Khan. The likely reason is deadlock. The 112th Congress, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, could not face the fiscal cliff—the chaos that might have ensued when Bush-era tax cuts expired—until its last lame-duck hours in January. The 113th Congress, with the same partisan divide, faces fights over raising the debt ceiling and writing a budget. Behind the contemporary congressional deadlock is an ideological one. Should the federal government address its multitrilliondollar debt by reining in spending—the Republicans’ idea—or by raising taxes on the rich—the Democrats’ idea?
Congress is no stranger to stalemates, or to ideological splits. In 1850 the Senate skipped its summer recess and stayed in session for 10 straight months while it wrestled with the intertwined issues of western expansion and slavery. All that wrestling finally produced the Compromise of 1850, a textbook example of how Congress works—and doesn’t. The compromise patched up the nation’s disputes for a time but did not resolve them.
The question before Congress in 1850 was what to do with America’s greatest windfall since the Louisiana Purchase—more than half a million square miles ceded by Mexico after the Mexican War, stretching from the Rio Grande to the Pacific, and north to Oregon. The new Southwest brought numerous problems with it. California, flooded with new residents during the Gold Rush, clamored for statehood. The state of Texas claimed a chunk of the new territory as far west as Santa Fe. Congress also had to decide, as it had since the Revolution, which new territories and states should be slave and which free.
The two-party system of the day matched Democrats versus Whigs, with Democrats running both the Senate and the House. But unlike today, party loyalty was becoming less important than sectional loyalty, with the nation polarized by slavery.
The man of the hour was 72-year-old Henry Clay, Whig of Kentucky, who had returned to the Senate after an eight-year hiatus. Clay was renowned for his legislative finesse: He had pulled the country out of earlier crises by engineering the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise Tariff of 1833. Unlike the current House Speaker John Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Clay was a riveting performer. “He spoke to an audience,” one listener testified, “very much as an ardent lover speaks to his sweetheart when pleading for her hand.”
In January Clay offered the Senate a package of resolutions giving something to everyone. It made no sense, he said, “if we stopped one leak only in the ship of State, and left other leaks.” He wanted to admit California as a free state, and open Arizona and New Mexico to slavery. He would shrink Texas, but pay its leftover debts from its decade as an independent country, before it became a state in 1845. He offered a psychological sop to slavery’s enemies— abolishing the slave trade that disgraced the District of Columbia—and a practical benefit to slaveowners—imposing a tough federal fugitive slave law. The ardent lover sealed his pitch with the language of a family man. “Let us say what man and wife say to each other: We have numerous faults, nothing in the form of human beings can be perfect; let us then be kind to each other, forbearing, conceding; let us live in happiness and peace.”
The Great Compromiser had powerful allies: Massachusetts Whig Daniel Webster, his only rival in eloquence and fame; and Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas, young, savvy and energetic. But the debate, as it unfolded, pitted Clay against three types of enemies.
Most Southerners showed the crazed touchiness of a beleaguered minority. If California became a free state the balance between free and slave states in the Senate, then even at 15 and 15, would tilt; free-state congressmen already outnumbered slavestate congressmen in the House. John Calhoun, a South Carolina Democrat who was literally on his last legs and would die in March, declared that the South had “no compromise to offer…and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left.”
At the same time a growing number of antislavery Northerners had become equally stubborn about giving up ground. William Seward, a New York Whig and an abolitionist at heart, denounced compromise as “vicious.”
Finally, some senators opposed Clay out of sheer ego. Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri Democrat who had been tangling with him for decades, tried to bury his resolutions under frivolous amendments. In April Benton was almost buried himself when a Clay ally, Henry Foote of Mississippi, pulled a pistol on him on the Senate floor; Foote was disarmed before he could fire.
Clay fought hard for moderation. As winter became spring, then summer, he spoke dozens of times, rebutting critics and fending off distractions. In June he even opposed a brief adjournment for cleaning the Senate’s carpets, which had become filthy from half a year of mud and tobacco stains. “I would work on this carpet, or any other carpet, to accomplish the completion of this bill.”
The final showdown came at the end of July, when one of Clay’s allies unwisely accepted a motion to divide the question—a parliamentary maneuver that allowed Clay’s enemies to dismantle his bill, piece by piece. The great compromise was gutted, and Clay left Washington to lick his wounds.
But in one of those twists that Capitol Hill insiders know so well, other hands took up the job. Stephen Douglas wrote that “Old Hal” had “fought a glorious and a patriotic battle” but had erred in bundling his resolutions together, thus giving their many enemies a single target. Instead, Douglas now pushed Clay’s remedies for each issue separately. Douglas’ command center, writes historian Fergus Bordewich, was the Holein-the-Wall, a snack bar just off the Senate floor, where he negotiated “over copious cups of wine.” Booze and backroom deals succeeded where eloquence had failed. By the end of September every piece of the Compromise of 1850 had passed both Senate and House and been signed into law. Congress had been in session for 302 days.
One lesson of the Compromise of 1850: Never write Congress off until the last minute. Congressmen invariably posture, for the sake of the record or for love of hearing themselves talk. But when frontal assaults fail, clever maneuvers often succeed instead. And the brave can clear the way for the wily. Clay’s six-month campaign made all his colleagues familiar with (and tired of) the issues, thus speeding Douglas’ efforts to pass legislation.
Another lesson, though, is not so cheery. When congressmen—and their constituents— are passionately committed to their beliefs, and the beliefs of sections or parties are at loggerheads, compromisers may smooth and tuck, but the great disagreements remain. In 1854, Douglas tried his luck once more with a bill to regulate America’s last large territory, between the Midwest and the Rockies. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed slavery there if settlers wished it. But too many Americans were in an all-or-nothing frame of mind. The problem of slavery would only be settled in blood.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.