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Deals that changed history

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To save the Union from dissolution, Clay proposed a "great national scheme of compromise and harmony," a grand bargain to resolve disputes over slavery. In the Senate, Clay set up back channels to Democrats and caucused daily with both Democrats and Whigs committed to saving the Union. "Meet earlier, sit longer, meet every working day of the week," he urged colleagues.

But what Clay counted on most was his own powers of persuasion. When he spoke on the Senate floor, spectators jammed the galleries. Some of them wept. In the end, it wasn't enough. After seven months of debate, the omnibus bill was defeated, and Clay, battling illness, left town.

Douglas, effectively, took over. Known as the "Little Giant" or the "steam engine in britches," he had spoken very little during the debate. But after studying the votes on the legislation, Douglas concluded that by pushing each measure separately, the whole package could pass.

Instead of counting on public speeches, Douglas and his allies focused on backroom meetings to decide what winning coalitions were possible.

"Through a combination of personal magnetism, locomotive energy, an amazingly acute reading of the minds of his fellow senators North and South – and, yes, towering hubris – Douglas had wrought a miracle," writes Fergus M. Bordewich in "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union."

The Interstate Highway program of 1956

Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to F.D.R. had proposed upgrading the nation's road system, but none managed it as effectively as President Eisenhower and a Democratic-controlled Congress, which launched the Interstate Highway System in 1956. It was, at the time, the largest public works program in American history.

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