Effect of the Compromise of 1850 - History


The Missouri Compromise (1819) set a number of precedents. First, states would enter the Union in pairs, slave states and free states. This compromise helped the Southern states, as they were often admitted to the Union sooner than they would normally have been admitted. Second, the Missouri Compromise delayed the sectional breakup of the Jeffersons Republican party. The battle over Missouri signified a solidification of the Southern opposition to the eventual emancipation of the slaves. Until the fight over Missouris admission to the Union, there was some hope the South would follow the path indicated by many of the founders; a path leading to the eventual voluntary emancipation of all slaves. By the time the Missouri Compromise was reached, it was clear this was not meant to be. The road to the eventual Civil War was laid. Of course, until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the restriction on slave states North 3630 line held strong. In the aftermath of the compromise, attention immediately turned westward to Missouri. There the legislature almost overreached by passing a State Constitution that forbade free Negros and Mulattos from settling in Missouri. This enraged most Northerners and threatened to stop Missouris final approval for statehood. The statement passed in Missouri was in obvious contradiction to the clause in the Constitution that required all states to respect the privileges and immunities of other states. This crisis was overcome with a second compromise, one that approved the Missouri Constitution, with a proviso, stating: the Missouri legislature would not pass any laws that violated the privileges and immunity clause.

30d. The Compromise of 1850

The plan was set forth. The giants &mdash Calhoun, Webster, and Clay &mdash had spoken. Still the Congress debated the contentious issues well into the summer. Each time Clay's Compromise was set forth for a vote, it did not receive a majority. Henry Clay himself had to leave in sickness, before the dispute could be resolved. In his place, Stephen Douglas worked tirelessly to end the fight. On July 9, President Zachary Taylor died of food poisoning. His successor, Millard Fillmore , was much more interested in compromise. The environment for a deal was set. By September, Clay's Compromise became law.

California was admitted to the Union as the 16th free state. In exchange, the south was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah or New Mexico. Texas lost its boundary claims in New Mexico, but the Congress compensated Texas with $10 million. Slavery was maintained in the nation's capital, but the slave trade was prohibited. Finally, and most controversially, a Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law.

Compromise of 1850

North GetsSouth Gets
California admitted as a free stateNo slavery restrictions in Utah or New Mexico territories
Slave trade prohibited in Washington D.C.Slaveholding permitted in Washington D.C.
Texas loses boundary dispute with New MexicoTexas gets $10 million
Fugitive Slave Law

Who won and who lost in the deal? Although each side received benefits, the north seemed to gain the most. The balance of the Senate was now with the free states, although California often voted with the south on many issues in the 1850s. The major victory for the south was the Fugitive Slave Law. In the end, the north refused to enforce it. Massachusetts even called for its nullification, stealing an argument from John C. Calhoun. Northerners claimed the law was unfair. The flagrant violation of the Fugitive Slave Law set the scene for the tempest that emerged later in the decade. But for now, Americans hoped against hope that the fragile peace would prevail.

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So how did such an odd and wholly uncharacteristic law pass Congress? The Fugitive Slave Law was seen as a compromise between the Northern and Southern states as part of the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah were added as slave territories. The compromise also set the borders for Texas, also a slave state. The slave states were not pleased with this arrangement, since although New Mexico and Utah were allowed to be slave territories, when they applied for statehood most likely they would be entered as free states. Also, by setting the northern border of Texas, the compromise constrained its area, which had magnificent cotton plantations at the time.

Ironically, it was the state of Virginia that promoted the Fugitive Slave Law. During the whole era of debate, Virginia firmly believed that a state was protected under the Tenth Amendment to decide independently, without federal interference, if it would become or remain a slave state. However, as Virginia pushed the Fugitive Slave Law, it became obvious that the state's beliefs concerning the Tenth Amendment and federal interference were not consistent. Virginia’s endorsement of federal intervention as part of the Fugitive Slave Law would later discredit its rationale for seceding from the Union. When the state seceded, its justification was because that the federal government was interfering with its rights as a state. Virginia wanted, it seemed, to use the power of the federal government only when it was convenient.

Like many pieces of legislation in the era, the Fugitive Slave Law did nothing to protect African American rights. African Americans who had either been born free, had successfully run away, or had bought their freedom were all vulnerable to being captured and returned to slave owners in the south. Since African Americans were not allowed to testify in court, a free African American had no means of explaining the error. This loophole also allowed dishonest slave owners to claim slaves that were not theirs in the first place.
However horrible the Fugitive Slave Law was, it did have a few benefits to the abolitionist movement. First, the law brought the horrors and unfairness of slavery to the North. People were, for the first time, seeing slaves. This awakened many sympathizers who had previously been ambivalent. Also, men like Fredrick Douglass and Henry Highland, both runaway slaves and abolitionists, began campaigning for the end of slavery.

