Speeches For and Against the Compromise of 1850 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As a senior member of the United States Senate, Henry Clay, author of the 1820 Missouri Compromise undertook to create a solution to new issues related to slavery and the territorial expansion of the United States. In January, 1850, he submitted a bill to cover the admission of California, the borders and administration (including self-determination on slavery) of the territory won in the Mexican-American War, and the interstate slave trade (including returning escaped slaves). Leading senators, among them the four featured in the article, debated the issues in this bill, which was eventually separated into several bills and passed by Congress in September, 1850. Most historians believe this legislation delayed by several years the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War.

Summary Overview

As a senior member of the United States Senate, Henry Clay, author of the 1820 Missouri Compromise undertook to create a solution to new issues related to slavery and the territorial expansion of the United States. In January, 1850, he submitted a bill to cover the admission of California, the borders and administration (including self-determination on slavery) of the territory won in the Mexican-American War, and the interstate slave trade (including returning escaped slaves). Leading senators, among them the four featured in the article, debated the issues in this bill, which was eventually separated into several bills and passed by Congress in September, 1850. Most historians believe this legislation delayed by several years the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War.

Defining Moment

From the foundation of the nation, slavery had always been a factor in American politics. By 1850, divisions on this issue had strengthened. Previously, a crisis had been adverted when the Missouri Compromise was adopted, defining which areas of the Louisiana Purchase could have slavery and setting the precedent of an equal number of states where slavery was permitted and where it was prohibited. From that time until 1850, equal numbers of states on both sides was the norm. With the gold rush in California, its statehood was being pushed forward with a proposed state constitution defining it as a non-slave state. Some also advocated immediately admitting New Mexico as a free state. Admission of either would make states without slaves a majority for the first time.

Many had assumed that the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise would extend to the Pacific Ocean, with the areas south of the line becoming slave states, and north of it free states. About the southern one third of California was south of the Missouri Compromise line, calling into question this assumption. In which areas would slavery be permitted, and where would it not be permitted? The western border of Texas had not been clearly defined when Texas became a state in 1845. As a state which permitted slavery, other slaveholding states supported a western border for Texas following the Rio Grande for its entire length, while Northern states wanted the borders much farther east. Thrown into the mix were dissatisfaction by the Southern states that many Northern states were not enforcing the return of escaped slaves, and dissatisfaction by the Northern states that the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., was the home to the nation’s largest slave market. These economic and political issues threatened the unity and existence of the United States. The Senate was seen as the place, if any existed, where a compromise might be crafted. Leaders of both sides gave impassioned speeches to support their cause, such as the four included in this article.

Author Biography

Jefferson Davis is generally best remembered as the president of the Confederate States of America. However, as with many Confederate leaders, prior to 1861, he served in various positions in the government of the United States. Born in Kentucky on June 3, 1808, he grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, and then attended West Point. By 1845, he was active in politics through the Democratic Party and was a member of the House of Representatives. He led a regiment during the Mexican-American War. After the war he was senator from Mississippi for five years, and then became Pierce’s Secretary of War. From 1858 to 1861, he again served in the Senate until secession. After the Civil War he was imprisoned briefly; he then traveled widely, wrote a history of the Confederacy, and died on December 6, 1889.

John C. Calhoun (March 18, 1782 to March 31, 1850) was a senator from South Carolina during this debate. In 1850, he was a member of the Democratic Party. He served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1811 to 1817, Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825, Vice President of the United States from 1825 to 1832, senator from 1832 to 1843, Secretary of State from 1844 to 1845, and finally senator from 1845 to 1850. A man with a strong intellect, much of his political philosophy and writings were used by Confederate leaders to justify their actions. For the two decades prior to his death, he was the leader of pro-slavery senators.

Daniel Webster lived from January 18, 1782 to October 24, 1852. A native of New Hampshire, he served two terms in the House of Representatives from that state, leaving in 1817 to practice law in Boston. Known as a constitutional expert, he was elected to the House from Massachusetts in 1822 and then to the Senate in 1828. In 1841, he became Secretary of State, but returned to the Senate in 1845. He resigned in 1850 to again be Secretary of State. His affiliations with the Federalist, National Republican, and Whig Parties reflected the political developments of the first half of the nineteenth century.

