The Compromise of 1850

“United States Senate, A.D. 1850.” By: Peter F. Rothermel.

Upon President Zachary Taylor taking office, he sent a message to Congress deploring the sectionalism that was pervading the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91. He looked to George Washington’s warnings against “characterizing parties by geographical discriminations,” which appeared by 1849 to be a prescient warning. Id. citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24. President Taylor offered hope for northerners and those Americans who wanted to preserve the Union with his vow: “Whatever dangers may threaten it [the Union] I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 91 citing James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 9-24.

Zachary Taylor Inauguration
Depiction of President Zachary Taylor’s Inauguration.

President Taylor had put forth the principle that each territory would decide for itself whether they would permit slavery, which he hoped would placate southerners’ concerns. In previous years, perhaps it would have, but the nature of sectionalism had changed by the time of his presidency. The South had taken on the role of the underdog victim in the dispute. The future did not look bright for the South with Oregon being admitted as a free state, the upper part of the Louisiana Purchase admitted as free states, and the ceded territory from Mexico looking likely to be the free states of California and New Mexico. Fears began to spread. Southerners began to believe that the abolition of slavery would lead “the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 93 quoting John Calhoun, in Senate, March 4, 1850, Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 451-55. Many southerners shared the sentiment that the North decided “to make war on a domestic institution, upon which are staked our property, our social organization and our peace and safety.” John Calhoun, in Senate, March 4, 1850, Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 451-55.

Southerners came to see two options: stabilize their position in the Union or secede before they were ruined. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 94. Southerners began to openly articulate plans for secession and disunion. For example, Representative Robert Toombs delivered a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, saying:

Representative Robert Toombs.

“I do not hesitate to avow before this House and the Country, and in the presence of the living God, that if, by your legislation, you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people, and to abolish slavery in this District, thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.” Toombs in House, Dec. 13, 1849, in Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 27-28.

President Taylor wanted to preserve the Union without making concessions to the South. While a reasonable aspiration, he had little support in Congress. His two main allies in Congress, John Clayton and John Crittenden, had respectively joined the administration and become governor of Kentucky. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 96. Thus, while President Taylor was the head of the Whig Party in that he was in the White House, there was discord within the party that prevented him from effectuating his agenda of stern reconciliation. Senator Henry Clay, one of the most ardent Whigs, took advantage of this power vacuum and challenged President Taylor’s leadership.

Henry Clay.

In January 1850, Senator Clay rose in the Senate chamber and delivered a masterful oration, articulating eight resolutions targeting the most contentious issues of the day, including slavery. See id. at 97. After six months of debate, these resolutions would be aggregated and packaged into what is known as the Compromise of 1850.

First, the resolutions proposed that California be admitted as a state, choosing its own terms as to the issue of slavery, which meant it would be a free state. See id. at 99. Further, the territory that Mexico ceded to America would have established territorial governments “without the adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.” Id.

Second, the resolutions solved an ongoing issue with Texas, who had a boundary dispute with the territory of New Mexico. The resolutions proposed that the boundary be fixed at approximately the current boundary, in exchange for “taking over the public debt of Texas,” which was sure to rally the influence of “Texas bondholders to the support of the compromise.” Id.

The resolutions thirdly took on the issue of abolishing slave trade in the District of Columbia, proposing abolition of the slave trade but not slavery itself until both Maryland and the District of Columbia agreed to do so. Id.

On that note, and finally, the resolutions “affirmed the immunity of the interstate slave trade from congressional interference, and proposed a fugitive slave law to enforce more effectively the constitutional provision that a ‘Person held to Service or Labour in one state . . . escaping into another . . . shall be delivered up on Claim of the party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.'” Id.

Depiction of the Sides in the Debate.

Following Clay’s introduction of the resolutions, one of the great debates in congressional history took place. Jefferson Davis “voiced a militant southern belief that there were no physical reasons why slavery should not flourish in California, and that the proposals were not fair to the South.” Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 115-27. Then, on March 4, 1850, John Calhoun came to the Senate despite his poor health and had Senator James Mason deliver a powerful speech:

“It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected at a single blow. The cords which bind these states together in one common Union are far too numerous and powerful for that. . . . The cords . . . are not only many but various in character. Some are spiritual or ecclesiastical; some political, others social. Some appertain to the benefit conferred by the Union, and others to the feeling of duty and obligation. . . . Already the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important, and has greatly weakened all the others, as I shall proceed to show.” Id. at 451-55.