Effect of the Compromise of 1850 - History

The 1850 Compromise: A Nation on the Brink
The Specter of Civil War

The Nation in 1850. In 1850 the United States stood at a crossroads. The issue of slavery, which had been bubbling just beneath the surface of American politics since 1820, was threatening to tear the nation apart. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had resolved the issue temporarily, but with the addition of new territory as a result of the Mexican-American War, all bets were off. On June 3, 1850, nine slave-holding states sent delegates to Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss possible responses if the Congress voted to ban slavery in the new territories. In 1849 President Zachary Taylor, following the advice of Senator William Seward of New York, proposed to admit California directly as a free state, bypassing the territorial stage in order to avoid what would surely be rancorous debate over slavery. Discussion in Congress over the thorny issue had been stifled as a result of a “gag rule,” which had the effect of preventing any debates over the possible abolition of slavery in the House of Representatives.

A prior convention in Mississippi in 1849 had already denounced the Wilmot Proviso, a pre-Mexican War attempt to limit slavery in any territory that might be gained from war with Mexico. Although the proviso was hotly debated, it never passed, but the issue was by no means dead. The debates in 1850 in Nashville were divided between moderate voices calling for the perpetuation of the Union and the opinions of extremists determined to perpetuate slavery at any cost. The Compromise of 1850, discussed below, postponed the threat of secession or war, but all knew that the issue of slavery was not going to go away. As the 1850 debates made clear, the battle lines were drawn, and as the decade of the 1850s unfolded, the drift towards war became inexorable, so that when the final break finally occurred in 1860, many felt a sense of relief even while facing the prospect of armed conflict between the states.

The Politics of Slavery in the 1850s. Since the United States Constitution recognized and even protected the institution of slavery, it was clear to everyone at the time that to abolish slavery at the national level would require a Constitutional amendment. To obtain the necessary three-quarters majority of the states to ratify an anti-slavery amendment would have been virtually impossible, given that almost half the states permitted slavery. Dealing with the issue therefore had to be carried out in the context of what the Constitution said on the subject.

Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution stated :

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

At first no federal law was invoked to enforce that article, since it was assumed that the states could handle any problems arising from it. In 1793, however, a dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania regarding a runaway slave led to passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Act stated in part:

Section. 3. And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labour in any of the United States … shall escape into any other of the said states or territory, the person to whom such labour or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labour, and to take him or her before any judge of the circuit or district courts of the United States, … and upon proof to the satisfaction of such judge or magistrate … that the person so seized or arrested, doth, … owe service or labour to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such judge or magistrate to give a certificate … which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labour, to the state or territory from which he or she fled.

Section. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, … or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, … shall, for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars.

In 1808, in accordance with the Constitution, Congress banned the further importation of slaves to the United States. Slave trading within the United States, however, remained legal. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery in areas covered by the act, but the restriction was not extended to other territories. (The Ordinance applied to the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.) In 1820, however, the land acquired from from France in the Louisiana purchase precipitated a crisis. The subject of slavery in that territory came to a head over the issue of the admission of the state of Missouri. The Missouri Compromise allowed the extension of slavery into certain areas and prevented it in others, which resolved the issue temporarily. The act merely postponed the crisis, however, as Jefferson and many others recognized at the time.

Although a powerful abolitionist movement began around 1830, it is doubtful that the abolitionist cause ever reached majority proportions throughout the northern states. (Neither, of course, was pro-slavery feeling in the South anywhere near unanimous.) When, as a result of the Mexican-American War, the United States added some 500,000 square miles of new territory in 1848 (over 1,000,000 counting Texas), the nation once again had to decide whether slavery was to be allowed in the new territories of the United States. Both opponents and supporters of slavery recognized that the battle over slavery was to be fought in the territories, where the results would affect the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives. Indeed, that was where it was fought.

The reemergence of the issue in the 1848 election foreshadowed the crisis which evolved and grew in the 1850s. During that election campaign the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” appeared, the idea that people in each territory ought to have the liberty to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free territory. The problem with that idea was that absent laws (such as the Northwest Ordinance) prohibiting slavery, nothing prevented slave owners from taking their “property” into the new territories. Thus, when the population became large enough for the territory to begin thinking of statehood, slavery had to be considered when the people in the territories wrote their constitutions and applied to Congress for admission.

Since approval of those state constitutions was an essential step on the road to statehood, Congress had some control over the process. So the issue became a national one and not one of states’ (or territorial) rights. The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific to cover the new territory however, since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was much stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, politicians were not able to deal with it as readily as before.

The idea of popular sovereignty, introduced during the 1848 election, seemed a reasonable solution. After all, it was basically democratic: Why not let the people in each new territory decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it seemed acceptable to Americans for whom “states’ rights” was the basis for their attitude toward the federal government. The two major problems with the doctrine were, first, that slaves and free blacks were excluded from the decision-making process, and second, that it ignored the concerns of Americans who hoped, as Abraham Lincoln and others did, that slavery was on its way out. If slavery was allowed to go into the territories, then the life of slavery would surely be extended.

