Compromise of 1850

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The sectional conflict that led to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 again came to a head after the Mexican War. Two issues aroused bitter debate in Congress: distributing new land in a way that would appease both the North and the South, and developing a more rigorous system for capturing and prosecuting fugitive slaves. The eventual answer was the Compromise of 1850. California was admitted as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah were allowed to choose their positions on slavery, both chose to be free. New Mexico received additional land from Texas, while the federal government agreed to pay Texas’s war debt. In perhaps its most controversial move, Congress also passed a new Fugitive Slave Act that forced citizens to help capture slaves, waived fugitive slaves’ right to a jury trial, and set up a new system of federal enforcement. Finally, the slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished.

The Compromise of 1850 was the result of one of the most infamous congressional battles in American history. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky originally wanted to pass the provisions as a single, or omnibus, bill. But Clay’s plan met resistance from both northern and southern congressmen. New York Senator William Seward argued against any expansion of slavery, claiming it was prohibited by a “higher law than the Constitution.” Conversely, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina claimed that attacking slavery cut “the cords which bind these states together.” When the omnibus bill came before Congress, it failed.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, an ardent supporter of the compromise, intervened with a new plan. He broke the omnibus bill into individual bills, sensing that the ideas of passing them as one had created unnecessary political dispute. His strategy worked, as the series of bills passed Congress. Again, a complicated compromise had succeeded at cooling the dispute between the North and South over the existence, enforcement, and expansion of the “peculiar institution.” But the issue would not go away, and tensions continued to build over slavery, culminating in the Civil War only eleven years later.

Robert Heinrich

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Admission of New States; Calhoun, John C.; Civil War; Clay, Henry; Fugitive Slave Acts; Missouri Compromise of 1820; Slavery; States’ Rights