Compromise of 1850

A last national attempt to resolve the divisive issue of permitting slavery in U.S. territories, the Compromise of 1850 achieved a temporary settlement but ultimately contributed to leading the United States into civil war.

Summary of Event

The acquisition of large land areas by the United States following the annexation Texas;annexation by United States of Texas in 1845 and Mexico’s cession of land that followed the Mexican War Mexican War (1846-1848);and slavery[Slavery] reopened the issue of slavery in U.S. territories as a national issue. During the same period, most citizens embraced the idea of manifest destiny Manifest destiny;and Mexico[Mexico] and its call for expansion of the United States and eventual control of the North American continent. Compromise of 1850
Congress, U.S.;Compromise of 1850
Slavery;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Clay, Henry
[p]Clay, Henry;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Calhoun, John C.
[p]Calhoun, John C.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
[kw]Compromise of 1850 (Jan. 29-Sept. 20, 1850)
[kw]1850, Compromise of (Jan. 29-Sept. 20, 1850)
Compromise of 1850
Congress, U.S.;Compromise of 1850
Slavery;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Clay, Henry
[p]Clay, Henry;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Calhoun, John C.
[p]Calhoun, John C.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
[g]United States;Jan. 29-Sept. 20, 1850: Compromise of 1850[2740]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 29-Sept. 20, 1850: Compromise of 1850[2740]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 29-Sept. 20, 1850: Compromise of 1850[2740]
Fillmore, Millard
[p]Fillmore, Millard;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Webster, Daniel
[p]Webster, Daniel;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Wilmot, David
Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]

During the 1830’s, thousands of settlers left the United States when they crossed the Mississippi River, intent on harvesting the western lands’ potential and earning statehood for their new homes. However, the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and slavery[Slavery] , while creating a mechanism for the addition of states and implicitly acknowledging the right of each state to permit and even encourage slavery within its boundaries, made no mention of slavery’s status in future states. Because the power to admit new states lay exclusively with Congress, Congress Congress, U.S.;and state formation[State formation] could impose any condition it wished, conceivably requiring either the guarantee or abolition of slavery as a condition for admission. The national government had first addressed the issue when the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Northwest Ordinance (1787) This excluded slavery from the unsettled area north of the Ohio River to the Mississippi River’s eastern bank, then the edge of U.S. holdings, as a favor to the Chesapeake’s tobacco Tobacco;in United States[United States] planters, who feared that competition from western tobacco plantations would drive down the value of their crops.

The Missouri Compromise (1820) issue reemerged in 1817, when Missouri applied to join the United States as a slave state. The question came before the Congress in 1819, and sectional tensions erupted. A balance between slave and free states existed in the U.S. Senate, which had eleven states each from the free North and the slave-owning South. The North’s growing population gave it a decisive advantage in the House of Representatives, so proslave forces committed themselves, at the minimum, to maintaining a balance between the regions in the Senate. At the time, between two and three thousand slaves lived in the Missouri Territory, yet some northern leaders, such as Rufus Kingof New York, argued that Congress should require the restriction of slavery before Missouri received statehood.

Composite portrait painted in 1852 depicting the politicians who played roles in passage of the Compromise of 1850. The main figures, from left to right, are General Winfield Scott (seated), Lewis Cass, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun (both with hands on the document under a bust of George Washington), and President Millard Fillmore (seated).

(Library of Congress)

A temporary solution emerged in 1820, when Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky brokered a solution to the crisis. The resulting Missouri Compromise stipulated that Missouri would be admitted to the union as a slave state, while Maine Maine;and Missouri Compromise[Missouri Compromise] , which had petitioned for statehood in late 1819, was admitted as a free state. The compromise also prohibited slavery from the remainder of the Louisiana Territory in the area north of 36°30′ north latitude, while permitting it south of that line. Between 1820 and 1848, this solution maintained the national peace, as the Senate remained balanced with thirty members representing the free states and an equal number representing the slave states. Missouri Compromise (1820)

The Mexican War (1846-1848);and slavery[Slavery] Mexican War of 1846-1848 disrupted the American political balance. As a consequence of its victory, the United States received millions of acres of land spanning the area from the Continental Divide Continental Divide west to the Pacific Ocean and south from the forty-ninth parallel to Mexico. However, the problems flared even before the war ended, when David Wilmot Wilmot, David , a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania, attached an amendment to an appropriations bill. As he conceived it, any territory acquired from Mexico must exclude slavery in perpetuity. Although the so-called Wilmot Proviso failed to win passage, it fueled the smoldering fires of sectionalism, as many Americans assumed that any additional western lands would be governed by the Missouri Compromise.

The principle laid down by the Missouri Compromise Missouri Compromise (1820) vanished in 1850. The discovery of gold in California California;admission to Union in 1848 attracted thousands of prospectors to Northern California, and less than a year later, the young California Republic petitioned the U.S. Senate for admission to the union. Besides disrupting the balance between slave and free states, California straddled the 1820 compromise’s line of latitude and threw the prior agreements into chaos. In both houses of Congress, the question of slavery became paramount: Southerners rejected any attempt to exclude the practice from the West by nearly unanimous margins, while Free-Soilers from the North rejected the possibility of losing equal economic competition by similar percentages. Left in the middle were some elements of the national Whig Whig Party (American);and slavery[Slavery] Party, which struggled to preserve the union while remaining a national party itself.

