The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills aimed at resolving the territorial and slavery controversies arising from the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). There were five laws which balanced the interests of the slave states of the South and the free states to the north. California was admitted as a free state; Texas received financial compensation for relinquishing claim to lands west of the Rio Grande in what is now New Mexico; the Territory of New Mexico (including present-day Arizona and a portion of southern Nevada) was organized without any specific prohibition of slavery; the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was terminated in the District of Columbia; and the stringent Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves regardless of the legality of slavery in the specific states.
The measures, a compromise designed by Whig Senator Henry Clay (who failed to get them through himself), were shepherded to passage by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and Whig Senator Daniel Webster. The measures were opposed by Senator John C. Calhoun. The Compromise was possible after the death of President Zachary Taylor, who was in opposition. Succeeding President Taylor was a strong supporter of the compromise: Millard Fillmore. It temporarily defused sectional tensions in the United States, postponing the secession crisis and the American Civil War. The Compromise dropped the Wilmot Proviso, which never became law but would have banned slavery in territory acquired from Mexico. Instead the Compromise further endorsed the doctrine of "Popular Sovereignty" for the New Mexico Territory. The various compromises lessened political contention for four years, until the relative lull was shattered by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Background and earlier proposals
Soon after the war started and long before negotiation of the new US-Mexico border
, the question of slavery in the territories to be acquired polarized the Northern and Southern United States
in the most bitter sectional conflict up to this time, which lasted for a deadlock of four years during which the Second Party System
broke up, Mormon pioneers
, the California Gold Rush
, and New Mexico under a federal military government turned back Texas
's attempt to assert control over territory Texas claimed as far west as the Rio Grande
. Eventually the Compromise of 1850
preserved the Union, but only for another decade. Proposals included:
- The Wilmot Proviso banning slavery in any new territory to be acquired from Mexico, not including Texas which had been annexed the previous year. Passed by the United States House of Representatives in August 1846 and February 1847 but not the Senate. Later an effort to attach the proviso to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed.
- Failed amendments to the Wilmot Proviso by William W. Wick and then Stephen Douglas extending the Missouri Compromise line (36°30' parallel north) west to the Pacific, allowing slavery in most of present day New Mexico and Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Southern California, as well as any other territories that might be acquired from Mexico. The line was again proposed by the Nashville Convention of June 1850.
- Popular sovereignty, developed by Lewis Cass and Douglas as the eventual Democratic Party position, letting each territory decide whether to allow slavery.
- William L. Yancey's "Alabama Platform," endorsed by the Alabama and Georgia legislatures and by Democratic state conventions in Florida and Virginia, called for no restrictions on slavery in the territories either by the federal government or by territorial governments before statehood, opposition to any candidates supporting either the Wilmot Proviso or popular sovereignty, and federal legislation overruling Mexican anti-slavery laws.
- General Zachary Taylor, who became the Whig candidate in 1848 and then President from March 1849 to July 1850, proposed after becoming President that the entire area become two free states, called California and New Mexico but much larger than the eventual ones. None of the area would be left as an unorganized or organized territory, avoiding the question of slavery in the territories.
- The Mormons' proposal for a State of Deseret incorporating most of the area of the Mexican Cession but excluding the largest non-Mormon populations in Northern California and central New Mexico was considered unlikely to succeed in Congress, but nevertheless in 1849 President Taylor sent his agent John Wilson westward with a proposal to combine California and Deseret as a single state, decreasing the number of new free states and the erosion of Southern parity in the Senate.
- Senator Thomas Hart Benton in December 1849 or January 1850: Texas's western and northern boundaries would be the 102nd meridian west and 34th parallel north.
- Senator John Bell (with assent of Texas) in February 1850: New Mexico would get all Texas land north of the 34th parallel north (including today's Texas Panhandle), and the area to the south (including the southeastern part of today's New Mexico) would be divided at the Colorado River (Texas) into two Southern states, balancing the admission of California and New Mexico as free states.
- First draft of the compromise of 1850: Texas's northwestern boundary would be a straight diagonal line from the Rio Grande 20 miles north of El Paso to the Red River (Mississippi watershed) at the 100th meridian west (the southwestern corner of today's Oklahoma).
- The Compromise of 1850, proposed by Henry Clay in January 1850, guided to passage by Douglas over Northern Whig and Southern Democrat opposition, and enacted September 1850, admitted California as a free state including Southern California and organized Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory with slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty. Texas dropped its claim to the disputed northwestern areas in return for debt relief, and the areas were divided between the two new territories and unorganized territory. El Paso where Texas had successfully established county government was left in Texas. No southern territory dominated by Southerners (like the later short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona) was created. Also, the slave trade was abolished in Washington, DC (but not slavery itself), and the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened.
Clay and Douglas draft compromise
Congress convened on December 3 1849
. On January 29
, Whig Senator Henry Clay
gave a speech which called for compromise on the issues dividing the Union. However, Clay's specific proposals for achieving a compromise, including his idea for Texas' boundary, were not adopted, although Clay later claimed credit for drafting the entire compromise. Rather, it was Senator Stephen A. Douglas
, Democrat of Illinois
, who largely guided the Compromise to passage. The Compromise came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with "popular sovereignty
" (without the Wilmot Proviso
) for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave auctions in the District of Columbia, and enacting a harsh new fugitive slave law.
View of Davis and Southern Democrats
Some Southern Democrats, led by Jefferson Davis
, opposed Douglas's and especially Clay's compromise because they would have admitted California as a free state, thus disturbing the balance of power between North and South in the Senate, and because they would have negated some of Texas's land claims. They also opposed as unconstitutional the abolition of the slave auctions in the District of Columbia.
