On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History

By John C. Waugh

Scholarly Resources, 2003
217 pages

In December 1849 serious questions surfaced in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War: What to do about admitting slavery into the new territories wrested from Mexico; where to draw the boundary line between the slave state of Texas and the free territory of New Mexico; what to do about fugitive slaves escaping to the North; and what to do about slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital. These conflicts between the North and South, if unresolved, threatened to trigger southern secession and plunge the country into a civil war.

On the Brink of Civil War tells the dramatic story of what happened when a handful of senators — towering figures in nineteenth century America — tried to hammer out a compromise to save the Union.

The characters in this critical political drama included three great Senate legends:  Henry Clay, the seasoned Kentucky politician-statesman known as the “Great Pacificator,” who shaped an agreement package in the Senate and fought to get it passed; the great Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who took sides with Clay and delivered the famed “Seventh of March” speech for compromise, one of the most memorable addresses in American history; and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the fervent defender of slavery and the South, who, though dying, spoke to the Senate against the compromise and demanded equal rights for the South in the new western territories — or secession.

Four young senators stepped into the fray to play their own unique, important roles: William Henry Seward, the Whig from New York who many say controlled President Zachary Taylor and who opposed compromise; Stephen A. Douglas, the dynamic “Little Giant” from Illinois who favored agreement; Salmon Portland Chase, the voice of the Free-Soilers and foe of compromise and concessions to the South; and Jefferson Davis, Mexican War hero and second only to Calhoun as the voice the South.The book brings all of these men to life in this gripping narrative. Richly detailed, swiftly moving, it is intended to read like a novel, yet bring perspective and interpretation to the events that will help readers understand the meaning of this complex, alarming passage in America’s past.

What Historians Think

“John C. Waugh has scored again. On the Brink of Civil War is a tour de force and must reading if we are to comprehend why in 1850 the nation’s political leadership succeeded only to fail when next challenged.”
— Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service

“After the Mexican war, the United States came close to civil war. The process through which compromise prevailed is dramatically recounted by John C. Waugh, an experienced twentieth century journalist now turning his attention and talents to past crises. Combining skillful reporting, careful research, and an instinct for the colorful, Waugh analyzes the statesmanship the nation would lack a decade later.”
— John Y. Simon, Southern Illinois  University

“Jack Waugh has written the best book on the Compromise of 1850. In a graceful, journalistic way [he] examines the views of each major figure and some minor figures. The great statesmen of the nation speak for the causes of the sections, and, with no compromise being popular, they nevertheless manage to prolong the peace for a decade. It is a marvelously written account.”
— Grady McWhiney, Professor Emeritus in Civil War History, Texas Christian University

What Reviewers Say

On the Brink of Civil War is the type of history Waugh is known for — fraught with drama, filled with great quotes from the period and leavened with humorous insights.”
— Clarksburg (West Virginia) Exponent-Telegram“The academic title belies a book that reads like a novel.”
— The Dominion Post (Morgantown, West Virginia)