Henry Adams made his first visit to the floor of the United States Senate in May 1850,when he was 12. It was, he recalled, a “pleasant political club,” a “friendly world” where even slaveholders seemed “genial and sympathetic.” Adams didn’t mention the contemporary controversy over the vast territory recently acquired by conquest from Mexi­co: Would slavery be legal in the states that would eventually emerge from the region? While angry Americans demanded an answer, members of Congress debated and dithered. Then in August they approved a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850, which resolved the political crisis by making no one happy. The Senate that Adams remembered was like the eye of a hurricane, the calm at the center of a storm. And standing in the middle of that calm was Henry Clay of Kentucky. No one had done more to nurture the familiar atmosphere of Congress and indeed of the capital city. Clay thrived in Washington, a small town whose transient denizens were susceptible to the kind of adroit personal management he was known for.

more from Andrew Cayton at the NYT here.