Saturday, November 01, 2008

Compromise or Armistice?

In his outstanding book, The Impending Crisis, David M. Potter famously argued that the Compromise of 1850 was not a compromise at all:
Consistently, the preponderant strength of one section opposed the preponderant strength of the other; yet in each case the measure passed. This was because, as [Stephen] Douglas had perceived, there were small blocs of advocates of compromise ready to exert a balance of power. In the Senate, four senators voted for the compromise measures every time, and eight others did so four times while abstaining on a fifth measure; in the House 28 members gave support five times and 35 did so four times out of five.

These facts raise a question of whether the so-called Compromise of 1850 was really a compromise at all. If a compromise is an agreement between adversaries, by which each consents to certain terms desired by the other, and if the majority vote of a section is necessary to register the consent of that section, then it must be said that North and South did not consent to each other’s terms, and that there was really no compromise – a truce perhaps, an armistice, certainly a settlement, but not a true compromise.

Since The Impending Crisis appeared in the 1970s, virtually all historians seem to have endorsed Professor Potter’s observation. I have certainly not conducted a methodical survey, but I cannot recall reading any work discussing the Compromise that has not seconded Potter’s argument, or at least noted it with apparent approval.

Until now, that is. In Texas, New Mexico, & The Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute & Sectional Crisis, Mark J. Stegmaier dares to take on the legendary Professor Potter. Professor Stegmaier argues with great effectiveness that the Compromise was more “compromise” than “armistice.” First, Professor Stegmaier points out that the overall result, accepted as it was by majorities of the populace of both sections, did involve give-and-take:
The bills taken together did involve mutual concession, and the great majority, North and South, welcomed the outcome. Southerners accepted California statehood; Northerners generally abided by the new fugitive slave law. The popular sovereignty formula in the territories did not reflect the initial desires of majorities from either North or South but became an agreement that eventually satisfied majorities of both sections . . .. Certainly this represented “compromise” in the true sense.

Professor Stegmaier also points specifically to the bill that settled differences between Texas and New Mexico, which was itself a compromise:
And none of the bills in the 1850 settlement indicated “compromise” more fully than the Texas-New Mexico bill. It passed only after long and bitter struggle, but the final bill involved concession by both North and South. The boundary line of the compromise bill was not what either Texans or promoters of New Mexico had argued for, but it proved acceptable to all once it was passed in Congress. The success of the boundary bill itself evidenced a great deal of “compromise.”

Professor Stegmaier’s book is simply wonderful. If you’re interested in antebellum American history, I recommend it without qualification. Many thanks to Sean Nalty for bringing it to my attention.

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