In the end, whether it was a wise idea or not, popular sovereignty only made things worse. Some believed that you could allow slavery into the territories but prevent it "de facto" by failing to pass the legislation necessary to support it. In fact, what happened was great turmoil in places like Kansas, where the local population actually got into a civil war over slavery. But that came later. In 1850, when California was ready for admission, slavery was a federal issue. For a short time, it seemed to have been handled reasonably, when after months of debate, the 1850 Compromise was passed.

The Compromise of 1850—Trying to Save the Union

As he had so often done in the past, Henry Clay rose to offer a compromise bill. He submitted a resolution proposing that California be admitted as a free state and that the remainder of the Mexican Cession territory to be organized without mention of slavery. The issue of the Texas-New Mexico boundary, which had created a controversy, would be settled in New Mexico’s favor, but Texas would be compensated with a federal assumption of its state debt. The slave trade (but not slavery) would be abolished in Washington, D.C., and a more stringent fugitive slave law replacing the 1793 fugitive slave act would be enacted and vigorously enforced. Other minor related issues were also included.

In the weeks of Senatorial debate which preceded the enactment of the Compromise of 1850, a range of attitudes was expressed. Clay took the lead early in speaking for the resolutions he had introduced. The Great Compromiser advised the North against insisting on the terms of the Wilmot Proviso and the South against thinking seriously of disunion. South Carolina’s John Calhoun, who was dying, asked Senator James M. Mason of Virginia to read his gloomy speech for him. After explaining why the bonds of sentiment between North and South had been progressively weakened, Calhoun went on, in the section printed below, to say how he thought the Union could be saved. Three days later, he was followed by Daniel Webster, who agreed with Clay that there could be no peaceable secession. Webster’s attempt to restrain Northern extremists brought him abuse from anti-slavery men in his own section, where formerly he had been so admired. Extreme views were expressed on both sides, but the passage of the compromise measures showed that the moderate spirit of Clay and Webster was still dominant.

Henry Clay, John C Calhoun, and Daniel Webster were three of the most powerful politicians who never became president of the United States. Each aspired to the position, but not one of the three was successful. Despite that, they dominated American politics for 40 years, beginning with the question of America's entry into the war of 1812, and ending with the famous debates over the Compromise of 1850. At a time when the relationship between the states and the federal government was still in transition, they began as nationalists. John Calhoun, loyal son of South Carolina, was obliged to shift his position in favor of his state. Henry Clay of Kentucky occupied what might be called a middle ground between states' rights and nationalism, just as his state lay on the border between North and South. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was a strong nationalist, most famous for his Union address of 1832. Their political paths were so intertwined that they became known as The Great Triumvirate.

See Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate:Webster, Clay, and Calhoun , Oxford Univ. Press, 1988

Here are excerpts from the 1850 Compromise debates. As much as any political debates in the nation’s history, they define the positions held by various parties to the conflict:

HENRY CLAY, February 5 and 6.

… Sir, I must take occasion here to say that in my opinion there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union. War and dissolution of the Union are identical and inevitable, in my opinion. There can be a dissolution of the Union only by consent or by war. Consent no one can anticipate, from any existing state of things, is likely to be given and war is the only alternative by which a dissolution could be accomplished. If consent were given—if it were possible that we were to be separated by one great line—in less than sixty days after such consent was given war would break out between the slaveholding and non-slave-holding portions of this Union—between the two independent parts into which it would be erected in virtue of the act of separation. In less than sixty days, I believe, our slaves from Kentucky, flocking over in numbers to the other side of the river, would be pursued by their owners. Our hot and ardent spirits would be restrained by no sense of the right which appertains to the independence of the other side of the river, should that be the line of separation. They would pursue their slaves into the adjacent free States they would be repelled and the consequence would be that, in less than sixty days, war would, be blazing in every part of this now happy and peaceful land.

And, sir, how are you going to separate the states of this confederacy? In my humble opinion, Mr. President, we should begin with at least three separate confederacies. There would be a confederacy of the North, a confederacy of the Southern Atlantic slaveholding States, and a confederacy of the valley of the Mississippi. … Such, I believe, would be the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, immediately ensuing but other confederacies would spring up from time to time, as dissatisfaction and discontent were disseminated throughout the country—the confederacy of the lakes, perhaps the confederacy of New England, or of the middle States. Ah, sir, the veil which covers these sad and disastrous events that lie beyond it, is too thick to be penetrated or lifted by any mortal eye or hand. ….

Mr. President, I have said, what I solemnly believe, that dissolution of the Union and war are identical and inevitable and they are convertible terms and such a war as it would be, following a dissolution of the Union! Sir, we may search the pages of history, and none so ferocious, so bloody, so implacable, so exterminating—not even the wars of Greece, including those of the Commoners of England and the revolutions of France—none, none of them all would rage with such violence, or be characterized with such bloodshed and enormities as would the war which must succeed, if that ever happens, the dissolution of the Union.

