Compromise of 1850

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The Compromise of 1850, in the history of the United States, was a series of Congressional legislative measures addressing slavery and the boundaries of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (184648). In five laws balancing the interests of the slaveholding states of the American South and the free states, California was admitted as a free state, Texas received financial compensation for relinquishing claim to lands West of the Rio Grande river, the United States territory of New Mexico (including present-day Arizona and Utah) was organized without any specific prohibition of slavery, the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was abolished in Washington, D.C., and the stringent Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves.

The measures, brokered by United States Senate luminaries Henry Clay, known to American history as "The Great Compromiser," Daniel Webster, one of the United States' most famous orators, and the South's John C. Calhoun, with the influence of the Taylor and Fillmore Administrations, temporarily defused sectional tensions in the United States, postponing the secession crisis and the American Civil War. However, its rejection of the Wilmot Proviso, which had banned slavery in Federal territories, in favor of the doctrine of "Popular Sovereignty" for New Mexico and Utah, was a departure from the method of addressing slavery in the territories that had been created in the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The political peace achieved by the Compromise of 1850 lasted only until 1854, when it was shattered by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act.




The main impetus for the Compromise of 1850 was the dispute over the western boundary of Texas. The Republic of Texas, which had seceded from Mexico, and which had been admitted to the United States after the Mexican war as the State of Texas, claimed as its own all of the land west of the Rio Grande river, including Santa Fe, despite the fact that the Mexican state of Texas had used the Nueces River as its western boundary.

Furthermore, New Mexico sought United States territorial status with its capital at Santa Fe, but Texas declared it would use military force to enforce its claim to the land. U.S. President Taylor was equally adamant that he would use Federal troops of the U.S. military to prevent the State of Texas from taking possession of New Mexico, and this looming threat of armed conflict drove the Compromise.


Another main issue was California's statehood. Settlers who had flocked to California after the discovery of gold in 1848 adopted an antislavery state constitution on the 13 October 1849, and applied for admission into the Union as a free state. The admission of California would disturb the longtime balance between free and slave states in the Senate. The question was whether to accept California's admission as a free state.

Mexican War territories

No territorial government had been formed for the remainder of the territory acquired from Mexico, including that of present-day Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in these areas.

Slave Trade and Fugitive Slave Law

The two questions not growing out of the Mexican War were in regard to the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and to the passage of a new fugitive slave law.

Clay and Douglas craft compromise

Congress convened on December 3, 1849. On January 29, 1850, 72-year old Whig Senator Henry Clay gave a speech which called for compromise on the issues dividing the Union. However, Clay's specific proposals for achieving a compromise, including his idea for Texas's boundary, were not adopted, although Clay later claimed credit for drafting the entire compromise. Rather, it was Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, who largely guided the Compromise to passage. The Compromise came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with "popular sovereignty" (i.e. without the Proviso) for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave auctions in the District of Columbia, and enacting a harsh new Fugitive Slave Law.

View of Davis and Southern Democrats

Most Southerner Democrats, led by Jefferson Davis, opposed Douglas's and especially Clay's compromise because they would have admitted California as a free state, thus disturbing the balance of power between North and South in the Senate, and because they would have negated some of Texas's land claims. They also opposed as unconstitutional the abolition of the slave auctions in the District of Columbia.

View of Seward and Northern Whigs

Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward, who delivered his (in)famous "Higher Law" speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise as well because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the Draconian new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols; this provision was inserted by Democratic Virginia Senator James M. Mason to coerce border-state Whigs, who faced the greatest danger of losing slaves as fugitives, but who were lukewarm on general sectional issues related to the South, into supporting Texas's land claims.

Whig President Zachary Taylor attempted to sidestep the entire controversy by pushing to admit California and New Mexico as free states immediately, avoiding the entire territorial process and thus the Wilmot Proviso question. Taylor's stand was extremely unpopular among southerners.

Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs largely supported the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported the stronger fugitive slave law.

Debate and results

Former Vice President John C. Calhoun spoke on March 3 against the proposals. As he was near death, he had to be carried on and off of the floor by several senators, and the speech was read for him by Senator James M. Mason of Virginia. Calhoun died exactly four weeks later on March 31. Daniel Webster supported the plan in "Seventh of March" speech, although in doing so he alienated many of his former antislavery admirers.

The bills were initially combined into one "omnibus" bill, which failed to pass the Senate. The situation was changed by the death of President Taylor and the accession of Millard Fillmore on July 6, 1850. The influence of the administration was now thrown in favor of the compromise. Under a tacit understanding of the moderates to vote together, five separate bills were passed, and were signed by the president between September 9 and September 20, 1850.

The five separate bills

  1. California was admitted as a free state.
  2. The slave trade was abolished (ie the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
  3. New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) and Utah were organized without any specific prohibition of slavery, allowing each to decide for itself on admission to statehood
  4. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves.
  5. Texas was compelled to give up much of the western land which it claimed, and received compensation of $10,000,000.


The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

The Compromise in general proved widely popular politically, as both parties committed themselves in their platforms to the finality of the Compromise on sectional issues. This peace was broken only by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and led directly to the formation of the Republican Party, whose capture of the national government in 1860 led directly to the American Civil War.

The Compromise helped to postpone secession and Civil War for a decade, during which time the Northwest was growing more wealthy and more populous, and was being brought into closer relations with the Northeast. The rejection of the Wilmot Proviso and the acceptance (as regards New Mexico and Utah) of "Popular Sovereignty" meant the adoption of a new principle in dealing with slavery in the territories, which appeared to some to undermine the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The enforcement of the fugitive slave law aroused feelings of bitterness in the north which led helped eventually to bring on the war, and helped to make it, when it came, quite as much an anti-slavery crusade as a struggle for the preservation of the Union. The enactment of the new fugitive slave law inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Further reading

  • J. F. Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. i. (New York, 1896).
  • Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (1999) and The Fate of their County (2004).

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