Brokering the Compromise of 1850

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the contested issues and eventual compromises connected to the Compromise of 1850

The Beginnings of the Crisis: The Missouri Compromise

As mentioned previously, sectional tensions increased as the size of the U.S. territory grew. The Missouri Territory, by far the largest section of the Louisiana Territory, marked a turning point in the sectional crisis. St. Louis, a bustling Mississippi River town filled with powerful enslavers, loomed large as an important trade headquarters for networks in the northern Mississippi Valley and the Greater West. In 1817, eager to resolve the question of whether this territory would be slave or free, Congress opened its debate over Missouri’s admission to the Union. Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed laws that would gradually abolish slavery in the new state. Southern states responded with unanimous outrage, and the nation shuddered at an undeniable sectional controversy.

Congress reached a “compromise” on Missouri’s admission, largely through the work of Kentuckian Henry Clay. Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state. In exchange, Missouri would come into the Union as a slave state. Legislators sought to prevent future conflicts by making Missouri’s southern border at 36°30′ the new dividing line between slavery and freedom in the Louisiana Purchase lands. South of that line, running east from Missouri to the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase lands (near the present-day Texas panhandle), slavery could expand. North of it, encompassing what in 1820 was still “unorganized territory,” there would be no slavery.

The Missouri Compromise marked a major turning point in America’s sectional crisis because it exposed to the public just how divisive the slavery issue had grown. The debate filled newspapers, speeches, church pulpits, and congressional records. Antislavery and pro-slavery positions from that point forward repeatedly returned to points made during the Missouri debates. Legislators battled for weeks over whether the Constitutional framers intended slavery’s expansion, and these contests left deep scars. Even seemingly simple and straightforward phrases like “all men are created equal” were hotly contested all over again. Questions over the expansion of slavery remained open, but nearly all Americans concluded that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed.

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1850, Henry Clay brokers the Compromise of 1850; a painting of Clay introducing the compromise in the Senate is shown. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is shown. In 1854, antislavery Whigs, Democrats, and Free-Soilers form the Republican Party, and Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1856, Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner; a portrait of Preston Brooks is shown. In 1857, the Supreme Court hands down the Dred Scott decision; a portrait of Dred Scott is shown. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate in Illinois. In 1859, John Brown raids Harpers Ferry; a portrait of John Brown is shown. In 1860, Lincoln is elected president; a portrait of Lincoln is shown.

Figure 1. Major events related to the sectional crisis leading to the Civil War.

At the end of the Mexican-American War, the United States gained a large expanse of western territory known as the Mexican Cession. The exact character of this new territory was in question; would the new states be slave states or free-soil states? In the long run, the concerns raised by the Mexican-American War achieved what abolitionism alone had failed to do: it mobilized many in the North against slavery.

Map showing the Mexican Cessions territory in 1848, showing area in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California.

Figure 2. Questions about the balance of free and slave states in the Union became even more fierce after the U.S. acquired these territories from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Map of the Mexican Cession, 2008.

Antislavery northerners clung to the idea expressed in the 1846 Wilmot Proviso: slavery would not expand into the areas taken, and later bought, from Mexico. Though the proviso remained a proposal and never became a law, it defined the sectional division. The Free-Soil Party, which formed at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848 and included many members of the failed Liberty Party, made this position the centerpiece of its platform, ensuring that the issue of slavery and its expansion remained at the front and center of American political debate. Supporters of the Wilmot Proviso and members of the new Free-Soil Party did not want to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed; rather, Free-Soil advocates demanded that the western territories be kept free of slavery for the benefit of White laborers who might settle there. They wanted to protect White workers from having to compete with slave labor in the West. (Abolitionists, in contrast, looked to end the practice of slavery everywhere in the United States.) Southerners, especially wealthy slaveholders, reacted with outrage at this effort to limit slavery’s expansion. They argued that the right of property—including human property—was inviolable, or permanent. Both the economic structure of slavery and the culture that supported it would, in their view, require expanding west. The most extreme Southerners even vowed to leave the Union if necessary to protect their way of life.

Brokering the Compromise

The conclusion of the Mexican War led to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty infuriated antislavery leaders in the United States. The spoils of war were impressive, but it was clear they would help expand slavery. The issue of what to do with the western territories added to the republic by the Mexican Cession consumed Congress in 1850.

Other controversial matters, which had been simmering over time, complicated the problem further. Chief among these issues were the slave trade in the District of Columbia, which antislavery advocates hoped to end, and the fugitive slave laws, which southerners wanted to strengthen. The border between Texas and New Mexico remained contested because many Texans hoped to enlarge their state further, and, finally, the issue of California had not been resolved. California was the crown jewel of the Mexican Cession, and following the discovery of gold, it was flush with thousands of emigrants. By most estimates, however, it would be a free state, since the former Mexican ban on slavery still remained in force and slavery had not taken root in California. The map below shows the disposition of land before the 1850 compromise.

A map shows the states and territories of the United States from March 3, 1849, to September 9, 1850, as well as part of Mexico. States include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Territories include Oregon Territory, Unorganized territory, Minnesota Territory, and Mexican Cession (Unorganized territory).

Figure 3. This map shows the states and territories of the United States as they were in 1849–1850.

