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The United States Capitol in 1848. Unknown Photographer, credit Library of Congress.

During President James Polk’s administration, Congress grappled with resolving sectional tension arising out of whether slavery would be extended to newly acquired land from Mexico as well as the Oregon territory. Congress did not resolve that sectional tension but exacerbated it in what may have been one of the most deadlocked and destructive Congresses in American history.

In December 1846, Congress received a recommendation from President Polk “that Oregon be organized as a territory and he again asked for an appropriation . . . with which to acquire title to land from Mexico.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 63. In the following year, he asked for Congress to approve territorial governments in California and New Mexico. See id. citing James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), IV, 457-58, 587-93, 638-39. President Polk hoped that this would be a straightforward request, but it would be far from simple for Congress to effectuate any such agenda.

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Lithograph of the Senate Chamber in 1848. By: Deroy after Augustus Theodore Frederick Adam Kollner.

Congress discussed the theories of how to deal with slavery in the new territories, which only seemed to further fracture the parties. The Democrats and the Whigs each had sections of their parties that supported slavery, but the critical pivot point in order for Congress to achieve progress was building consensus that a solution could be accomplished and sustained. President Polk, believing he could resolve the tension, requested that Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana propose that the Missouri Compromise line be extended for purposes of the Oregon territory being a free territory. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 72. Senator Hannegan’s counterpart, Senator Jesse Bright of Indiana, proposed an amendment to the Oregon bill, specifying the 36° 30′ line be extended for purposes of dividing the nation on the issue of slaverySee id. at 72-73; see also Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 875-76. While the Senate did approve the resolution, the House defeated the bill, with debate becoming more vitriolic.

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Senator John Clayton.

The Senate, faced with this discord, thought it best dealt with in a special committee. Senator John Clayton of Delaware proposed that the territorial question be submitted to a committee of eight members total: four Whigs and four Democrats, with each group further divided between North and South. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 73. In that committee, Senator Clayton proposed that Congress established “no restrictions on slavery; Oregon, when organized, would retain the laws against slavery which the provisional government had adopted; and the territorial legislatures of California and New Mexico would be denied any authority to make laws concerning slavery.” Id. at 74. Further, any slave that came into the new territories could bring an action in federal court to determine the legal status of slavery in that area, effectively displacing Congress with the federal judiciary as the arbiter of the issue of slavery. The committee brought the bill to the Senate, and after a 21-hour session, the Senate passed the “Clayton Compromise” with a vote 33 to 22. Id. citing Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 998-1001.

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Portrait of Alexander Stephens. By: John White Alexander.

The House of Representatives took up the bill, but before any debate could take place, Alexander Stephens made a motion to “table” the Clayton bill. Overwhelmingly, the House voted to table, and effectively kill, the Clayton Compromise, dashing the hopes of the Senate and those who hoped a compromise could be reached in Congress. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 75 citing Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 1006-07.

Just a matter of days later, on August 11, 1848, Senator Stephen Douglas proposed an amendment similar to Senator Bright’s proposal, and the Senate adopted the amendment. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 75 citing Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 1061-63. The following day, the House defeated this amendment as well by a vote of 121 to 82, extinguishing optimism amongst those who thought compromise was possible. David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 75 citing Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 1062-63.

The session ended with no progress on the issue. President Polk said that “if no Presidential election had been pending . . . the [Clayton] compromise bill would have passed in the House.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 77 citing Milo Milton Quaife (ed.), The Diary of James K. Polk (4 vols.; Chicago, 1910), IV, 34-35 (July 28, 1848), 60 (Aug. 7). With President Polk not running for re-election, and a tight election between Zachary Taylor, Lewis Cass, and Martin Van Buren, Congress had to consider how their actions would fit in the discourse of the election and the aftermath, with a new president coming into the White House.

The second session of Congress convened in December 1848. Progress would yet again be slow, as the House and Senate were preoccupied with interpreting the results of the Election of 1848, with Taylor winning the presidency. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 82. Early in the session, John Calhoun sought to convene a gathering of southern congressman, who could strategize how to “force both parties to respect southern rights.” Id. at 83 citing Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun, Sectionalist (Indianapolis, 1951), 369-73. Calhoun had warned his fellow southerners that the northerners would attempt to make inroads on slavery as much as possible. Those warnings appeared to become true when the House passed a resolution “calling for prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 84 citing Congressional Globe, 30 Cong., 2 sess., 83-84. Following the House resolution, 18 southern Senators and 51 southern Representatives met in the Senate chamber, much to the delight of Calhoun and his disciples. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 84. He started to see the pieces fall into place for the South to unite and to dismantle the antislavery, progressive agenda that emanated from the North.

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John Calhoun.

While Calhoun attempted to capitalize on this momentum by drafting an “Address to the People of the Southern States,” support would be limited, and the movement for uniting congressional southerners fell apart. See id. at 84-85. However, the common southerner was listening. Calhoun’s movement to bring together those southerners in Washington had effectively failed, but he had tapped into the energy of the South’s want for collective self-preservation.

When Congress convened in 1849, several southern states had made clear that they would hold special meetings of their state legislatures to deal with antislavery legislation in Congress. Id. at 88. Further, there was a national convention proposed in Nashville on June 3, 1850 for all southern states, sure to inflame southerners’ passions and further the southern agenda. Id. at 88-89.

Southerners began to openly discuss dissolution of the Union. Senator John Clayton, the author of the Clayton Compromise and an optimist for reconciling the sections of the country, remarked, “My soul sickens at the threats to dissolve the Union,” in January 1849. Clayton to John J. Crittenden, Jan. 23, 1849, in Arthur Charles Cole, The Whig Party in the South (Washington, 1913), p. 150. In December of 1849, William Richardson of Illinois said:

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William Richardson. Photograph by: Mathew Brady.

“There is a bad state of things here, and, as little as it is thought about, I fear this Union is in danger. . . . It is appalling to hear gentlemen, Members of Congress sworn to support the Constitution, talk and talk earnestly for a dissolution of the Union.” Richardson to D.T. Berry, Dec. 16, 1849, and to unidentified correspondent, Feb. 19, 1850, in George Fort Milton, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (Boston, 1934), pp. 50, 57-58.

At the end of 1849, the nation had a new president and a new Congress but the same problems. Congress had failed to mitigate the worsening crisis. In fact, it had exacerbated the crisis. Its inability to accomplish even incremental progress on reconciling the sections of the country left each faction to take drastic action to advance their agenda. Calhoun had resounding success in this regard. He had injected into America’s political discourse thoughts and ideas that southerners took to heart.

Calhoun’s ideology, while popular, was destructive for the nation. Negotiating and dealmaking became futile, as both houses of Congress could not and would not agree to any practical solution for dealing with the issue of slavery. For the first time in American history, a sizable portion of Americans began to believe that dissolution of the Union was a desirable, prudent decision. Congress, often an institution that captures the will of the American people and effectuates policy accordingly, had failed the common American. Rather than collaborating, the members of Congress were giving fodder to those who believed dissolution of the Union was a worthy goal, no matter the price.

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