John C. Calhoun, March 4.

The first question is: What is it that has endangered the Union? . . .

One of the causes is, undoubtedly, to be traced to the long continued agitation of the slave question on the part of the North and the many aggressions which they have made on the rights of the South . . .

There is another lying back of it, with which this is intimately connected, that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. That is to be found in the fact that the equilibrium between the two sections in the government, as it stood when the Constitution was ratified and the government put into action, has been destroyed. … I propose … that it is owing to the action of this government that the equilibrium between the two sections has been destroyed and the whole powers of the system centered in a sectional majority.

The next [cause] is the system of revenue and disbursements which his been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting states, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue because . . . the subject has on so many occasions been fully discussed. …

It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. …Disunion must be the work of time. It is only through a long process, and successively, that the cords can be snapped, until the whole fabric falls asunder. Already the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important and has greatly weakened all the others. . . .

Having now, senators, explained what it is that endangers the Union, and traced it to its cause, and explained its nature and character, the question again recurs: How can the Union be saved? To this I answer there is but one way by which it can be and that is by adopting such measures as will satisfy the states belonging to the Southern section that they can remain in the Union consistently with their honor and their safety. … But, before I undertake to answer this question, I propose to show by what the Union cannot be saved.

It cannot, then be saved by eulogies on the Union, however splendid or numerous. The cry of "Union, union, the glorious Union!" can no more prevent disunion than the cry of "Health, health, glorious health!" on the part of the physician can save a patient lying dangerously ill. So long as the Union, instead of being regarded as a protector, is regarded in the opposite character, by not much more than a majority of the States, it will be in vain to attempt to conciliate them by pronouncing eulogies upon it.

The plan of the administration cannot save the Union, because it can have no effect whatever toward satisfying the states composing the Southern section of the Union that they can, consistently with safety and honor, remain in the Union. …

Having now shown what cannot save the Union, I return to the question with which I commenced: How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty, and that is by a full and final settlement on the principle of justice of all the questions at issue between the two sections. The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take. She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender. Such a settlement would go to the root of the evil and remove all cause of discontent by satisfying the South that she could remain honorably and safely in the Union and thereby restore the harmony and fraternal feelings between the sections which existed anterior to the Missouri agitation. Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and forever settle the questions at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union.

Daniel Webster, March 7.

MR. PRESIDENT, I WISH TO SPEAK TODAY, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole and the preservation of the whole and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause." I speak today out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all. . . .

I put it to all the sober and sound minds at the North as a question of morals and a question of conscience: What right have they, in all their legislative capacity, or any other, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution, to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all—none at all. Neither in the forum of conscience nor before the face of the Constitution are they justified in any opinion. Of course, it is a matter for their consideration. They probably, in the turmoil of the times, have not stopped to consider of this they have followed what seemed to be the current of thought and of motives as the occasion arose, and neglected to investigate fully the real question, and to consider their constitutional obligations, as I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfill them with alacrity.

Therefore, I repeat, sir, that here is a ground of complaint against the North, well founded, which ought to be removed…

… Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish—I beg everybody's pardon—as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common center, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.

Is the great Constitution under which we live here—covering this whole country—is it to be thawed and melted away by secession as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun—disappear almost unobserved and die off? No, sir! No, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the states but, sir, I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven—I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold characters.

Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great republic to separate! A voluntary separation, with alimony on one side and on the other. Why, what would be the result? Where is the line to be drawn? What states are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be? An American no longer? Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? Or is he to cower, and shrink, and fall to the ground? Why, sit, our ancestors—our fathers, and our grandfathers, those of them that are yet living among us with prolonged lives—would rebuke and reproach us and our children and our grandchildren would cry out, Shame upon us! if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns of the power of the government and the harmony of the Union, which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude. … And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in these caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union…

William H. Seward: A Higher Law than the Constitution. March 11.

Senator William H. Seward of New York represented the more radical anti-slavery position that made him the favorite of abolitionists. Although his views would help prevent him from gaining the Republican nomination for president in 1860, he did become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, a position he held through the administration of Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination. (William Seward is perhaps best known for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, known at the time as “Seward’s folly.”) Seward argued:

…It is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended by a compromise of questions which have arisen out of slavery. I AM OPPOSED TO ANY SUCH COMPROMISE, IN ANY AND ALL THE FORMS IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN PROPOSED, because, while admitting the purity and the patriotism of all from whom it is my misfortune to differ, I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious. They involve the surrender of the exercise of judgment and conscience on distinct and separate questions, at distinct, and separate times, with the indispensable advantages it affords for ascertaining truth. They involve a relinquishment of the right to reconsider in future the decisions of the present on questions prematurely anticipated and they are a usurpation as to future questions of the province of future legislators. …

… There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there - freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one freedom, on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state but it is, moreover, an indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist.

But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, in. deed, that the national domain is ours it is true, it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation but we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty.