William H. Seward, a native of New York, was born on May 16, 1801. Beginning in 1831, he served four (one-year) terms in the state legislature before being defeated in a bid to be governor. At the next election he was elected governor, serving two two-year terms. Although he had supported Southerner Zachery Taylor for president in 1848, Seward was elected to the Senate in 1849 on a strong anti-slavery platform. He remained a leader of anti-slavery senators. Although he had expected to be nominated for president by the Republican Party, in 1860, he supported Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln was selected. Seward became the Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. He traveled and wrote from 1869 until his death on October 10, 1872.–Daniel Webster, March 7th Speech

Summary Overview

As a senior member of the United States Senate, Henry Clay, author of the 1820 Missouri Compromise undertook to create a solution to new issues related to slavery and the territorial expansion of the United States. In January, 1850, he submitted a bill to cover the admission of California, the borders and administration (including self-determination on slavery) of the territory won in the Mexican-American War, and the interstate slave trade (including returning escaped slaves). Leading senators, among them the four featured in the article, debated the issues in this bill, which was eventually separated into several bills and passed by Congress in September, 1850. Most historians believe this legislation delayed by several years the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War.

Defining Moment

From the foundation of the nation, slavery had always been a factor in American politics. By 1850, divisions on this issue had strengthened. Previously, a crisis had been adverted when the Missouri Compromise was adopted, defining which areas of the Louisiana Purchase could have slavery and setting the precedent of an equal number of states where slavery was permitted and where it was prohibited. From that time until 1850, equal numbers of states on both sides was the norm. With the gold rush in California, its statehood was being pushed forward with a proposed state constitution defining it as a non-slave state. Some also advocated immediately admitting New Mexico as a free state. Admission of either would make states without slaves a majority for the first time.

Many had assumed that the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise would extend to the Pacific Ocean, with the areas south of the line becoming slave states, and north of it free states. About the southern one third of California was south of the Missouri Compromise line, calling into question this assumption. In which areas would slavery be permitted, and where would it not be permitted? The western border of Texas had not been clearly defined when Texas became a state in 1845. As a state which permitted slavery, other slaveholding states supported a western border for Texas following the Rio Grande for its entire length, while Northern states wanted the borders much farther east. Thrown into the mix were dissatisfaction by the Southern states that many Northern states were not enforcing the return of escaped slaves, and dissatisfaction by the Northern states that the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., was the home to the nation’s largest slave market. These economic and political issues threatened the unity and existence of the United States. The Senate was seen as the place, if any existed, where a compromise might be crafted. Leaders of both sides gave impassioned speeches to support their cause, such as the four included in this article.

Author Biography

Jefferson Davis is generally best remembered as the president of the Confederate States of America. However, as with many Confederate leaders, prior to 1861, he served in various positions in the government of the United States. Born in Kentucky on June 3, 1808, he grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, and then attended West Point. By 1845, he was active in politics through the Democratic Party and was a member of the House of Representatives. He led a regiment during the Mexican-American War. After the war he was senator from Mississippi for five years, and then became Pierce’s Secretary of War. From 1858 to 1861, he again served in the Senate until secession. After the Civil War he was imprisoned briefly; he then traveled widely, wrote a history of the Confederacy, and died on December 6, 1889.

John C. Calhoun (March 18, 1782 to March 31, 1850) was a senator from South Carolina during this debate. In 1850, he was a member of the Democratic Party. He served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1811 to 1817, Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825, Vice President of the United States from 1825 to 1832, senator from 1832 to 1843, Secretary of State from 1844 to 1845, and finally senator from 1845 to 1850. A man with a strong intellect, much of his political philosophy and writings were used by Confederate leaders to justify their actions. For the two decades prior to his death, he was the leader of pro-slavery senators.

Daniel Webster lived from January 18, 1782 to October 24, 1852. A native of New Hampshire, he served two terms in the House of Representatives from that state, leaving in 1817 to practice law in Boston. Known as a constitutional expert, he was elected to the House from Massachusetts in 1822 and then to the Senate in 1828. In 1841, he became Secretary of State, but returned to the Senate in 1845. He resigned in 1850 to again be Secretary of State. His affiliations with the Federalist, National Republican, and Whig Parties reflected the political developments of the first half of the nineteenth century.

William H. Seward, a native of New York, was born on May 16, 1801. Beginning in 1831, he served four (one-year) terms in the state legislature before being defeated in a bid to be governor. At the next election he was elected governor, serving two two-year terms. Although he had supported Southerner Zachery Taylor for president in 1848, Seward was elected to the Senate in 1849 on a strong anti-slavery platform. He remained a leader of anti-slavery senators. Although he had expected to be nominated for president by the Republican Party, in 1860, he supported Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln was selected. Seward became the Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. He traveled and wrote from 1869 until his death on October 10, 1872.

