Compromised

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HISTORY MAY 21, 2010

Compromised

At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union
by Robert V. Remini
Basic Books, 184 pp., $24

When you get caught in a “compromising position,” it’s a bad thing. When the independence of the judiciary or the security of your data gets “compromised,” that’s a bad thing, too. But compromise itself, especially political compromise, is widely considered a good thing. And the indefatigable veteran historian Robert V. Remini, author of an admirable biography of Henry Clay and now a more modest exploration of Clay’s Compromise of 1850, clearly considers it a great thing. “1850 proved that compromise is the best solution to difficult problems,” Remini explains in promotional material for his new book about Henry Clay and his famous stratagem. “That principle holds as true now as it did 160 years ago—something we’d do well to remember during the current rancorous debate over health care.” Remini approvingly quotes Clay during the nullification controversy of 1833, defending “that great principle of compromise and concession which lies at the bottom of our institutions.”   

But compromise is not a principle. Compromise is a tactic—sometimes an honorable tactic, sometimes less so. It all depends on the terms of, and the reasons for, the deal. Doing a deal can be righteous, sometimes even more righteous than standing on principle, but the very fact of the deal getting done is not proof of its righteousness. This is also something we would do well to remember today.  

The modern fetish for “bipartisanship” and “consensus” as principled ends in themselves reflects what might be called the Clay Fallacy, which is the preference for process over substance, the assumption that there always must be a right answer in the middle ground between the two sides. Actually, sometimes the right answer is entirely on one side. Sometimes it is somewhere else entirely. Sometimes no answer is the right answer. William Seward was silly to declare in 1850 that “I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious,” but it is just as silly to assume that any compromise that can command a veto-proof majority is a deal worth doing. And as the rancorous debate over health care reminded us, the belief that the reasonable must always find common ground tends to empower the intransigent and the unprincipled.  

The Compromise of 1850 is an especially tricky case, because it was a compromise about slavery, forged without the participation or representation of America’s three million slaves. Clay’s deal abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia and set the stage for California, New Mexico, and Utah to become free states, but it also protected slavery in the District and the slave trade throughout the South while strengthening fugitive slave laws nationwide. No wonder it made Seward uneasy. It must be said that Remini, a distinguished and scrupulously honest analyst of antebellum America, tends in this account to treat slavery as an abstraction, as if the whippings, beatings, and other cruelties of human bondage were just another divisive political issue to be debated and logrolled in Washington. Sure, it’s important to analyze history in context, and Clay did indeed hold unusually progressive views for a slaveholding politician of his era; but it is just as important to keep in the forefront of our minds that slavery was evil, and that there was nothing principled or statesmanlike about profiting from forced labor, and that the intransigent abolitionists who come off in most histories as nineteenth-century Code Pinkers were ultimately correct.   

Still, Remini makes a persuasive case that the 1850 compromise made sense, if only as a stalling tactic that delayed secession long enough for the North to build its industrial base and elect Abraham Lincoln to the White House, so that it could win the Civil War. Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan were not going to get the job done. The long prelude to disunion does have the tragic feel of inevitability: Clay might have been able to drive a harder bargain with the slavocracy in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, when even the South still considered slavery temporary and unfortunate, but back then Clay and just about everyone else still believed the “peculiar institution” would melt away of its own accord.

By 1850, Southern leaders militantly defended slavery as not only necessary but good, and vigorously resisted any limits on its expansion. Clay was determined to preserve the Union at any cost, and along with Stephen Douglas, who shepherded his deal into law, he gets credit for keeping the cost lower than it could have been. So the dean of antebellum historians deserves the benefit of doubt about the great compromise.  

Remini’s historian-crush on the Great Compromiser, and his unabashed enthusiasm for compromise itself, is a bit easier to question. For Remini, the most salient fact about Clay was his statesmanship: he was a legislative giant who set aside his beliefs to bridge deep national divisions. But that is a nicer way of saying that Clay’s beliefs were generally conditional; he flip-flopped on the national bank, finessed his views about expansion, and never let his anti-slavery ideals trump his passion for deals. Remini writes with such nostalgia about The Great Triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun and Webster that it becomes easy to forget that Calhoun was a two-faced treasonous creep, and that Webster was secretly on the U.S. Bank’s payroll, and that the entire triumvirate routinely placed presidential ambitions above principle. It is true that Clay and Webster were genuinely devoted to the Union—Calhoun was devoted to racism, states rights, and Calhoun—and that all three were dealmakers. But while Lincoln revered Clay and shared his patriotism, he also knew when to say, No deal. He recognized that the right answer did not always lie somewhere in the middle.  

Which brings us back to that rancorous debate over health care. On one side was President Obama, whose plan extended private insurance to the uninsured while trying to rein in the cost of care. On the other side were the Republicans, who accused Obama of socializing medicine and cutting Medicare at the same time, raving about death panels and government takeovers and any other bogeymen they thought they could pin to the Democratic donkey. In the middle were opportunists who recognized that Republican intransigence gave them carte blanche to demand Cornhusker Kickbacks or executive orders about abortion for their votes. The whole debate was silly, featuring months of obviously fruitless negotiations. Republicans would vow to oppose any bill with a public option. So the public option would vanish. But the Republicans would still oppose the bill. And so it went.   

This is what happens when the political culture decides that compromise is a worthy goal in its own right. Lefty blogs deride this phenomenon as “Broderism,” a snarky reference to Washington Post columnist-in-perpetuity David Broder’s predictable rapture over anything bipartisan, and they have a point. It is a recipe for obstructionism, because the minority party knows that any time it can unite in opposition the majority party has by definition failed. It leads to legislative discussions that are basically hostage negotiations rather than genuine searches for common ground. It promotes the triumph of process over substance. It is no accident that the most transparently ludicrous boondoggles in American government—farm subsidies, makework Army Corps of Engineers water projects, pork-stuffed highway bills, the mortgage interest deduction—are logrolled bipartisan boondoggles.  

Washington lionizes dealmakers in much the same way Wall Street lionizes dealmakers, but the recent financial meltdown was a powerful reminder that the result of a deal is much more important than the fact of a deal. “It has been proven time and time again”, Remini observes, “that little of lasting importance can be accomplished without a willingness on the part of all involved to seek to accommodate one another’s needs and demands.” Well, mutual accommodation can be nice when it works. But it’s as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth: there is a time to compromise and to cave, and a time to fight and to win.

Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time Magazine, is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.

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