But there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are His stewards and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness. . . .

… And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions—shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and unjust shall we establish human bondage, or permit it, by our sufferance, to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it but there is no slave state which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. … I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.

Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery. I speak on due consideration, because Britain, France, and Mexico have abolished slavery, and all other European states are preparing to abolish it as speedily as they can. We cannot establish slavery, because there are certain elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations, which we all admit, or ought to admit, and recognize as essential and these are the security of natural rights, the diffusion of knowledge, and the freedom of industry. Slavery is incompatible with all of these, and just in proportion to the extent that it prevails and controls in any republican state, just to that extent it subverts the principle of democracy and converts the state into an aristocracy or a despotism. …

The debate in Congress was long and tortured, and for a time the cause seemed hopeless. Those 1850 debates were the last great Calhoun, Clay and Webster show, though all three were past their prime and not far from death. John C. Calhoun died in March, 1850. Upon President Taylor’s death, Daniel Webster was called by President Fillmore to return to the post of Secretary of State. Henry Clay and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois sought to break the impasse. They divided the compromise into separate bills, which allowed members to vote for what they liked and against what they did not like. By so doing, Clay and Douglas brought the seven-month-long debate to a successful conclusion. Congress adopted each of Clay's major proposals as separate measures with only minor alterations.

The Compromise admitted California as a free state, organized the territories of New Mexico and Utah on the basis of popular sovereignty, and retracted the Texas border with New Mexico in return for federal assumption of the Texas debt. It also abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The most controversial provision created a strong Fugitive Slave Law to replace the 1793 act. The act denied suspected runaways the right of self-defense, and required Northerners, in effect, to help enforce slavery. The South accepted the Compromise of 1850 as conclusive and backed away from threats of secession. In the North, the Democratic Party gained popularity by taking credit for the compromise, and the Whigs found it necessary to cease their criticism of it.

For the moment, the Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union, and passage of the compromise led to euphoric celebrations of fireworks and bell-ringing throughout the North, but the victory did not last long. Instead of being a “final solution”—to all except northern radical abolitionists—the so-called compromise was never fully accepted by either party people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line opposed at least part of it.

Trouble with the compromise centered on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which struck fear in the hearts of northern blacks and encouraged more Southerners to try to recover escaped slaves. Northern abolitionists often interfered with the enforcement of the law, and such efforts exacerbated sectional feelings. The sight of blacks being carried off to slavery outraged Northerners, and Southerners resented the Northerners’ refusal to obey the law. Ironically, the traditional position of states’ rights attributed to Southerners now cut the other way, as it was Northern states that sought to nullify a federal statute. Some states passed personal liberty laws to protect free blacks, but the Fugitive Slave Law forced many Northerners to experience the heartlessness of slavery first hand. In a number of instances, resistance to the law led to violence.

Christiana, Pennsylvania, lies about 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. In September, 1851, Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slave owner, obtained warrants under the new law to search for four escaped slaves who had run away to Pennsylvania. They were being sheltered by William Parker, a free black farmer who lived in Christiana and belonged to a group known for protecting runaway slaves. When Gorsuch and his search party arrived at the Parker farm, they met with resistance. Arguments broke out and shots were fired. Gorsuch was killed and others were wounded. News of the event, which became known as the Christiana riot, spread far and wide, and Christiana became known as the place where the Civil War began. (See Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North , New York, 1991.)

The Rise of Stephen Douglas. On the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield stand three statues: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Everett Dirksen. Abraham Lincoln needs no further introduction—after all, his likeness is on Mount Rushmore as well. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen served in the House and Senate from 1932 until his death in 1969. A Republican, he was nevertheless a strong supporter of Democrat Lyndon Johnson and worked for civil rights legislation.

Stephen Arnold Douglas, less well known today, was the dominant political figure of the 1850s. Known throughout his life as Judge Douglas because of a service on the Illinois Supreme Court, he was a powerful leader in United States Senate from 1847 to 1861. As noted above, he became prominent in 1850 for engineering passage of the 1850 Compromise. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster and William Seward had debated the issues for months, but the compromise bills were not passed until Douglas took over management of the legislation.

As chairman of the powerful Senate transportation committee, Douglas worked hard to settle territorial issues so that the first transcontinental road could be built. Hoping to have the eastern terminus in his home state of Illinois, he engineered the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which turned out to be an extremely controversial piece of legislation. Douglas had a strong ambition to become president of the United States. In what he saw a as a step in that direction, he defeated Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois Senate in 1858. The contest included the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the most famous political debates in American history. He was also the Democratic nominee for president in 1860.

