The Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850
Although he held slaves himself, President Taylor opposed the extension of slavery into the territories of California and New Mexico. In 1849, California requested admission as a free state, which frightened the South because the admission of another free state into the Union would make slave-holding interests a minority in Congress. Southern Congressmen tried to block California’s admission. With the national government in gridlock, Henry Clay stepped forward in May 1850 to present a compromise, much as he had thirty years earlier when Missouri sought statehood. Clay’s 1850 proposals included five points:
  • California would be admitted as a free state.
  • The remainder of the Mexican cession would be divided into two separate territories, New Mexico and Utah, and these territories would decide by popular sovereignty whether to be slave-holding or free.
  • Texas would cede its claim to parts of the New Mexico territory, and, in exchange, the government would cover Texas’s $10 million war debt.
  • The slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, but slavery itself would continue.
  • Congress would strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act by requiring citizens of any state, slave or free, to assist in the capture and return of runaway slaves.
Clay’s proposal threw Congress into an eight-month discussion known as the “Great Debate.” Proponents of each side—the North and the South—criticized Clay’s compromise for being too lenient on the other. Most prominent among the debaters were Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. Eventually, the bill passed. Two events in particular facilitated its passage: first, when President Taylor died in July 1850, Vice President Millard Fillmore took over and adopted a pro-compromise position. Second, Stephen A. Douglas took over for Henry Clay as speaker of the house and divided the compromise bill up into separate components, each of which passed. Together, the separate bills became known as the Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise of 1850 called for the admission of California as a free state; the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law; popular sovereignty in Utah and New Mexico concerning the question of slavery; the abolition of the slave trade in D.C.; and the federal assumption of Texas’s debt.
Compromise Undermined: A Divided Nation
During the Great Debate, one particular point of contention was the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act denied alleged fugitives the right to a trial and did not allow them to testify in their own defense. It further granted court-appointed commissioners greater payment if they ruled in favor of the slaveholder. In addition, the law authorized federal marshals and southern posses to enter the North and target runaway slaves who had escaped decades earlier. The Fugitive Slave Act reminded Northerners of their complicity with the institution of slavery.
Some Northerners worked vigorously to undermine the Fugitive Slave Act, whether through legal tactics, organized social protest, or violent resistance. During the 1850s, nine Northern states passed personal liberty laws to counteract the Fugitive Slave Act. These state laws guaranteed all alleged fugitives the right to a trial by jury and to a lawyer, and they prohibited state jails from holding alleged fugitives. In terms of social resistance, Northern Vigilance Committees worked hard to protect escaped slaves, at times in conjunction with the Underground Railroad—a network of safe houses and escorts throughout the North that helped escaped slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman, a former slave, was instrumental in forming this network, and was sometimes referred to as “Moses.” (In the Bible, Moses led the Israelites to freedom.) Less systematic resistance came in the form of violent protest. In 1854, a Boston mob broke into a courthouse and killed a guard in a failed attempt to free a fugitive slave.
Controversial provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act prompted Northerners to resist its enforcement through violent protest, clandestine efforts to aid escaped slaves, and legal tactics such as personal liberty laws.
Such strong-armed resistance against the Fugitive Slave Act revealed that Northern abolitionist sentiment was rising. No event did more to encourage Northern abolitionism and sympathy for runaway slaves than the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe wrote about slavery with grim reality, telling the story of a black slave who is torn from his family, sold from place to place, and eventually whipped to death. Three hundred thousand copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were sold in 1852, and 1.2 million had been sold by the summer of 1853. Dramatized versions of the story were produced at playhouses throughout the North, attracting audience members from all segments of society.
Election of 1852
As a symptom of the national division, the Whig party disintegrated during the 1850s along North and South lines, and its 1852 presidential candidate fared badly. The Free Soil Party’s candidate also won little support. The winner was Democratic nominee Franklin Pierce.
Compromise Collapses
President Franklin Pierce sought to avoid the controversial slave issue and instead focused on territorially expanding into Mexico and Cuba and on opening up international trade. However, he could not keep the slavery issue at bay for long. Beginning with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the tenuous stalemate of the Compromise of 1850 dissolved. Regional passions soon exploded into violence that foreshadowed the coming Civil War.
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