Document Analysis

These four speeches are a unity only in that they address a primary piece of legislation before the United States Senate in 1850. Two senators were members from the South, and therefore pro-slavery, while the other two were Northern members of the Senate, who were at least somewhat anti-slavery. The central issues were the result of the annexation of Texas, which became the twenty-eighth state in 1845, and the acquisition of land from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Under the Missouri Compromise, slavery was allowed to expand into the southern part of the Louisiana Purchase. There had been strong public opposition in the North to the admission of Texas, because it would expand the territory open to slavery. Opposition to allowing slavery in the lands acquired from Mexico was even stronger. With Northern states holding a commanding majority in the House of Representatives, the Southern states hope of blocking unfavorable legislation lay in the Senate, where there were equal numbers of Northern and Southern senators. On January 29th, Senator Henry Clay started the process of crafting a compromise acceptable to a majority of senators. From then until mid-September, the issues and various proposals were debated. Several bills were finally passed during the period of September 9 to September 20, enacting what is referred to as the Compromise of 1850.

When Clay submitted his proposals to solve the various problems, he advocated that senators take time to think through the proposals. However, Jefferson Davis reacted at once. On January 29th, Davis reacted with strong negative statements to most of the proposals. Davis claimed he was not discussing Clay’s resolutions; rather, he was attempting to clarify what “the position of the Senate was twelve years ago.” Those discussions had been part of a series of arguments, held in both chambers of Congress during the 1830s, on resolutions which would automatically table any proposal placing new limits upon slavery, often called gag rules. Using an old debate in which the pro-slavery senators were successful in blocking proposed limitations on slavery in the District of Columbia, Davis put forward his history lesson in such a way as to advocate for the defeat of the new proposals to limit the institution of slavery in federally administered lands.

Although he continually said he was not speaking about the major points of Clay’s resolutions, Jefferson Davis did manage to speak against the proposed limits on the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the national government setting the western boundary of Texas, allowing California to be admitted as a free state, and not automatically allowing slavery in the southern section of the land acquired from Mexico. Looking back to previous discussions regarding the District of Columbia, Davis stated his belief that “interference in the question of slavery in the District of Columbia, as trenching upon the rights of the slaveholding States.” In his mind, this was true not only because any steps by the national government to limit slavery were wrong, but also because the District was composed of land given by Maryland and Virginia, both states in which slavery was legal. Thus he rhetorically raised the question as to whether limiting slavery in the District meant that slavery would be limited in those states as well.

As regarded the western boundary of Texas, Davis continued with his pretend history lesson. Mexico had disagreed with Texas on as to Texas’ western border. With the United States acquiring New Mexico Territory, the discussion was now a domestic issue. Since Texas was a slave state, this was important. Ignoring the fact that all the states which entered the U.S. since the original thirteen had had their borders clearly identified in the Congressional resolution granting statehood, Davis asserted that only the people of Texas had a say in setting the state’s borders.

The issue of slavery in the newly acquired territory, including California, had already been settled in Davis’ thinking. The line of 36-degrees 30-minutes north had been used in the Missouri Compromise as the northern border of slavery, and while Davis recognized that this was an arbitrary boundary, he was willing to accept it. Thus any territory, or state, which contained land south of this line should allow slavery. California, extending well south of this line, should allow slaves or be divided. Davis rejected the argument that because Californians and Mexico had forbidden slavery in California, slavery should continue to be outlawed. Referring to the 1820 Missouri Compromise, Davis stated, “unless that compromise was founded in fraud, we expect its application in this case.”

John C. Calhoun had been active in the national government since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1811. By the late 1820s, he advocated states’ rights over the national government including offering secession as a viable option. This political philosophy, combined with his support of slavery, made Calhoun a determined opponent of most of the provisions in the Compromise of 1850. Although he was very ill with tuberculosis (this being within four weeks of his death), Calhoun wrote a strong speech against the Compromise and had Senator James Mason of Virginia read it for him on the floor of the Senate.

