America’s Long Journey: Compromise of 1850

What is called the Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills on three different subjects, cobbled together as a package so as to resolve several difficult political issues that threatened the survival of the Union. Like most political compromises, it was heartily disliked by extremists on each side. Like most moral compromises, it was fragile and temporary, subject to destruction as events put the moral issue again squarely on the table.

The need for the compromise stemmed from the Mexican War of 1846-1848. As we shall see, that war was controversial from the onset, having been begun by an expansionist, slave-holding president, enthusiastically supported by the slave-holding South (which hoped that the nation would acquire territories that would become new slave states), and denounced by many in the North (including one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln) as unjustified aggression against a weaker neighbor. The peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo took from Mexico essentially everything included in today’s map that is west of the Louisiana Purchase and south of Oregon territory.

The burning question arose: Was that new territory to remain free, as it had been under Mexico, or was it to become slave territory? Northern and Southern states squared off on the subject almost as soon as the war began, and the ensuing deadlock continue until 1850.

  • Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot repeatedly introduced the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery in any new territory to be acquired from Mexico, but although the House concurred, the Senate repeatedly refused.
  • Douglas attempted to extend the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific, which would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and California south of Carmel-by-the-Sea (assuming the division of California into two states).
  • Lewis Cass of Michigan proposed the doctrine of popular sovereignty, soon adopted, as we have seen, by Douglas.
  • William L. Yancey of Alabama proposed federal legislation removing all Mexican anti-slavery laws and requiring that slavery be restricted before statehood neither by the federal government nor by territorial governments.
  • President Zachary Taylor (though a slave-holder) proposed that the entire area become two free states, called California and New Mexico, which would have avoided the question of slavery in the territories. But he died July 9, 1850, and his successor did not have his steel.
  • During the years of deadlock, the Whig Party broke up, the Mormons settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled northern California, and New Mexico (under a federal military government) prevented Texas from extending its western boundaries to the Rio Grande. Finally, in January, 1850, Whig leader Henry Clay (a strong Unionist from a slave state) introduced a compromise bill. It was defeated, but Clay (who was dying) guided Senator Douglas in dividing the big bill into smaller pieces. The influence of the new administration was thrown in favor of the compromise, and Northern Democrats supported each bill, adding Southern Whigs or Southern Democrats bill by bill. All five were passed and signed into law in two weeks in September, 1850.

The Compromise:

  • Congress, since it could not unilaterally reduce the territory of a state, offered Texas a deal which the Texas State Legislature accepted. Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico, and its claims north of the Missouri Compromise line, and in return received $10 million in 5% bonds from the federal government.
  • California was admitted as a free state, undivided, in accordance with the Constitutional Convention held there the in 1849 which unanimously voted to outlaw slavery.
  • New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory were allowed decide whether to become slave states, even though Utah and part of New Mexico were north of the Missouri Compromise Line. (In practice this was meaningless, but by the time the compromise was being voted on, the South was anxious to explicitly show that the Wilmot Proviso did not apply.)
  • The slave trade was banned in Washington D.C. (which mostly removed an irritation to Northern representatives, who objected to the sight and sound of slave auctions in the federal territory).
  • The Fugitive Slave Act required law-enforcement officials in free states to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave, on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected runaway could not ask for a jury trial, nor testify on his or her own behalf. Anyone providing food or shelter to a runaway slave was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. And law-enforcement officers had the right to compel any citizen to assist! Ironic, isn’t it? all those politicians (excuse me, statesmen) concentrating on what they thought the issue of the day was, and in the middle of the debate – in order to gain the votes of a few Southern border-state representatives – they throw the Fugitive Slave Act into the mix.
  • As we have seen, the Compromise of 1850 did hold the Union together for a crucial ten years. But during the decade that ensued, North and South became ever more polarized as a result of the Fugitive Slave law. Even if Kansas-Nebraska had never been thought of, the Fugitive Slave Act by itself (in its effect on public opinion in the North, and the defensive reaction to that opinion in the South) would have assured that the issue of the expansion or elimination of slavery would not go away. “It is a filthy law,” Emerson recorded in his journal. “I will not obey it, by God!” Nearly as much as Kansas-Nebraska, the “filthy law” led straight to civil war.
  • Historian Mark Stegmaier: “The Fugitive Slave Act, the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the admission of California as a free state, and even the application of the formula of popular sovereignty to the territories were all less important than the least remembered component of the Compromise of 1850–the statute by which Texas relinquished its claims to much of New Mexico in return for federal assumption of the debts.”

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