Compromise of 1850

When Zachary Taylor assumed office in early 1849, the question of the extension of slavery into former Mexican lands was becoming critical. The immediate pressure point was California, whose population mushroomed during the Gold Rush. Enthusiastic Californians petitioned for admission to the Union as a free state, thus laying down a challenge to the existing sectional balance of 15 free states and 15 slave states.

Millard Fillmore

The Congressional cast of characters contained a mixture of old and new faces who labored to enact five separate laws which, considered together, constitute the Compromise of 1850. Some of the orations delivered in Congress stand as pivotal works in the careers of several statesmen.

On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay presented resolutions to his colleagues and argued that they represented an essential spirit of compromise that would preserve the Union. John C. Calhoun felt otherwise and spent a month developing a speech in response. Too ill to deliver it himself, he was present in the chamber when his colleague, Senator James A. Mason of Virginia, read it on his behalf on March 4. It was his last speech; he died within a month.

Calhoun's speech in opposition brought a response from Daniel Webster on March 7. Webster spoke in favor of compromise, although personally opposed to slavery, as a necessary step to preserve the Union. Although a great speech, it was badly received by abolitionists in the North. John Greenleaf Whittier composed his poem, Ichabod, published two months later as a thinly disguised denunciation of Webster's "betrayal" of his principles.

Just four more days passed before yet another important speech was delivered, this time by William H. Seward. Seward expressed the position of abolitionists, and declared that there was a "higher law than the Constitution," which should militate against any compromise with slavery.

While the Senate was debating, the House was also engaged. Horace Mann, who had taken the seat made vacant by the death of John Quincy Adams, spoke to the House on February 15, developing positions that would later be taken up by Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

By April, it seemed that the debate was not leading to any conclusion. On April 18, Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi moved for the appointment of a select committee of seven Whigs and six Democrats. Known as the Committee of Thirteen, it drafted a bill based largely on Clay's compromise resolutions of January. Clay, as chairman of the committee, presented the bill on May 8 and supported it with important speeches on May 13 and 21.

The situation was further complicated by President Taylor, who was putting forward his own plan. His original recommendation to Congress, half a year earlier, had been simply to admit California as a free state. While this was an element of every genuine compromise plan, Taylor now proposed to simply take no action with regard to the other territories. This was unacceptable to the proponents of a compromise.

In early June, a convention consisting of delegates from nine slave states gathered in Nashville. The radicals among them urged secession if slavery was restricted in any of the new territories, but moderate voices prevailed. The convention put forward a "compromise" position of their own, which involved extending the free-slave boundary agreed in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Ocean. Such a position could not gain Congressional approval.

President Taylor's death in July 1850 brought Millard Fillmore into office. The new president was open to a compromise that would address the concerns of both sides. At the same time, the Senate leaders who had believed that an omnibus bill would be best, concluded instead that it would be better to present the measure in pieces. Thus, between September 9 and 20, five separate bills were dealt with.

The compromise balanced sectional interests by enacting the following:

  1. California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
  2. The New Mexico and Utah territories were to decide the question issue by relying on “popular sovereignty,” allowing the actual settlers to vote on the issue.
  3. Texas lost the New Mexico territory, but received $10 million from the federal government for its loss.
  4. The slave trade in the District of Columbia was abolished.
  5. A new Fugitive Slave Act was passed.

The Compromise of 1850 generated positive and negative results. Its passage quieted sectional animosities for a few years (until the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854) and held off the Civil War for about 10 years. On the other hand, Northerners were so enraged by the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act that it was impossible to strike future compromises.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Compromise of 1850.

By Rev. J.H. Thornwell, President of the University of South Carolina
The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders -- they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground -- Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake.
By Daniel Webster
I was born an American; I live an American; I shall die an American.
Speech on July 17, 1850

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