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The Greatest Speech They Had Ever Heard

July 13th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

I’m a big fan of Fergus Bordewich‘s writing, and his new book—America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union—promises to be a satisfying read. Which is saying something, I think, because he’s writing about congressional debate and long-winded speeches and, ultimately, as much about what didn’t happen—war—as what did—compromise. Ewwwww, compromise. Nowadays, that almost seems to be a dirty word.

Anyway, Bordewich begins in February 1850, with the Kentucky senator Henry Clay rising to speak:

The image is legendary: Clay, usually looking younger than his years, his body thrown back and his arm thrust forward in classic oratorical pose, senators pressing around him with stark attention, men and women—symbolically, all of American—crowding the colonnaded gallery, and soaring overhead a carved eagle as if it were Clay’s own guardian totem. Many who were there remembered it as the greatest speech they had ever heard. Certainly, there were few moments in American history when it was felt that so much might turn on a single speech, or that the country’s fate hinged on one man’s persuasive ability to overcome rigidly held beliefs, and to change minds. Spectators had come to hear Clay from as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia, and so dense was the crush on the Senate floor, it was said, that at least one female visitor was carried across the gallery by the human tide without her feet touching the ground.

This is popular history writing at its best, and makes me feel like I’m Opie while Andy tells me about the shot heard clear ’round world! To hear Bordewich speak about his book, you can go here.

IMAGE:  The United States Senate, A.D. 1850drawn by P. F. Rothermel ; engraved by R. Whitechurch (Library of Congress)

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