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A Strife of Tongues

The Compromise of 1850 and the Ideological Foundations of the American Civil War
Stephen E. Maizlish

BUY Cloth · 332 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941196 · $45.00 · Jun 2018
BUY Ebook · 332 pp. · ISBN 9780813941202 · $45.00 · Jun 2018

Near the end of a nine-month confrontation preceding the Compromise of 1850, Abraham Venable warned his fellow congressmen that "words become things." Indeed, in politics—then, as now—rhetoric makes reality. But while the legislative maneuvering, factional alignments, and specific measures of the Compromise of 1850 have been exhaustively studied, much of the language of the debate, where underlying beliefs and assumptions were revealed, has been neglected.

The Compromise of 1850 attempted to defuse confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War—which would be free, which would allow slavery, and how the Fugitive Slave Law would be enacted. A Strife of Tongues tells the cultural and intellectual history of this pivotal political event through the lens of language, revealing the complex context of northern and southern ideological opposition within which the Civil War occurred a decade later. Deftly drawing on extensive records, from public discourse to private letters, Stephen Maizlish animates the most famous political characters of the age in their own words. This novel account reveals a telling irony—that the Compromise debates of 1850 only made obvious the hardening of sectional division of ideology, which led to a breakdown in the spirit of compromise in the antebellum period and laid the foundations of the U.S. Civil War.


Maizlish's new book is the finest account we have of the Compromise of 1850.... [ A Strife of Tongues] carefully reconstructs the various dimensions of both proslavery and antislavery ideology.... The Compromise of 1850 is a centerpiece of every book ever written on the origins of the Civil War, and yet most accounts are marred by their authors' tone-deafness to the premises of antislavery politics. By simply taking the debate seriously, Maizlish has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Civil War.

New York Review of Books

A beautifully written, vigorously argued, and important book.

Daniel Crofts, The College of New Jersey, author of Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union

This original and illuminating study of the Compromise of 1850 is the first to take seriously the contemporary claim that "words had become things." By focusing on the discourse of nine months of debates over territorial measures, Stephen Maizlish makes the convincing argument that sectional conflict was driven by two comprehensive and highly-articulated competing worldviews that were strengthened over the course of the debates. Clearly and engagingly written, A Strife of Tongues makes an important contribution to the history of sectionalism and the irrepressible conflict.

Amy Greenberg, Penn State University, author of A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico

[Maizlish] spent years reading all the House and Senate speeches related to the Compromise of 1850 that were published in the Congressional Globe, as well as a good deal of the surrounding correspondence between congressmen and their friends, constituents, and spouses. What Maizlish reveals is a Congress full of legislators who were mostly unwilling to confront the stark realities of their situation, and whose months-long debate served to instruct Northerners and Southerners alike about how dramatic their ideological differences were, inflaming tensions among ordinary citizens.

Pacific Standard

Maizlish (Univ. of Texas, Arlington) focuses exclusively on the work and words of the congressional debates leading to passage of the Compromise of 1850. He consulted some 1,700 speeches and letters and quotes or otherwise references nearly 60 percent of the members of the 31st US Congress.... The author brings to light the intensity of the verbal conflict and how each side defined both itself and the other.... Summing Up: Recommended.


In this extensively researched work of political, intellectual, and cultural history, Maizlish recounts how the Compromise debate, far from mollifying sectionalism, only sharpened divisions between slave states and free states and established an ideological framework in which the ensuing sectional crisis would unfold.

Civil War Book Review

With this volume, Stephen E. Maizlish sheds new light on a much-studied event by writing "a cultural and intellectual history" of the Compromise of 1850.... In especially useful chapters, the study connects to recent historiographical trends by subjecting the debates to the analytical tools of gender and memory. Showing how appeals to concepts of manhood and the legacy of the founders shaped the debate, plus recasting the leading men, add up to an original study of this political event.

The Journal of American History

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