“It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable and just basis.”
Comprising a series of five laws passed during the late summer of 1850, the Compromise of 1850 was a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to placate sectional interests and bind together the North and South in a lasting, if legally and economically divergent, Union. Brought on by the application of California to enter the nation as a free state in late 1849, the compromise sought to meet both Northern interests in the expansion of the United States into additional free territory and Southern interests in offering the possibility of the extension of slavery into the territories and in protecting slave owners’ human property through a strengthened fugitive slave law. The final compromise allowed for the admission of California, the usage of popular sovereignty to determine the slavery question in the territories, the end of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, and the passage of a stringent Fugitive Slave Act. Despite its provisions, the compromise failed to prevent the looming national crisis of the Civil War, barely more than a decade away.
Slavery was the subject of numerous compromises during the early history of the United States. The framers of the Constitution had faced the issue during the writing of the nation’s plan for government, establishing guidelines for the counting of enslaved individuals for the purposes of representation, affirming the legality of the return of fugitive slaves, and postponing the legal end of the transatlantic slave trade until the year 1808. Forty years later, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 sought to ease the tensions that arose over Missouri’s application for admission to the Union as a slave state by allowing for the concurrent entry of Maine as a free state—a duality that permitted the balance of slave and free state representation in the Senate to remain equal—and by barring the expansion of slavery further into the territory acquired under the Louisiana Purchase.
However, the issue of slavery remained unsettled at best. The nation continued to expand west as American settlers entered lands previously controlled by American Indians or foreign powers. The admission of slave states was routinely balanced by that of free states, so that no one region overtook the other in power and influence. Nevertheless, conflict arose. One of the leading issues behind the Texas Revolution, for example, was the settlers’ desires to own slaves in territory under the jurisdiction of emancipated Mexico. That event led to the Mexican-American War, which itself generated a new source of debate: how to determine the slave or free status of the vast territory acquired under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
In December of 1849, the territory of California applied for admission to the Union as a free state. This application kicked off a new sectional crisis, for the approval of such as a measure would again disrupt the delicate balance between slave and free states in Congress. The addition of another state also reflected the issues inherent in the debate over the expansion of slavery through the growing United States. Because proslavery Southerners greatly opposed the Wilmot Proviso, a proposed measure that would bar the expansion of slavery into any territory, the issue of slavery again required a substantive compromise to prevent disagreements, or worse, disunion. Thus began the debates that would create the Compromise of 1850, an effort to appease antislavery Northerners, mollify proslavery expansionist Southerners, and create a lasting status quo in the style of the Missouri Compromise three decades previously.
Known as the “Great Compromiser” for his numerous efforts to effect compromise over the issue of slavery, statesman Henry Clay was the primary force behind the congressional effort to enact the Compromise of 1850. Of particular assistance to the aging senator from Kentucky—in 1850, Clay was in his early seventies—were both a fellow congressional veteran Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster and a rising star, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. Webster was a famed orator, a former US congressman and secretary of state, and a longtime senator. Douglas, one of the Senate’s youngest members, was a Democrat who espoused the theory of popular sovereignty, or the practice of allowing a territory’s people decide whether to permit or ban slavery within its borders.
By 1850, Clay was one of Congress’s most respected statesmen. Born in Virginia in 1777 and raised in that state, he entered state government as a teenager and gained admission to the bar at the age of twenty. He then moved to Kentucky, where his mother lived, and established himself in legal practice in Lexington. Within a few years his public-speaking skills had helped him win a seat in the Kentucky legislature; in 1806, he entered the Senate through special appointment to serve the last few months of the term of disgraced Senator John Adair. Clay spent a few more years in the Kentucky legislature before returning to the US Senate, again through appointment, in 1810. He won election in his own right to the House of Representatives later that year, and immediately upon his entry to that body was named Speaker of the House.
Clay used his position to promote a nationalist agenda he termed the “American System,” and he was highly regarded by his peers. Clay used this political capital to help end the crises that arose after Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state—an act that would allow for the expansion of slavery into the territories and give slaveholding states an advantage in Congress. Clay helped broker the Missouri Compromise, preserving the balance and stemming major sectional conflict for some years. He spent much of the next several decades in national government, mounting a failed bid for the presidency, serving as secretary of state under John Quincy Adams, and filling one of Kentucky’s two seats in the US Senate for much of the 1830s and early 1840s. He returned to the Senate shortly before a new sectional crisis arose in 1849. Clay died in 1852, just a few years after the Compromise was passed.
