Compromise of 1850

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The Compromise of 1850 was a political maneuver that allowed the enslavement of Africans to continue in some areas of the United States, while in other states and territories Africans were free. The American political landscape from 1787 into the 1860s was constructed with infusions of compromises. The continuation of the institution of slavery in postcolonial America created ideological conflict between those who were for slavery and those who opposed it. Slavery was more prevalent in the South, where the plantation economy thrived as a result of the free labor provided by the institution of slavery, than it was in the North, where there were no plantations and the need for slaves was minimal.
The presence of slaves had implications for the population and the economic development of the newly created American nation. Slaves swelled the population of the South, and if they were counted as humans and not as property, they would give the Southern states more representation in Congress. In addition, population would determine tax appropriation from the states. To create a balance between the interests of states with slaves and states with no slaves, Congress agreed on a three-fifths compromise that allowed the slave population to count for three-fifths of the white population.
In 1820, the slavery issue led to another compromise—the Missouri Compromise. In 1819, the people of the territory of Missouri applied for statehood. At the time, the nation had 22 states, of which half were states with slaves and half were states with no slaves. States with slaves preferred that Missouri be admitted into the union as a slave state, so that such states would have a numerical advantage in the Senate. To prevent this from happening, New York representative James Talmadge, Jr., introduced a resolution prohibiting the introduction of slavery in Missouri. The resolution engendered heated discussion in the House of Representatives, but it passed. The Senate, however, rejected the resolution. The application of the territory of Maine for admission into the union brought a solution to the Talmadge resolution. Maine was admitted into the union as a free state and Missouri was admitted into the union as a slave state with a proviso that slavery be excluded from the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri's southern border.
Controversy over slavery did not end with the Missouri Compromise but continued as new states were added to the union. Following its war with Mexico and the subsequent signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States acquired territories from Mexico at a cost of $15 million. These territories included Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas (at the Rio Grande boundary), Nevada, and Utah. To prevent the institution of slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico, Representative David Wilmot from Pennsylvania attached a rider to a war appropriation bill, declaring that slavery be forbidden in any lands taken from Mexico. The rider sailed through the House but collapsed in the Senate. Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina led the fight against Wilmot's proviso, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed to the citizens of all states who immigrated to the territories the same rights they enjoyed in their home states. Since the citizens of some states had the legal right to own slaves, these citizens should have the right to take their slaves with them to wherever they migrated.
The issue of slavery polarized the nation as the territories acquired from Mexico applied for statehood and again when California applied for admission into the union. The Wilmot proviso had ignited a crisis, and a compromise seemed to be a viable solution. The aging Henry Clay of Kentucky demonstrated his political dexterity in crafting the Compromise of 1850. The goal of the compromise was to find a solution to all the controversies involving slavery in the nation. These included (1) the question of fugitive slaves; (2) arguments for and against slavery in the new states; (3) invocation of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, the right of the people of a territory to decide if slavery should or should not be introduced in their territory; and (4) the constitutional legality of slavery. The compromise, which resulted from Clay's “omnibus” bill, called for the following:
  1. California would enter the union as a free state.
  2. Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona would be organized without mention of slavery.
  3. Texas would cede certain lands to New Mexico and be compensated by Congress, which would pay the large debt of the former Republic of Texas.
  4. A strong fugitive slave law would better protect slaveowners. Special federal commissioners would be allowed to circumvent local courts, arrest fugitive slaves in the North, and return them to their owners.
  5. Slave trade would be allowed in the District of Columbia, the nation's capital.
Henry Clay's omnibus bill passed due largely to Stephen Douglass's political astuteness, but the compromise was never a comfortable one for either the South or the North. Many in the North were repulsed that slave auctions were being held in the nation's capital at a time when the slave trade had been abolished in many European nations. The different sectors were simply not willing to sacrifice their respective desires on the altar of compromise. The compromise survived for only about 7 years. In 1857, the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the new territories into two types—slave and free.

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Further Reading

  • Franklin, John Hope, and Moss, Alfred A., Jr., (1998). From Slavery to Freedom. New York: McGraw-Hill. This is one of the key books on the significance of Africans to American history. It has a good discussion of the compromises that white legislators entered into to preserve slavery.
  • Hamilton, Holman. (1964). Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850. Lexington: University of Kentucky. This is a good basic reference book on the crisis of 1850.
  • Holt, Michael F. (1978). The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: W. W. Norton. Holt's book contains one of the best analyses of the political players and their objectives during the crisis of 1850.
  • Stampp, Kenneth. (1990). America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. New York: Oxford University Press. This treatment of the American nation on the brink of war has a sound account of the Compromise of 1850.