Significance of the 1850 Compromise. The compromise marked the transition from the second generation of great political leaders to those who would guide the nation as the Civil War approached. Henry Clay, back in the Senate, helped negotiate the settlement. The dying John Calhoun foresaw the eventual breakup of the Union, as did Daniel Webster. John Mason of Virginia, who delivered Calhoun’s speech, was the grandson of George Mason. The slavery issue became focused on its extension into new territories. Senator William Seward represents the abolitionist view of a “higher law” than that Constitution, which bound him to oppose slavery’s expansion. Senator Douglas’s division of the issue into five separate bills allowed everybody to vote against part of it. Each part passes, including the Fugitive Slave Act that compelled Northerners to cooperate in the identification, capture, and return of runaway slaves. The Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union once more, but practically as soon as the ink was dry, the troubles began again.

A Nation Divided: The Political Climate of 1850s America

By the 1850s the United States had become a nation polarized by specific regional identities. The South held a pro-slavery identity that supported the expansion of slavery into western territories, while the North largely held abolitionist sentiments and opposed the institution&rsquos westward expansion. Until the 1850s the nation precariously balanced the slavery issue. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the first serious argument over the expansion of slavery into newly acquired western territory and also revealed fissures between the Second Party System of Whigs and Democrats in the North and the South. Whigs, while not an abolitionist party, believed a strong government served as the protector of Republican principles. The Democrats, on the other hand, emphasized the right of individual states to create and enforce laws. Ultimately, the parties compromised and prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30&prime except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. This compromise artificially quelled the storm brewing between the two regions and for over thirty years the nation maintained this delicate balance with regards to slavery. This balance would teeter in the mid-1840s when, amid extreme controversy, Texas was annexed as a slave state by a majority vote in 1845. Events following the annexation of Texas would lead to war with Mexico and eventually to the American Civil War.

After two years of fighting, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican American War. Through this treaty the United States acquired over a half million square acres. This territory included all of present day California, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. (Niven 1990, 53) The treaty may have ended the hostilities between Mexico and the United States however it revived the contentious arguments concerning slavery between the North and the South. Some politicians, like ardent pro-slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, had opposed the war with Mexico, fearing that any territory acquired as a result would imperil the Union. His fears would be realized in 1846 when Democratic Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot proposed the Wilmot Proviso in Congess. (Niven 1990, 53) The Wilmot Proviso stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread into any territory obtained from Mexico. Wilmot&rsquos proposal proved highly unpopular throughout the southern states whose white residents believed that the bill would infringe on the rights of their state and the rights provided them as American citizens by the Constitution.

In North Carolina, a slaveholding state with a relatively small slave population, &ldquoit was unclear whether ordinary North Carolinians ever accepted the notion that the issue of slavery in the territories was a matter of vital concern to them. Of course no influential politician in the state chose to endorse the restrictions of slavery in the territories. Instead, both parties tried to capitalize on the issue by denouncing their opponents and &lsquoWilmot Provisoists.&rsquo&rdquo (Jeffrey 1989, 287) In North Carolina, the Wilmot Proviso highlighted the competition between the Whig and Democratic Parties regarding which party most ardently supported and protected the right to own slave property. Although the Wilmot Proviso passed in the House of Representatives, where the Free States had a clear majority, the Senate rejected the legislation. Despite its failure, the Wilmot Proviso, like the Compromise of 1820, revealed the discontinuity between the Whig and Democratic Parties in the North and South and opened the way for the sectional realignment of the nation&rsquos party system.

The question of how to deal with the new territory acquired from Mexico led to the Compromise of 1850, orchestrated by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster with southern Democrat, John C. Calhoun. They warned that the Union would only survive if the North and the South shared equal power within it. After a series of fierce debates, &ldquothe &lsquoCompromise&rsquo that finally emerged was not really a compromise in which all parties conceded part of what they wanted, but a series of separately enacted measures each of which became law with a majority of congressmen from each section voting against a majority of those from the other.&rdquo (McPherson 1988, 71) The Compromise passed in a series of five bills. As part of the Compromise, California was annexed as a free state, which upset the balance of free and slave states. Additionally, the New Mexico and Utah territories were given popular sovereignty, which allowed them to choose whether slavery would be allowed within their borders. The Compromise abolished the slave trade in Washington D.C., but appeased southern Democrats with the passage of a tougher Fugitive Slave Law, to the outrage of the northern public.

In North Carolina the Compromise of 1850 demonstrated the divisiveness of the state&rsquos Second Party System comprised of Whigs and Democrats. The divide in the parties can be seen in the state&rsquos political newspapers. The majority of &ldquoWhig presses in North Carolina supported the Compromise and rejoiced after its passage in Congress, while Democratic newspapers like the North Carolina Standard opposed the key compromise proposals and regarded their passage as a defeat for the South.&rdquo (Jeffrey 1989, 293) Ultimately the debates concerning Clay&rsquos Compromise proposal placed the North Carolina Democratic Party firmly in the corner of southern rights. They used the controversy over the compromise, &ldquoas an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to Southern rights and to create an image of their opponents as cowardly submissionists who were willing to sacrifice the interests of their own section in the name of compromise and moderation.&rdquo (Jeffrey 1989, 293)

