Key Facts & Summary
- The Compromise of 1850 was a temporary agreement regarding slavery after the Mexican – American War
- The Compromise addressed five aspects including provisions for California’s entry into the Union, banning the slave trade in Washington, the boundary between New Mexico and Texas and implementation of popular sovereignty in the Western Territories.
Slavery in Mexico Secession
After the Mexican – American War, a section of Mexico with a history connected to America ceded to the US. The secession begged the question as to whether the new territory would be slave states or free-soil states.
In 1840 President James K. Polk asked Congress for $2,000,000 to negotiate peace and settle the boundary rife with Mexico. A Democratic Congressman, David Wilmot, offered in 1846 a proposal to amend the President’s request and prohibit slavery in all the western territory. The motion, called the Wilmot Proviso, was debated in Congress and even though it was never passed, laid the foundation for the bitter contestation between the North and the South, the Democrats, and the Whigs who morphed into the Republican Party over the issue of slavery in the westward expansion.
The Free-Soil Party was radically different from the demands of the abolitionists. Abolitionists wanted the complete eradication of slavery while the Free-Soil sect wanted to limit slavery to states where it already existed. The main reason behind the position of the latter camp was that so white workers would not compete for labour with the blacks in the western states. Further, the southerners rejected the idea of free state westward expansion because they wanted to be able to take their slaves with them when moving to settle in the new western states. Southerners were keen to leave the Union if the Union was to infringe on their lifestyle and their slave property.
The other issue at this time was the issue of the slave trade in the District of Columbia which the abolitionists wanted to end and the fugitive laws which the southerners wanted to strengthen to guarantee that slave escapees would be returned to their original owners. The Texas – Border issue was also in contention because Texas hoped for a more significant state size and California, with the discovery of Gold had become the crown jewel of the Mexican secession.
After the Presidential election of 1848, the Whig Party nominee Zachary Taylor of Kentucky, a slave owner and a Mexican-American war hero became President. To the surprise of many, President Taylor called for the admission of California as a free state.
The Great Compromiser vs. The Great Nullifier
The battle scene was Congress, and Henry Clay had at this point earned himself the title of the “Great Compromiser” leaning towards Taylor request, Clay offered solutions that limited expansion of slavery but at the same time made proposals for a more robust fugitive slave law in hopes to appease both sides of the divide.
John C. Calhoun on the other hand, the “Great Nullifier” was angered by Clay’s proposals. At this time, he was terminally ill and therefore had a friend deliver his speech rejecting Clay’s plans. Calhoun noted that Clay’s proposals would limit the rights of the southerners and undermine their prosperity. He, therefore, supported the strengthening of the fugitive slave laws and an amendment to the Constitution to create a dual presidency one for the north and another for the south.
Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in response to Calhoun proposal called for national unity, while denouncing slavery, he noted that disunion was a much worse proposal that slavery. He speech was famous as he declared that he spoke, “not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American.”
The Whig Senator William H. Seward noted that slavery was incompatible with the Declaration of Independence which provided that “all men are created equal” he introduced the idea of referencing to a “higher moral law” than the Constitution itself that contradicted itself on the issue of slavery, a philosophy that was used by the abolitionists.
The debates in Congress were published in a local newspaper and Americans followed keenly. However, not much progress was made between the two camps, and President Taylor died after a short illness, supposedly caused by eating an extensive amount of fruit with milk. Vice President Millard Fillmore took office and was keen on finalising a compromise.
The Compromise of 1850
Clay stepped down from leading the compromise efforts out of frustration, and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas took over. He presented five separate bills, the first made provisions for Congress to provide bounties to slave catchers. The Second provided for the admission of California as a free state, and the third provided for the boundary between Texas and New Mexico and did not allow Texas to expand their borders. The Fourth banned slave trade in Washington D.C. and the fifth allowed for popular sovereignty over the question of slavery in the westward expansion.
The Compromise did manage to calm the rising tensions over the issues canvased, with all the bills collectively appeasing each side. However, the question of popular sovereignty on slavery policy in the westward expansion resulted in bloodshed in the west and eventually the Civil War.