On January 29, 1850, Clay set forth a series of eight resolutions that formed the heart of the Compromise of 1850, a group of laws that sought to quell sectional anxieties and assure national “peace, concord, and harmony” over the controversial issues of slavery and its expansion into the territories in much the same way that the Clay-engineered Missouri Compromise had done three decades previously. His resolutions related to three major issues: westward expansion, the practice of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and the creation of a new and more stringent Fugitive Slave Act.
In ongoing conflict over the continued practice of slavery in general, the expansion of US territory into lands previously held by Mexico, where slavery was illegal, provided a new battleground. These lands included California, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas, with the latter carrying its own associated set of border disputes and debt. Because much of this area had a non-slaveholding past—and because the geographical features of Utah were thought not to be conducive to the agricultural practices with which US slavery was closely tied—it was widely accepted that California, New Mexico, and Utah would become free territories or states. Expansion in this way would essentially prevent the South from growing west, further isolating it from the remainder of the Union and creating a general sense of unease among proslavery Southerners. One of the main factors behind Southern anxiety was the 1846 proposal known as the Wilmot Proviso. This measure would have banned the expansion of slavery into any territory acquired from Mexico. Although it passed the House on several occasions, the Wilmot Proviso failed to clear the Senate. Nevertheless, its specter informed all debate about the western territories.
Thus, Clay began his resolutions by addressing the event that had instigated the revival of sectional debate that the proposed compromise sought to address: the application by California to enter the United States. That event had revived rumbles of discontent and led to new calls in the House of Representatives that the South’s interests must be acknowledged and protected or that the union of states should be dissolved entirely. California’s situation was an unusual one. The area had been under US control for a relatively short period of time before the discovery of gold made its population rapidly surge from just six thousand to some eighty-five thousand. Sitting president Zachary Taylor, a Southerner and hero of the Mexican-American War, encouraged California and nearby New Mexico to organize constitutional conventions and apply for statehood without undergoing the usual territorial stage. Taylor then suggested that Congress make no decisions on the slavery issue until the western regions submitted their applications, hoping that this would forestall what was certain to be contentious debate. Taylor’s plan was an impractical one, however; as all three states were expected to organize free state constitutions, proslavery Southerners would never accept the addition of so many new states covering so great a territory without some concessions in return.
Clay sought to address the California question by simply taking Congress out of the equation. California, he argued, should be admitted to the Union “without the imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery.” The people of California, he later argued, had chosen not to include slavery in their state constitution, and Congress had no place to reverse that decision. Over the next several months, the admission of California remained the most popular and least debated of the measures associated with the compromise—so much so that some suggested that California’s admission be separated from the rest of the compromise. Yet without the carrot of California statehood little incentive existed for North and South to resolve the other sectional issues at stake; thus, leaders kept California attached to the compromise as a whole.
This same absence of congressional involvement, Clay argued in his second resolution, should be extended to the remainder of the Mexican territory: New Mexico and Utah. Both of these regions were expected to apply for statehood in short order, and New Mexico’s history of liberty and Utah’s Mormon opposition for slavery made it unlikely that either would permit slavery. Thus, Clay suggested, the direct congressional creation of an antislavery measure in the vein of the Wilmot Proviso was not necessary. Free-Soilers and other Northerners opposed to the expansion of slavery were almost certain to see the practice barred in California, New Mexico, and Utah, after all, and the passage of the Wilmot Proviso would only enrage Southerners. Thus, it was “inexpedient” in Clay’s opinion to pursue that route. Instead, Congress should permit the territories to organize without interference. The actual outcome of this proposal was perhaps unexpected. Although the issues surrounding the admission of New Mexico and Utah contributed greatly to the demise of the proposed omnibus bill containing all of the measures of the compromise in July of 1850, the territories won admission after Douglas split the measure into several independent segment. Neither Utah nor New Mexico became a state at that time, however. New Mexico was acknowledged as not sufficiently prepared for the challenges of statehood and instead chose to pursue a territorial organization; with its cultural practice of polygamy, Utah could not win sufficient support for full statehood until 1896, well after the slavery question had been decided by the Civil War.
Clay next turned to the issues surrounding Texas. Texas was already a state, having been added in 1845. Despite this, its formal boundaries remained unsettled, and a land dispute was underway between Texas and New Mexico, primarily over the area surrounding Santa Fe. Texas’s admission had also permitted for the possibility that the massive territory be divided into several smaller states. Further complicating matters was Texas’s high debt load, which stemmed from both borrowing during the state’s Mexican and republican periods and the loss of customs revenue resulting from its addition to the United States. Together, these sums amounted to some $11 million, a figure equal to hundreds of millions of dollars in modern terms. According to Texans, the United States was at least partially responsible for that debt because of the decline in customs revenue. The state’s fate was therefore undetermined in a number of ways, and the proposed admission of New Mexico directly affected Texas’s future.