The Compromise of 1850 settled the turmoil created by the territory acquisition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, however, the nation&rsquos debate over slavery would resurface on a national level only a few years later with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Over the years a steady stream of settlers made their way to these areas and looked to establish territorial and eventually state governments. Once again slavery became an issue in these areas. The 1854 act proposed by Democrat Stephen Douglass, &ldquosought to expand the political liberties of the territory&rsquos white men by giving them the power at the local level to pronounce on the most contentious issue of the time, black slavery. Popular sovereignty, the principal of the Kansas bill, built on the belief that the balance between personal freedom and government power ought to tilt toward the former.&rdquo (Etcheson 2004, 2) Giving settlers in the Kansas-Nebraska territory the opportunity to choose whether or not they would allow slavery conflicted with the parameters of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which outlawed slavery in that area of the country. Debates about the bill erupted throughout the nation. Despite public opposition, Douglass, &ldquoutilizing all his powers of argument, his prestige, and his mastery of parliamentary tactics [forced] the bill through Congress by the narrowest of margins. It received President Pierce&rsquos signature on May 29, 1854.&rdquo (Niven 1990, 83) The Kansas-Nebraska Act deepened the already existing gulf between the North and the South that would eventually push the nation to Civil War. It also led to the creation of a new national political party.

Effect of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

The second Fugitive Slave Law was a major factor in bringing the overthrow of slavery. It drew many new supporters to the cause of abolition and led to the Civil War.

Its provisions placed the handling of fugitive slave cases solely under federal jurisdiction, and like the first law passed in 1793 denied alleged fugitive slaves the right to a trial by jury and the right to testify on their own behalf. All that was required for the arrest of an alleged fugitive slave was identification by two witnesses who confirmed under oath that the individual was indeed a fugitive from slavery. It punished those aiding fugitive slaves with a fine of $1,000, double the first law,and six months in jail for each offense. Adding force was a $1,000 fine imposed on federal marshals, who failed to follow an order to arrest a fugitive slave, and liability for the value of any slave who escaped from them. It also encouraged a prejudicial review by judges, paying them $10 for every case in which a fugitive slave was remanded to the claimant and $5 for those in which the claimant was denied.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Turned Every Citizen Into a Slave Catcher

But most intolerable to northerners was that it required citizens, if called upon by authorities, to assist in the capture of a fugitive slave or face a penalty similar to the one imposed on those caught aiding a fugitive slave–making everyone a slavecatcher by law.

It frightened not only fugitive slaves who had settled in the North but also free blacks who feared the law’s disregard for the rights of the accused would increase the activity of kidnappers. “It is impossible to describe the anguish, terror and despair which fill the minds of our colored fellow-citizens,” William Lloyd Garrison wrote in The Liberator.

Fugitive slaves especially were in such haste that they left behind many of their worldly possessions. They had good reason, considering the increased activities of kidnappers, like the attempt in Providence, R.I. to kidnap Henry “Box” Brown, the famed fugitive slave who had shipped himself to freedom through the mail in a box and shortly after took a boat to England. Both free and fugitive made a hasty pilgrimage to Canada, including Frederick Douglass, Jermain Loguen, and Harriet Tubman.

Thousands of Blacks in the North Fled to Canada

Reports of the exodus of blacks were widespread. The Buffalo Republic stated that “a party of 51 colored men, women, and children from Pittsburgh under the command of B.G. Sampson . . . crossed the Ferry at Black Rock into Canada. They were all armed `to the teeth,’ and on their way to Toronto . . . . It is also stated that 1500 have already organized and are on their way to Canada from the States . . .”

In Toronto, a correspondent wrote: “Indeed it is impossible to say to what extent this emigration may not be carried, as but few negroes in the free States will be secure from the meshes of the new law, which is so framed that by a little hard swearing a planter may successfully claim almost any negro as his property . . .”

A Utica dispatch reported: “Sixteen fugitive slaves on a boat for Canada, passed through this city yesterday. They were well armed and determined to fight to the last”

One of the more horrible results of the law took place in Syracuse. A fugitive slave, his wife, and infant child were riding a canal boat. After being told in jest that his master was about to board the boat to apprehend him, the fugitive slave cut his throat, then jumped off the boat with his wife and child, who drowned.

Some groups left en masse, like black congregations in Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit, where 130, 112, and 84 members respectively of a single Baptist church in each city fled in fear, many leaving their belongings behind.

Blacks in the North Armed Themselves Against Slave Catchers

Those who did not leave armed themselves in preparation for resistance. Gerrit Smith wrote a message for fugitive slaves in the North to slaves in the South that was read publicly at a Convention in Cazenovia three weeks before the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Law: “We cannot furnish you with weapons,” it read in part. “Some of us are not inclined to carry arms, but if you can get them, take them, and before you go back with bondage, use them if you are obliged to take life—the slaveholders would not hesitate to kill you, rather than not take you back into bondage.”