View of Seward and Northern Whigs
Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward
who delivered his famous "Higher Law" speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise as well because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso
to the western territories and because of the Democratic new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols; this provision was inserted by Democratic Virginia Senator James M. Mason
to coerce border-state Whigs, who faced the greatest danger of losing slaves as fugitives but who were lukewarm on general sectional issues related to the South into supporting Texas's land claims.
Whig President Zachary Taylor attempted to sidestep the entire controversy by pushing to admit California and New Mexico as free states immediately, avoiding the entire territorial process and thus the Wilmot Proviso question. Taylor's stand was unpopular among Southerners.
Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs did support the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported the stronger fugitive slave law.
Debate and results
On April 17
, a "Committee of Thirteen" agreed on the border of Texas as part of Clay's plan. The dimensions were later changed. That same day, during debates on the measures in the Senate, Vice President Millard Fillmore
and Thomas Hart Benton
verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was "out of order". During the heated debates, Compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote
drew a pistol on Senator Benton.
In early June, nine slaveholding Southern states sent delegates to the Nashville Convention to determine their course of action should the compromise take hold. While some delegates preached secession, eventually the moderates ruled, and they proposed a series of compromises, including extending the geographic dividing line designated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.
The various bills were initially combined into one "omnibus" bill, which failed to pass the Senate because only a minority supported all the provisions. The situation was changed by the death of President Taylor and the accession of Fillmore on July 9, 1850. The influence of the new administration was now thrown in favor of the compromise. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and his supporters in the House assembled different majorities for each of five separate bills. The Northern Democrats held together and supported each of the bills and gained Whigs or Southern Democrats to pass each one. All passed and were signed by President Fillmore between September 9 and September 20, 1850.
- California was admitted as a free state. It passed 150-56. (Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict. University of Kentucky Press, copyright 1965. P. 160)
- The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
- The Territory of New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) and the Territory of Utah were organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed 97-85.
- The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves. It passed 109-76.
- Texas gave up much of the western land which it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.
Fugitive Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act
was a result of the Mexican-American War to settle turmoil that arose from other decisions made concerning the issues that surfaced from the victory. As a consequence of the Mexican War, the balance in the country between slavery and antislavery territories was briefly upset. The decision to make newly-acquired California a free state, as well as the other provisions after the war that opposed slavery, caused this disturbance. After the United States won California in the Mexican War, a decision had to be made about whether it should become a slave or free state. After it was proclaimed free, pro-slavery Americans were angered by this shift in the balance of power towards free states and threatened secession. The Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened to prevent further turmoil. First enacted in 1793, the bolstered Act aided slaveholders by mandating that all escaped slaves must be returned to their masters, and - more crucially for the impending war - that ordinary citizens were required to aid slavecatchers. Many northern citizens deeply resented this pressure; but in serving their duties, they saw many scenes of such tragedy that former slavery fence-sitters landed squarely on the side of the abolitionists. This renewed act did help appease the Southern states and their contingent slaveowners by assuring the return of the slaves they considered property. However, once the secession threat was quieted, resentment towards this act continued to heighten tensions between the North and South, being thoroughly despised by the former. This Fugitive Slave Act is seen as one of the key steps towards civil war. It was included partly because of the public reaction to the Pearl incident
The result of the Fugitive Slave Act was that any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.
The Compromise in general proved widely popular politically, as both parties committed themselves in their platforms to the finality of the Compromise on sectional issues. The strongest opposition in the South occurred in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, but unionists soon prevailed, spearheaded by Georgians Alexander Stephens
, Robert Toombs
, and Howell Cobb
and the creation of the Georgia Platform
. This peace was broken only by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
introduced by Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and led directly to the formation of the Republican Party
, whose capture of the national government in 1860 led directly to the secession crisis of 1860-61.
Many historians argue that the Compromise played a major role in postponing the American Civil War for a decade, during which time the Northwest was growing more wealthy and more populous, and was being brought into closer relations with the Northeast. During that decade, the Whigs collapsed, bringing about a major realignment with the new Republican Party dominant in the North. But others argue that the Compromise only made more obvious pre-existing sectional divisions and laid the groundwork for future conflict. In this view, the Fugitive Slave Law helped polarize North and South, as shown in the enormous reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law aroused feelings of bitterness in the North.
The delay of hostilities for ten years allowed the free economy of the northern states to industrialize. The southern states, to a large degree based on slave labor and cash crop production, lacked the ability to heavily industrialize . By 1860, the northern states had many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population. The North was better able to supply, equip, and man its armed forces, an advantage that would prove decisive in the later stages of the war.
- H. D. Foster, "Webster's Seventh of March Speech," American Historical Review, 27 (1922), 245-270 online in JSTOR
- Holman Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (1964), the standard historical study
- Holman Hamilton. "Democratic Senate Leadership and the Compromise of 1850," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 41, No. 3. (Dec., 1954), pp. 403-418. in JSTOR
- Holman Hamilton. Zachary Taylor, Soldier in the White House (1951)
- Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978).
- Michael F. Holt, The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War (2005).
- Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas (1973) (ISBN 0195016203)
- Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (1997) (ISBN 0807823198)
- Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (1947) v 2, highly detailed narrative
- Mark J. Stegmaier, Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis, Kent State University Press, 1996. 434 pp.
- Remini, Robert. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (1991)
- James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. i. (New York, 1896).
- Rozwenc, Edwin C. ed. The Compromise of 1850. (1957) convenient collection of primary and secondary documents; 102 pp.
- Sewell, Richard H. Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States 1837-1860 New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun, Sectionalist, 1840-1850 (1951)