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The crisis facing the United States in 1850 was a dramatic prologue to the conflict that came a decade later. The rapid opening of western lands demanded the speedy establishment of local civil administration for these vast regions. Outraged partisans, however, cried of coercion: Southerners saw a threat to the precarious sectional balance, and Northerners feared an extension of slavery. In this definitive study, Holman Hamilton analyzes the complex events of the anxious months from December, 1849, when the Senate debates began, until September, 1850, when Congress passed the measures.

Holman Hamilton is the author of a two-volume work about Zachary Taylor. A former Guggenheim fellow, he also wrote The Three Kentucky Presidents.

"A comprehensive analysis that more nearly defines the complex limits of the problem of this intricate legislative episode."—American Historical Review

"A succinct, useful book dealing with the Compromise of 1850 and the larger issues which led to the Civil War."—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

"Bravo to the University Press of Kentucky for making Holman Hamilton's landmark Prologue to Conflict available once more for student readers. Hamilton's revisionist work credited Stephen A. Douglas with hammering out the crucial compromise that averted civil war for a decade. Hamilton sifted through the maze of rhetoric and uncovered the role of the Texas bondholder lobby in lubricating the machinery of political change. And Hamilton's analysis of the crucial House and Senate roll-call votes was in its day a methodological breakthrough. All in all, Prologue to Conflict remains a historiographical classic, a timeless book essential to understanding the Middle Period of American History."—John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History,

"Hamilton has found drama and excitement. His presentation has all the suspense of a novel, even though the informed reader knows the plot at the start. Moreover, his analyses are incisive and provocative."—Journal of American History

"A great stride toward an understanding of a period and a 'crisis' that have been all too lightly regarded in the past."—Journal of Southern History

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






United States politics, Compromise of 1850


United States History


With a new introduction by Michael F. Holt

Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850
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