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America's Great Debate

Fergus M. Bordewich has penned a perceptive and tremendously witty book about the compromise that held the US together in the decade before the Civil War.

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America's Great Debate
By Fergus M. Bordewich
Simon & Schuster
496 pp.

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While it sometimes seems that we are the generation that invented political rudeness and disrespect, the truth is that the business of running this country has always been loud, messy, and even mighty close to hopeless at times. But for better or worse, we've managed to function, if barely.

Once upon a time, an exhausted, heat-addled, and heat-packing Congress even managed to stop dithering and prevent a war. Thanks to a tremendously witty and perceptive new book, readers get a ringside seat that allows them to smell the capitol's tobacco-splotched carpet, see the withered faces of desperate men, and hear the epic speeches of the wise and the not-so-wise.

The time: 1850, more than a decade before the Civil War. The place: The capital of a country that didn't quite know what to do with a tremendous new chunk of land out west. Our guide: Historian Fergus M. Bordewich, author of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union.

The big issue was whether the South would get its way (slavery now and forever) even though it was greatly outnumbered by people in the North. Compromise had helped create the United States and, so some hoped, it would triumph once again.

Political compromise is a sticky wicket, however. It requires people to give up things they want and risk turning off voters. And compromise is an even tougher proposition when you have what the author calls a "paralyzed system."

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