In New York City, more than 1,500 protesters filled the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear William P. Powell denounce the law and hear others vow to fight to the death to remain free.

“My colored brethren, if you have not swords, I say to you, sell your garments and buy one,” said John Jacobs, a fugitive slave from South Carolina. “They said they cannot take us back to the South but I say under the present law, they can and now I say unto you, let them take only your dead bodies.”

More reports of blacks in arms came from the Green Mountain Freeman, referring to Oswego, NY, and Springfield, MA. In the latter city, where about 50 fugitive slaves resided, thousands gathered at a town hall meeting to discuss the suspected presence of slave catchers.

In the three months after the passage of the law, an estimated 3,000 American blacks fled to Canada. It was only the beginning of a mass exodus that continued throughout 1851 and continue steadily thereafter up through the Civil War.

The Compromise of 1850

Until 1845, it had seemed likely that slavery would be confined to the areas where it already existed. It had been given limits by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and had no opportunity to overstep them. The new territories made renewed expansion of slavery a real likelihood.

Many Northerners believed that if not allowed to spread, slavery would ultimately decline and die. To justify their opposition to adding new slave states, they pointed to the statements of Washington and Jefferson, and to the Ordinance of 1787, which forbade the extension of slavery into the Northwest. Texas, which already permitted slavery, naturally entered the Union as a slave state. But the California, New Mexico, and Utah territories did not have slavery. From the beginning, there were strongly conflicting opinions on whether they should.

Southerners urged that all the lands acquired from Mexico should be thrown open to slave holders. Antislavery Northerners demanded that all the new regions be closed to slavery. One group of moderates suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific with free states north of it and slave states to the south. Another group proposed that the question be left to "popular sovereignty." The government should permit settlers to enter the new territory with or without slaves as they pleased. When the time came to organize the region into states, the people themselves could decide.

Despite the vitality of the abolitionist movement, most Northerners were unwilling to challenge the existence of slavery in the South. Many, however, were against its expansion. In 1848 nearly 300,000 men voted for the candidates of a new Free Soil Party, which declared that the best policy was "to limit, localize, and discourage slavery." In the immediate aftermath of the war with Mexico, however, popular sovereignty had considerable appeal.

In January 1848 the discovery of gold in California precipitated a headlong rush of settlers, more than 80,000 in the single year of 1849. Congress had to determine the status of this new region quickly in order to establish an organized government. The venerable Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who twice before in times of crisis had come forward with compromise arrangements, advanced a complicated and carefully balanced plan. His old Massachusetts rival, Daniel Webster, supported it. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the leading advocate of popular sovereignty, did much of the work in guiding it through Congress.

The Compromise of 1850 contained the following provisions: (1) California was admitted to the Union as a free state (2) the remainder of the Mexican cession was divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah and organized without mention of slavery (3) the claim of Texas to a portion of New Mexico was satisfied by a payment of $10 million (4) new legislation (the Fugitive Slave Act) was passed to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their masters and (5) the buying and selling of slaves (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia.

The country breathed a sigh of relief. For the next three years, the compromise seemed to settle nearly all differences. The new Fugitive Slave Law, however, was an immediate source of tension. It deeply offended many Northerners, who refused to have any part in catching slaves. Some actively and violently obstructed its enforcement. The Underground Railroad became more efficient and daring than ever.


The Compromise of 1850 consists of five laws passed in September of 1850 that dealt with the issue of slavery and territorial expansion. In 1849 California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state, potentially upsetting the balance between the free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of resolutions on January 29, 1850, in an attempt to seek a compromise and avert a crisis between North and South. As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was amended and the slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished. Furthermore, California entered the Union as a free state and a territorial government was created in Utah. In addition, an act was passed settling a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico that also established a territorial government in New Mexico.

This resource guide compiles links to digital materials related to the Compromise of 1850 that are available on the Library of Congress website. The guide also provides links to external websites and a selected print bibliography.

The Compromise of 1850 Was an Omnibus Bill

Henry Clay, who had come out of retirement and was serving as a senator from Kentucky, put together a group of five separate bills as an "omnibus bill" which became known as the Compromise of 1850. Clay's proposed legislation would admit California as a free state allow New Mexico to decide whether it wanted to be a free state or one that allowed enslavement enact a strong federal law targeting freedom seekers, and preserve the system of enslavement in the District of Columbia.

Clay tried to get the Congress to consider the issues in one general bill, but couldn't get the votes to pass it. Senator Stephen Douglas became involved and essentially took the bill apart into its separate components and was able to get each bill through Congress.

The Election Of 1860, The North And Southern States Of America

For years prior to the Election of 1860, the Northern and Southern states of America were growing apart. Problems decades earlier such as the South’s lack of railroads were coupled with more recent arguments concerning the future of slavery in America and whether it should be allowed in new territories. Following closely on the heels of many of these divisive problems was the Election of 1860, in which Abraham Lincoln won without carrying a single Southern state. Although it was not his intention

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