The Slavery Debate

Although Taylor’s silence on the issue quieted the debate for about a year, the issue was revived when California and Utah applied for statehood. California’s population had boomed after the 1849gold rush had attracted thousands of prospectors, while barren Utah had blossomed due to the ingenuity of several thousand Mormons. The question arose whether these states should be admitted as free states or slave states. The future of slavery in Washington, D.C., was likewise in question.

A great debate ensued in Congress over the future of these three regions as Southerners attempted to defend their economic system while Northerners decried the evils of slavery. In Congress, the dying John C. Calhoun argued that the South still had every right to nullify unconstitutional laws and, if necessary, to secede from the Union it created. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, on the other hand, championed the Union and compromise. Webster in particular pointed out that discussion over the expansion of slavery in the West was moot because western lands were unsuitable for growing cotton.

The Compromise of 1850

In the end, the North and South agreed to compromise. Although Clay was instrumental in getting both sides to agree, he and Calhoun were too elderly and infirm to negotiate concessions and draft the necessary legislation. This task fell to a younger generation of politicians, especially the “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas, so named for his short stature and big mouth. A Democratic senator from Illinois, Douglas was responsible for pushing the finished piece of legislature through Congress.

The Compromise of 1850, as it was called, was a bundle of legislation that everyone could agree on. First, congressmen agreed that California would be admitted to the Union as a free state (Utah was not admitted because the Mormons refused to give up the practice of polygamy). The fate of slavery in the other territories, though, would be determined by popular sovereignty. Next, the slave trade (though not slavery itself) was banned in Washington, D.C. Additionally, Texas had to give up some of its land to form the New Mexican territory in exchange for a cancellation of debts owed to the federal government. Finally, Congress agreed to pass a newer and tougher Fugitive Slave Act to enforce the return of escaped slaves to the South.

A Northern Victory in 1850

Though both sides agreed to it, the Compromise of 1850 clearly favored the North over the South. California’s admission as a free state not only set a precedent in the West against the expansion of slavery, but also ended the sectional balance in the Senate, with sixteen free states to fifteen slave states. Ever since the Missouri Compromise, this balance had always been considered essential to prevent the North from banning slavery. The South also conceded to end the slave trade in Washington, D.C., in exchange for debt relief for Texans and a tougher Fugitive Slave Law. Southerners were willing to make so many concessions because, like Northerners, they truly believed the Compromise of 1850 would end the debate over slavery. As it turned out, of course, they were wrong.

The Fugitive Slave Law

Ironically, the 1850Fugitive Slave Act only fanned the abolitionist flame rather than put it out. Even though many white Americans in the North felt little love for blacks, they detested the idea of sending escaped slaves back to the South. In fact, armed mobs in the North freed captured slaves on several occasions, especially in New England, and violence against slave catchers increased despite the federal government’s protests. On one occasion, it took several hundred troops and a naval ship to escort a single captured slave through the streets of Boston and back to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act thus allowed the abolitionists to transform their movement from a radical one to one that most Americans supported.

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