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
- 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
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.
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.