Calhoun began his speech with a clear statement on the gravity of the situation, when he stated “it can no longer be disguised or denied that the Union is in danger.” He ends his opening paragraph with his first rhetorical question, “How can the Union be preserved?” In essence, the answer for him was for a majority of the people to agree with his view of the world. He was eloquent and had developed a strong, consistent political philosophy. A decade later, many Confederate leaders used his writings and speeches as the foundation for their politics. In a series of rhetorical questions, Calhoun developed the argument as to why the existence of the United States was at risk. For Calhoun, it was clear that the foundation for the stress within the Union was the “almost universal discontent” throughout the South. This discontent was based upon regional differences over slavery and the fact that in the near future the national government would be under the total control of states and individuals who were opposed to slavery.

Charging that the national government was intentionally undercutting Southern interests, Calhoun asserted that that was the only reason for Southern discontent. The first of the three points he made to support his argument was that the North was trying to keep all the territory gained from the Mexican-American War for itself. He calculated that if this came to pass, then “about three-fourths” of the territory added to the United States since the end of the Revolutionary War would be non-slave territory. Secondly, Calhoun asserted that the revenue structure and expenditures of the national government (this was before income taxes were legal) was slanted in favor of the North. Finally, Calhoun argued that national policy had been developed in such a way as to encourage population growth in the North, which resulted in its ability to dominate American politics. According to Calhoun, “Every portion of the North entertains hostile views and feelings” to Southern laws as regarded the relationship between whites and blacks. Thus, for him, there was a legitimate reason for the South to be upset and begin the movement toward dissolving the nation. For Calhoun, there is “no compromise to offer” as he believed that the country could be saved only by the North accepting all the institutions of the Southern states, including slavery, and allowing slaveholders to take their slaves into all territory of the United States. He was against any compromise, and stated that admitting California would show the North’s “intention of destroying irretrievable the equilibrium between the two sections”–and with it the country.

Just a few days after Calhoun made his impassioned plea for the South, Daniel Webster made a strong speech which he had written in response to Calhoun. Just as Clay had proposed the Compromise to keep the nation together, believing that any attempt at secession would result in war, Webster believed it was imperative to find a compromise to keep the country united. Thus, Webster gave a strong speech in favor of all parts of the Compromise, even though it cost him the admiration and support of the strong abolitionists throughout the Northeast. Although many others recognized and supported his attempt to find a moderate solution to the country’s problems, his core supporters in the Senate believed he had sold out his values. Echoing much of the phrasing which Calhoun had used, Webster reworked it to support all of the Compromise, even the section dealing with fugitive slaves.

One of his most famous statements, reflecting what he was trying to accomplish in this speech, was made as he opened the speech. Webster stated, “I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American.” Just as Calhoun had recognized the unique characteristics of this body, Webster acknowledged that this was the only place a solution could be found. Webster cited the historical actions which had brought the United States to its then current state of affairs, although his recounting was different from that of the Southern senators. Webster acknowledged that many in the South assumed the acquisition of territory south of the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise would be for slave-holding states. However, Webster pointed out that when the citizens of California drew up a state constitution, as part of the process of applying for statehood, they included the statement that slavery would not be permitted in the state. Thus, it was not the national government which initiated not allowing slavery in the recently acquired territory; it was the people living in that territory. For Webster, this was an important point.

As for slavery itself, Webster acknowledged that it existed in the southern part of the United States. The fact that it had existed when the Constitution was written allowed Webster to accept it as an institution which, while he did not support it, was not going to be easily changed. However, referring to the Northwest Territory Ordinance and the laws passed to end the importation of slaves, Webster asserted that it had been the intention and hope of the nation’s founders that “slavery would run out” and that Congress should “prevent the spread of slavery in the United States.” However, with the invention of the cotton gin and the growth in cotton production, Webster saw that rather than slavery fading, it had become entrenched in Southern economics, culture, and politics.

Webster went on to oppose Calhoun’s statements that the central government, or the North, had specifically worked to limit the annexing of slave states or that the economic policy had been structured against the South. He pointed out the Northern votes in support of statehood for Texas. Webster believed that the territory west of Texas was not suitable for the plantation system used in the South and therefore, he thought, slavery was already prohibited by nature and should be prohibited by law as well. He raised the issue of free black seamen not being allowed to travel freely when Northern ships docked in Southern cities. However, he was willing to overlook that as a step to “better feeling and more fraternal sentiments between the South and the North.” At the end, he reaffirmed that there could be no peaceful secession. Many saw this speech as directed toward the general public, as thousands of copies were distributed.