Clay offered two proposals to resolve the Texas question. First, he suggested that Texas’s border follow the Rio Grande from its mouth to the southern line of New Mexico, and then travel eastward to the line set by the US-Spain Treaty of 1819. This proposal would have resulted in a much smaller Texas than the one that actually was established, with the northern border of the state roughly level with the city of El Paso. At the same time, Clay proposed that the United States assume that portion of Texas’s public debt which had accrued before the state became part of the United States. In exchange, Texas would give up its claims to the lands slated for inclusion in the territory of New Mexico. These proposals proved contentious. Texans sought greater debt relief and more land; at one point, Texans even threatened to establish a military presence in Santa Fe to assert their claim. Several competing proposals for the boundaries of Texas emerged. Not until August was an accepted compromise reached—one that was more favorable to Texan interests without impeding New Mexico’s independence. The United States granted Texas $10 million, nearly enough to settle its public debts. The state’s new borders held more than thirty thousand square miles of land than had Clay’s proposed boundaries—and Santa Fe remained in New Mexico.
Clay’s fifth and sixth resolutions were also interrelated. In the fifth, he argued that slavery should remain legal in the nation’s capital because of a variety of factors, including Washington, DC’s geographic position between two slave states, Virginia and Maryland; the inadvisability of enacting a federal measure for the district without consulting its residents or those of nearby Maryland, which would become a slave state largely disconnected from its Southern slaveholding neighbors were the district made free; and without a plan for payment to the district’s slave owners for the emancipation of their valuable human property. These arguments refuted efforts by Northern Whigs and Free-Soilers to end slavery in the district, an action strongly opposed by proslavery Southerners who argued that abolition in Washington, DC, was further a violation of the good faith of Maryland and Virginia, which had given up the land needed to create the capital. Debate also took place over whether Congress had the right under the Constitution to actually pass such a measure, but Clay neatly skirted this question in his fifth resolution, mentioning only that such an action was “inexpedient” because of the factors described above. In a speech given several days later, Clay affirmed that he did believe that a congressional bar on slavery in the capital was constitutional—but continued to argue that it was impolitic.
In contrast, Clay stated in his sixth resolution that the slave trade should be ended in the District of Columbia. At that time, Washington, DC, was the site of the some of the nation’s largest and most infamous slave markets; one open-air pen where slaves were held before sale was located just outside the Capitol building and visible from its halls. Free blacks around the district faced the possibility of being illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery by unscrupulous slave traders. For decades, the practice had generated opposition, and calls for the end of the slave trade in the capital were nothing new; the apparent hypocrisy of the sale of human beings in a country claiming itself dedicated to liberty even drew derision from foreign observers. Thus, Northerners, and even some Southerners, opposed the continued existence of slave markets, and Clay believed that making this concession to antislavery interests would greatly help smooth rising sectional tensions. The measure became the fifth and final law contained within the overall compromise to successfully pass Congress, garnering votes from Northerners, a fair number of Southern Whigs, and even a handful of Southern Democrats.
Although this law abolished the practice of wholesale, long-distance slave trading, it did not eliminate all slave sales. Slave transactions among buyers and sellers within the district remained legal, and the rights of district slave owners to leave its boundaries for the purchase of slaves to bring back to their property within the district were protected. It thereby addressed antislavery concerns while affirming proslavery practices. This idea was reflected in Clay’s eighth, and final, proposal, which was a simple statement in support of states’ rights—that Congress lacked the power to either “promote or obstruct” the slave trade between the states. Rather, he argued, this could be regulated “exclusively upon [states’] own particular laws.” This assertion, like the law ending the slave trade in Washington, DC, protected states’ rights to conduct slavery in a way that aimed to mollify Southerners who believed that the federal government wished to abolish the practice altogether.
Clay’s seventh proposal for a “more effectual provision . . . for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State” became the most galvanizing of all of the measures contained within the final compromise. Enacted as the fourth of the five laws within the full compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act built upon the existing Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to greatly enhance the power of Southern slaveholders to demand full federal complicity in the search and seizure of any suspected fugitive slave regardless of his or her present location or even the duration of time that he or she had been at large. The law was passed along almost exclusively sectional lines. Many legislators abstained from voting on the measure, either forced to be away from the capital at that time or voluntarily declining to register their opinion on the matter. Of those who did vote, all Southerners and just a few Northerners supported the measure. Regional interests trumped political affiliation.