Shortly thereafter, Senator Daniel Webster, one of the finest orators of the time, spoke to the Senate and articulated a most conciliatory position:

Daniel Webster.

“I would not take pains to reaffirm an ordinance of nature nor to re-enact the will of God. And I would put in no Wilmot Proviso for the purpose of a taunt or a reproach. I would put into it no evidence of the votes of superior power to wound the pride, even whether a just pride, a rational pride, or an irrational pride—to wound the pride of the gentlemen who belong to the Southern States.” Id. at 269-76.

Clay’s bill, which came to be known as the Omnibus bill because of its all-encompassing nature, first went to a committee formed within the Senate for consideration. Not long thereafter, on the night of July 4, 1850, President Taylor fell ill. He died five days later becoming the second president to die while holding office after President William Henry Harrison. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War: 1848-1861, 107. Vice President Millard Fillmore took over the presidency, and just as he was establishing his administration, Clay’s Omnibus bill came up for action in the Senate. See id. Crushingly for Clay, the Omnibus bill did not pass. Following defeat, Clay returned to his home state of Kentucky to recuperate after his 70 addresses to the Senate to curry favor for his Omnibus bill. See id. at 108. It appeared that Clay had failed and that compromise was but a dream.

President Millard Fillmore.

Meanwhile, Senator Stephen Douglas and President Fillmore were taking action. President Fillmore ensured that the boundary dispute between the state of Texas and the territory of New Mexico would not flare up, stating that he would insist upon “some act of Congress to which the consent of the state of Texas may be necessary or . . . some appropriate mode of legal adjudication.” Id. at 110 quoting Messages to Congress, Aug. 6, Sept. 9, 1850 in Richardson (ed.), Messages and Papers, V, 67-73, 75; see also Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore (Buffalo, 1959), pp. 224-47. This executive strong-arming looked to be the trick to stopping any sort of disruption between those in Texas and New Mexico.

Senator Stephen Douglas.

Senator Douglas oversaw the passage of bills giving Texas 33,333 more square miles than Clay’s Omnibus bill as well as bills “for the admission of California, for the establishment of territorial government in New Mexico, and for the enforcement of the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 111 citing Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 1573, 1589, 1647, 1660. Senator Douglas had correctly perceived the positions of his colleagues. Throughout the ranks, northern and southern, Democrats and Whigs, there were those who were open to compromise on these issues as they feared the result of disunion. Senator Douglas keenly tapped into those latent hopes to pass essentially what Senator Clay had proposed in his Omnibus bill.

These events consummated the so-called Compromise of 1850. It was not so much a progression toward resolution as it was a breaking of a deadlock. Sectionalism was put beneath the surface of the debates just long enough for Congress to effectively legislate. Americans were jubilant as “[c]rowds thronged the streets of Washington and serenaded the Compromise leaders.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 114.

Nonetheless, despite the celebratory atmosphere, the Compromise had done virtually nothing on the issue of slavery, which was at the heart of the sectional divide. Both sides of the aisle convinced their constituents they were the victors. While Senator Douglas returned to Illinois and proclaimed that Congress had ensured the right for people to regulate “their own internal concerns and domestic institutions in their own way, Robert Toombs of Georgia said that his supporters “had regained the principle so unwisely bargained away in 1820, the right of the people of any state to hold slaves in the common territories.” See id. at 116.

Not everybody was so optimistic about the result of the Compromise of 1850. Salmon Chase said, “The question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.” Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., p. 1859. Senator John Bell of Tennessee proclaimed: “The crisis is not past; nor can perfect harmony be restored to the country until the North shall cease to vex the South upon the subject of slavery.” Memphis Daily Eagle, Sept. 27, 1850, quoted in Joseph Howard Parks, John Bell of Tennessee (Baton Rouge, 1950), 262. The more analytical participants and observers in politics took note that this was no settlement of the North and the South on the issue of slavery. This was but a small deal that would require many more steps before one could say that sectionalism had ceased and there was a true compromise in the country.


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