The idea of disunion grew, and the failure to achieve a national solution likely may have triggered a civil war in 1850. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, long a firebrand for states’ rights, proposed the formation of a sectional party to guarantee the practice of slavery. William H. Seward, Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] an abolitionist representative from New York, also rejected the possibility of a compromise, citing the immorality of slavery. President Zachary Taylor Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] , the hero of the Mexican War and himself a southerner, was also an ardent unionist and supported California’s admission as a free state while rejecting the extreme position of persons such as Calhoun.

The first concrete proposal for compromise came from Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, on January 29, 1850. He introduced a series of five resolutions designed to allow “amicable agreement of all questions in controversy, between the free and slave states, growing out of the subject of slavery.” Clay proposed that the California Republic join the United States as a free state, that the rest of the territory acquired in the Mexican Cession be organized without any broader decision on slavery, that Texas receive monetary compensation in exchange for giving up its claims to parts of what is now New Mexico, that the slave trade within the District of Columbia be abolished (although the actual practice of slavery would not be affected), and that a more rigorous fugitive slave law be enacted.

Reactions to Clay’s proposals reflected the sectional divisions of the day. On February 5 and 6, Clay presented his resolutions and spoke for the union’s preservation. One week later, Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis rejected Clay’s proposals, using bitter language that also attacked northern intentions. Calhoun’s last Senate appearance before he died on March 31 came on March 4, when he was carried into the chamber as Virginia’s James Mason Mason, James delivered his last speech for him. Calhoun’s text rejected compromise on the principle of slavery in the territories and declared that the only way to preserve the union was for the North to concede the South’s equal rights in the territories and for the abolitionists to stop agitating on the slavery question.

On March 7, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel
[p]Webster, Daniel;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] gave one of his most famous speeches, in which he declared that he spoke “not as a northern man, but as an American.” He acknowledged that both sides had just grievances and urged support for Clay’s whole plan, calming some tensions with his eloquent plea that the union be preserved. The abolitionists’ position was explained on March 11 by William H. Seward, Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] who opposed the compromise and cited a higher law than the Constitution, one that rejected the practice of slavery.

In April, the Senate referred Clay’s resolutions to a select committee, which Clay chaired. The committee reported back to the full Senate an omnibus bill that contained the substance of the five original resolutions and sparked another four months of debate. Calhoun, John C.
[p]Calhoun, John C.;death of Calhoun’s death was a blow to the southern position. A second major stumbling block to the compromise disappeared in July, when Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;death President Taylor died. Vice President Millard Fillmore, Fillmore, Millard
[p]Fillmore, Millard;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] who supported the compromise’s ideas, replaced the Taylor, who had bitterly opposed the omnibus bill and had threatened to veto it.

While Clay was vacationing away from Washington, D.C., Stephen A. Douglas Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850] broke the omnibus bill into five parts and steered them through the Senate, and the House of Representatives followed suit. By September 20, Congress had adopted the five bills that made up the Compromise of 1850.


The efforts of various members of Congress to resolve the crisis of slavery in the territories effectively ended with the Compromise of 1850. In 1854, attempts at balancing the competing interests of the Free-Soil North with the proslave South ended when Senator Douglas Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] proposed that the Kansas and Nebraska areas be organized using the concept of popular sovereignty, such as was used for the areas obtained from Mexico. Congress adopted the Kansas-Nebraska Act that year, triggering a number of serious reactions. Among these was the formation of a national political party dedicated to the idea of an exclusively free-soil policy in the West. The new Republican Party immediately became a force on the national political landscape, and its candidate, John C. Frémont, came within four states of being elected president in 1856. Ultimately, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a man committed to both the preservation of the union and the free-soil doctrine, drove the South to secession.

Further Reading

  • Collins, Bruce. The Origins of America’s Civil War. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981. Review of the people, events, and ideas of the period before the war. Examines the opposing ideas and decisions in the antebellum period to find the Civil War’s real origins.
  • Foner, Eric, ed. Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Thorough analysis of the competing ideas and values during the antebellum period. Traces the political struggles leading up to and through the Civil War.
  • Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. One of the most comprehensive examinations of the events surrounding the last major congressional attempt to avoid the war. Presents the national and regional political events that drove the crisis and the individual and cumulative effects.
  • Potter, David. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Traces the path of the United States to the start of the Civil War, beginning with the emergence of the Free-Soil Party in 1848. Examines the political, economic, and social factors that combined to make war almost inevitable. The standard scholarly work.
  • Shankman, Kimberly Christner. Compromise and the Constitution: The Political Thought of Henry Clay. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999. Examination of political thinking and his approach to republican statecraft of Henry Clay, who was known as the Great Compromiser.
  • Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. Smith maintains that Taylor and Fillmore are misrepresented and underrated presidents who acted responsibly by supporting the Compromise of 1850.
  • Stampp, Kenneth, ed. The Causes of the Civil War. Rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Multileveled examination of the events, personalities, and ideas that contributed to lead the nation into the Civil War.
  • Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. Study of the congressional wrangling among northern abolitionists, southern secessionists, and moderates from both regions.

Missouri Compromise

Second Fugitive Slave Law

Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Birth of the Republican Party

Bleeding Kansas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

U.S. Civil War

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John C. Calhoun; Henry Clay; Stephen A. Douglas; Millard Fillmore; Zachary Taylor; Daniel Webster. Compromise of 1850
Congress, U.S.;Compromise of 1850
Slavery;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Clay, Henry
[p]Clay, Henry;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]
Calhoun, John C.
[p]Calhoun, John C.;and Compromise of 1850[Compromise of 1850]