Four days after Webster made his conciliatory speech in the Senate, William H. Seward gave a hard line speech supporting the Northern view against slavery. This was his first major speech in the Senate, and many senators did not pay attention to it. However, since Seward was unwilling to compromise on any issue which would extend slavery, either in location or duration, texts of the speech were widely published and it became recognized by the general population as a landmark in the anti-slavery movement. Seward lifted up issues which had been raised about the admission of California and prohibitions against slavery west of Texas. Beginning with California, Seward reminded the other senators that many of the objections raised were not new with California. While California had not been organized as a U.S. territory, in the treaty ending the Mexican-American War there was a statement to the effect that California should become a state as soon as possible. He said that not all states had joined the nation in exactly the same way, so slight differences for California should not matter. The will of its people should be respected, so its anti-slavery stand should be accepted. Finally, no neighbor objected to its proposed borders. Thus, for Seward, California’s admission should be automatic.

As for any compromise on slavery which might be negotiated for California’s admission, Seward plainly stated, “I am opposed to any such compromise, in any and all the forms in which it has been proposed.” While Seward understood the economic and cultural foundations for slavery in the United States, he was willing to challenge these. The issue of slavery, as it existed in the then current Southern states was not being discussed in the Compromise, but the basic arguments which Seward made about the extension of slavery into the western lands would apply in the South as well. For Seward, and most abolitionists, slavery was a moral issue. The most famous statement from his speech on this issue dealt with his foundation for opposing slavery. Seward asserted, “But there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain…” Later he stated, “slavery must give way, and will give way… emancipation is inevitable, and is near.” Seward said he wanted peace, but also said that he was unwilling to accept a peace which was based upon any compromise on the issue of keeping slavery from entering the former Mexican territories west of Texas. He advocated freedom for all, including his final exhortation that the United States might no longer have the “sorrow of human bondage.”

Essential Themes

The Compromise of 1850 has been seen as a great success or as a tremendous failure. It was a success in that it averted the disintegration of the United States in 1850 and effectively dealt with the issues at hand. It was a failure in that the underlying divisions between the North and the South were not really addressed, meaning that in another decade the divisions would result in the Civil War. Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun were Southern senators who unsuccessfully tried to insure that slavery would extend in new states west of Texas. Daniel Webster and William H. Seward were Northern leaders who sought to limit slavery to the current fifteen slave states. Overall, the North gained more in the Compromise, in that California was admitted as a free state, the territories of New Mexico and Utah were able to make their own decisions on slavery (with the knowledge that most people already in the territories and those migrating to that area were against slavery), and the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia. A true compromise was the fact that the western border of Texas was set about midway between the easternmost line (what Mexico had claimed was the border) and the expansive territory which Texas had claimed. The South avoided having slavery automatically excluded from new territories and was given a stronger fugitive slave law, with strong penalties for Northerners not complying with it, and a pay scale for those hearing the cases in which “judges” were paid twice as much if they ruled an individual was an escaped slave than if they ruled that was not the case. The Fugitive Slave Law appalled many in the Northern states, resulting in their unwillingness to agree to any further compromises when new issues arose in the late 1850s. The South no longer had the ability to block legislation in the Senate, if the free states were united. Thus when problems arose a decade later, the Southerners believed they had no choice but to secede. As sometimes happens in politics, the Compromise of 1850 dealt expediently with issues in the short term but laid the foundation for a greater conflict in the future, the Civil War.

Bibliography
  • Bordewich, F. M. America’s Great Debate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
  • Our Documents. Compromise of 1850. Washington: National History Day and National Archives and Records Administration, 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Remini, Robert. At the Edge of a Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Africans in America. The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. Boston: WGBH for the Public Broadcasting System, 1998. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. The Compromise of 1850. Groningen, the Netherlands: Humanities Computing, 2012. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Cheek, H. Lee and John C. Calhoun. John C. Calhoun: Selected Writings and Speeches (Conservative Leadership Series) Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003. Print.
  • Cooper, William J. Jr. Jefferson Davis, American. New York: Knopf, 2000. Print.
  • Crist, Lynda Lasswell et al. The Papers of Jefferson Davis: Volume 4, 1849–1852. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U Press, 1983. Print.
  • Lence, Ross M. ed, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992. Print.
  • Library of Congress. Compromise of 1850. Washington: Primary Documents in American History, 2010. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Remini, Robert. Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. The Life and Career of William Henry Seward 1801–1872. Rochester: U of Rochester Library, 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print.
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