Clearly intended to appease proslavery interests as a trade-off for the expansion of the Union without an assurance of the extension of slavery, the measure was more notable for its effects on Northerners. Because the final Fugitive Slave Act legally penalized all people who refused to actively assist in the seizure and return of escaped slaves, it angered even those white Northerners who were not abolitionists by requiring them to directly take part in the institution of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act’s barring of testimony by accused African Americans in their own defense also violated Northern ideals of judicial fairness, as did the law’s provision for trial not by jury but by a judge. The law further provided higher financial incentives for the conviction and return of an accused fugitive than for the formal recognition of the freedom of a suspected runaway. Altogether, these measures made the North almost as dangerous and hostile to the civil liberties of African Americans as the South; unsurprisingly, many Northern blacks—including free blacks who held that status by birthright or through legally obtaining liberty—fled for the safer land of Canada.
White Northerners also sought to reject the letter of Clay’s seventh resolution through their state legislatures. After the Compromise of 1850, Northern legislatures passed state laws that essentially nullified portions of the Fugitive Slave Act by allowing for the appeal of fugitive slave convictions before a jury, enacting harsh punishments for perjury in fugitive slave cases, and preventing state officials from acting on fugitive slave claims. These laws in turn became a point of contention with proslavery Southerners who saw them as an assault of their property rights.
Overall, the story of the Compromise of 1850 is one that shows this failure of its parts to truly serve the needs of the whole by bringing about the peace and harmony that Clay and other compromise proponents so greatly hoped to achieve. On the whole, the Compromise of 1850 did seem to largely serve Northern interests—California had won entry, and slavery was possible but by no means guaranteed in the new territories of the Southwest. While this was not the firmly antislavery measure that the failed Wilmot Proviso had been, it did settle the matter for the time. Southerners made immediate gains as well, however. The Fugitive Slave Act was an apparent proslavery victory. Slavery was, in fact, practiced in the new territories of New Mexico and Utah and even retained a measure of legality in California after 1850. Most of the new California legislators were Democrats sympathetic to Southern interests. The compromise further protected slavery and even a small-scale slave trade in the District of Columbia while ending only its most obvious and repugnant outlets. In attempting to ease sectional tensions, Clay’s resolutions actually set the stage for the rapid growth of ill will between the North and South that took place during the 1850s.
Like its political predecessor, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 was largely an effort to restore stability to a nation pulled apart by sectional tensions stemming from social, political, and economic differences. In this way it reflected the leading issues of its day. The question of slavery—the South’s “peculiar institution”—had long created a rift between North and South. Over time, that rift had spread despite the best efforts of federal legislators to quell conflict through measures such as the Missouri Compromise. The Compromise of 1850 bore substantial resemblance to the spirit of Clay’s earlier success of the Missouri Compromise. Again, the measure allowed for the expansion of the United States with an attempt at balancing slave and free interests in the legislature, and again, it aimed to placate all sides without substantially changing the existing law of the land.
Indeed, these increased sectional tensions owed a debt to one of the other significant contemporary issues then facing the nation: westward expansion. As the United States made the steady march toward the Pacific in the name of Manifest Destiny, broadly supported by its people, the nation inevitably faced the challenge of determining whether its future was one of liberty, bondage, or an uneasy combination of the two. The national desire to become the master of the continent was apparent in the Compromise of 1850, however, as it worked to grow and to organize formal US territory despite the potential political consequences.
However, unlike the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 failed to achieve lasting peace. Within just a few years, the doctrine of popular sovereignty sparked the violence that was termed “Bloody Kansas” as pro- and antislavery forces struggled to achieve their desired outcome on the vote over slavery in that territory. Far from being a way for territorial voices to democratically determine their own destiny, popular sovereignty served only to drag those territories even more directly into the heated fray. The Fugitive Slave Act, added to appease proslavery Southern politicians and landowners, proved an even more dismal failure. Northerners were angered by their new legal duties as slave catchers and slavery supporters, and some Northern state legislatures responded by passing personal-liberty laws that fueled Southern anger and were ultimately cited as one of the causes of South Carolina’s secession. At the same time, widespread white support for the radical abolition movement grew. Rather than achieving Clay’s goals of preserving the Union, the Compromise of 1850 served to heighten violence, highlight differences, and encourage already inflamed tensions. The Missouri Compromise had purchased the nation three decades of relative peace; its successor, little more than a decade.
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