Here is a pleasant surprise. This book about a little-known subject by a not-so-well-known writer is as good as almost any work of popular history about the early United States. Original in concept, stylish in execution, “America’s Great Debate,” by Fergus Bordewich, provides everything history readers want.

And what is that? Two things above all: a compelling story and a cast of characters who come convincingly to life.

Bordewich, a Washingtonian, takes on a hard job. Over the past 20 years, writers have turned out a steady stream of histories on the American founders and on the Civil War era. The 1840s and ’50s are less explored — for a reason. Their disputes seem petty beside those surrounding the Constitution and the Civil War; their greatest figures pale beside the founders, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Bordewich, the author of five previous books, takes up a story whose details are little-known — the Compromise of 1850 — and tells it in a wholly successful way. He has rediscovered a drama that was all-consuming to contemporaries and all but forgotten in recent years.

He begins with the Mexican War, which brought California, New Mexico and other future states to the Union and raised what Bordewich calls “profound and seemingly unanswerable questions: how were the new territories to be governed? Could they even be governed?” California petitioned for admission as a free state. But this would have upset the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had defined the limits of slavery in the territories. Could this new issue be solved by compromise, too?

’America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union’ by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)

The story is an important one. Bordewich argues that a civil war fought in 1850 might have had a very different result from the war that came 10 years later. He may be right, but the reason to read this book is the author’s success at bringing the characters of the Senate of 1850 to life.

As an aged, infirm Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky tried to shepherd a new compromise through the Senate (30 years after he helped adopt the Missouri Compromise), I finally understood why the young Abraham Lincoln idolized Clay. The hopes of those who wanted to preserve the union seemed to rest on him alone. Clay’s compromise was a single bill with five main provisions: the admission of California as a free state; the withdrawal of slave-state Texas’s claims to what is now New Mexico in return for $10 million; popular sovereignty for the citizens of Utah, New Mexico and other territories with regard to slavery; the adoption of a harsh fugitive slave law; and abolition of the slave trade (though not of slavery itself) in Washington, D.C. But when Clay’s compromise was caught in a tangle of parliamentary maneuvers and voted down (and Clay, broken, left the city), another senator stepped forward and succeeded. Stephen A. Douglas broke Clay’s single bill into five parts and patiently got each one passed.

Douglas is remembered chiefly as the foil to Lincoln in the debates of 1858 and the presidential election of 1860. He gets his due from Bordewich. One understands after reading this book why people called Douglas the “Little Giant.”

Beyond Clay and Douglas, there are wonderful characters everywhere: a finely drawn Daniel Webster; an old but active Sam Houston; even a fleetingly promising president, Millard Fillmore. And the people of California, New Mexico, Texas and the Northern courtrooms where fugitive slaves battled their captors come to life as well.

One is reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s compliment, not to a historian but to the novels of Anthony Trollope: “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.” “America’s Great Debate” gives the same feeling of reality.

Give this book to any friend who loves a great story whose characters seem as vivid, human and understandable as those who walk the halls of Congress today.

Donald E. Graham is chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company.


Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Simon & Schuster. 480 pp. $30