Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a series of laws passed in 1850 that dealt with the controversial issue of slavery in the United States. As a result of the Mexican–American War, the United States acquired a great deal of new territory. The laws admitted California as a free state, and created the new territories of New Mexico and Utah. A dispute over the boundary between Texas and New Mexico was settled with Texas losing the New Mexico territory. It put an end to the slave trade in Washington, D.C. and made it easier for Southern slaveowners to recover runaway slaves. The compromise called for each new state to decide for itself whether it would be a slave or free state. This was called popular sovereignty, a term coined by Stephen A. Douglas in 1854 and later used in the Kansas–Nebraska Act.
The Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, was an agreement between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress. It concerned the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It admitted Missouri as a slave state to please the South. It admitted Maine as a free state to please the North. It kept the balance of power in the United States Senate between the free states and slave states. The plan also called for slavery to be banned from the Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36 degrees 30' north (also known as the Missouri Compromise Line), except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. It was a temporary measure that reduced the conflict over slavery. But there was continued resentment between North and South. The South resented Congress interfering with slavery. The North resented having to compromise on the moral issues of slavery. Both sides wanted the political power necessary for their issue to win. In his book Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, historian Garry Wills wrote, “the South was not demanding slave representation to achieve a near-parity at the moment, but as a way of achieving majority control in the immediately foreseeable future.”
In 1849, when Zachary Taylor became president, the new territories the U.S. gained after the Mexican-American war caused the issue of slavery to become critical again. The California Gold Rush had caused the population there to suddenly increase and Californians now wanted statehood as a free state. This upset the balance of 15 free states and 15 slave states established by the Missouri Compromise.
Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky presented resolutions on January 29, 1850 saying they represented the spirit of compromise that would keep the Union together.[a] Former Vice President and Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun saw it differently. For a month he worked on a speech but was too ill to deliver it. Virginia Senator James A. Mason read it on the floor of the Senate on March 4. In a speech on March 7, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke in favor of compromise. Abolitionists in the North saw this as a betrayal and giving in to slavery interests. William H. Seward, then the Senator from New York, spoke next for the abolitionists. He claimed there was a "higher law than the Constitution," which prevented any compromise with slavery.
At the same time the House of Representatives was also debating the question. No agreements had been reached by early April so a committee was suggested by Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi. Called the "Committee of Thirteen" it was made up of seven Whigs[b] and six Democrats.[c] The committee drafted a bill based mainly on Clay's compromise resolutions made in January. Clay himself was the chairman and presented the bill on May 8.
Each side got some benefits from the compromise:
- Got California admitted to the Union as a free state.
- Got the slave trade prohibited in Washington D.C.
- Texas lost the New Mexico territory.
- Got no restrictions on slavery in the new territories.
- While slave trading was abolished in Washington, those who owned slaves already could keep them.
- Texas got $10 million in compensation from the federal government for the loss of the NM territory.
- Got the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed.
- Secession was not a new threat. It had been discussed as early as 1776 when the Continental Congress wanted to tax all of the colonies based on a population count that included slaves. South Carolina threatened to separate themselves from the other 12 colonies over the issue. From then until the outbreak of the American Civil War, anytime a minority sectional dispute came up (often over slavery) the threat of secession would be used. It was a matter of concern when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 in Philadelphia. Secession was closely tied to the thinking of members of the Whig party. Their thinking was that rebellion (such as in 1776) was a right of a state against any form of despotic government.
- The Whig party was named after a faction in English politics who opposed royal tyranny. They were formed in 1834, split from the Democratic-Republican party. They opposed the policies of Andrew Jackson who some called “King Andrew". They believed in limited government, strictly following the Constitution and not engaging in treaties with foreign governments.
- In 1850 the Democratic Party had evolved from the Jeffersonian Republican or Democratic-Republican Party organized by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They had opposed the Federalist party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. The party started as a split from the Democratic-Republican party where followers of Andrew Jackson began to call themselves Democrats. They were firmly behind states' rights—the right of each state to make and enforce their own laws.
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- Garry Wills, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), p. 58
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