The presidential election of 1848 did little to solve the problems resulting from the Mexican Cession. Both the Whigs and the Democrats attempted to avoid addressing the issue of slavery publicly as much as possible. The Democrats nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan, who devised the idea of popular sovereignty, or letting the people in the territories decide the issue of whether or not to permit slavery based on majority rule. The Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder from Louisiana, who had achieved national prominence as a military hero in the Mexican-American War. Taylor, an almost total novice to politics, did not take a personal stand on any issue and remained silent throughout the campaign. The fledgling Free-Soil Party put forward former president Martin Van Buren as their candidate. The Free-Soil Party attracted northern Democrats who supported the Wilmot Proviso, northern Whigs who rejected Taylor because he was a slaveholder, former members of the Liberty Party, and other abolitionists.

Both the Whigs and the Democrats ran different campaigns in the North and South. In the North, all three parties attempted to win voters with promises of keeping the territories free of slavery, while in the South, Whigs and Democrats promised to protect slavery in the territories. For southern voters, the slaveholder Taylor appeared the natural choice. In the North, the Free-Soil Party took votes away from Whigs and Democrats and helped to ensure Taylor’s election in 1848.

As president, Taylor sought to defuse the sectional controversy as much as possible, and, above all else, to preserve the Union. Although Taylor was born in Virginia before relocating to Kentucky and enslaved more than one hundred people by the late 1840s, he did not push for slavery’s expansion into the Mexican Cession. However, the California Gold Rush made California’s statehood into an issue demanding immediate attention. In 1849, after California residents adopted a state constitution prohibiting slavery, President Taylor called on Congress to admit California and New Mexico as free states, a move that infuriated southern defenders of slavery who argued for the right to bring their enslaved property wherever they chose. Taylor, who did not believe slavery could flourish in the arid lands of the Mexican Cession because the climate prohibited plantation-style farming, proposed that the Wilmot Proviso be applied to the entire area.

In Congress, Kentucky senator Henry Clay, a veteran of congressional conflicts, offered a series of resolutions addressing the list of issues related to slavery and its expansion. Clay’s resolutions called for the admission of California as a free state; no restrictions on slavery in the rest of the Mexican Cession (a rejection of the Wilmot Proviso and the Free-Soil Party’s position); a boundary between New Mexico and Texas that did not expand Texas (an important matter, since Texas allowed slavery and a larger Texas meant more opportunities for the expansion of slavery); payment of outstanding Texas debts from the Lone Star Republic days; and the end of the slave trade (but not of slavery) in the nation’s capital, coupled with a more robust federal fugitive slave law. Clay presented these proposals as an omnibus bill, that is, one that would be voted on its totality.

Henry Clay speaking in front of Congress.

Figure 4. Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”) addresses the U.S. Senate during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. The print shows a number of incendiary personalities, like John C. Calhoun, whose increasingly sectional beliefs were pacified for a time by the Compromise.

Clay’s proposals ignited a spirited and angry debate that lasted for eight months. The resolution calling for California to be admitted as a free state aroused the wrath of the aged and deathly ill John C. Calhoun, the elder statesman for the proslavery position. Calhoun, too sick to deliver a speech, had his friend Virginia senator James Mason present his assessment of Clay’s resolutions and the current state of sectional strife.

In Calhoun’s eyes, blame for the stalemate fell squarely on the North, which stood in the way of southern and American prosperity by limiting the zones where slavery could flourish. Calhoun called for a vigorous federal law to ensure that escaped enslaved people were returned to their enslavers. He also proposed a constitutional amendment specifying a dual presidency—one office that would represent the South and another for the North—a suggestion that hinted at the possibility of disunion. Calhoun’s argument portrayed an embattled South faced with continued northern aggression—a line of reasoning that only furthered the sectional divide.

Several days after Mason delivered Calhoun’s speech, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster countered Calhoun in his “Seventh of March” speech. Webster called for national unity, famously declaring that he spoke “not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster asked southerners to end threats of disunion and requested that the North stop antagonizing the South through abolitionist agitation. Like Calhoun, Webster also called for a new federal law to ensure the return of escaped enslaved people.

Webster’s efforts to compromise led many abolitionist sympathizers to roundly denounce him as a traitor. Whig senator William H. Seward declared that slavery—which he characterized as incompatible with the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”—would one day be extinguished in the United States. Seward’s speech invoked the idea of a higher moral law than the Constitution and secured his reputation in the Senate as an advocate of abolition.

The speeches made in Congress were published in the nation’s newspapers, and the American public followed the debates with great interest, anxious to learn how the issues of the day, especially the potential advance of slavery, would be resolved. Colorful reports of wrangling in Congress further piqued public interest. Indeed, it was not uncommon for arguments to devolve into fistfights or worse. One of the most astonishing episodes of the debate occurred in April 1850, when a quarrel erupted between Missouri Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton, who by the time of the debate had become a critic of slavery (despite being an enslaver), and Mississippi Democratic senator Henry S. Foote. When the burly Benton appeared ready to assault Foote, the Mississippi senator drew his pistol.

A cartoon shows Henry S. Foote drawing a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton. Benton declares, “Get out of the way, and let the assassin fire! let the scoundrel use his weapon! I have no arm’s! I did not come here to assassinate!” Foote, with several men restraining him, aims the gun at Benton with the response: “I only meant to defend myself!” In the background, Millard Fillmore wields his gavel, calling for order. Behind Foote, a senator yells, “For God’s sake Gentlemen Order!” To the right of Benton, Henry Clay says, “It’s a ridiculous matter, I apprehend there is no danger on foot!” In the galleries, visitors escape the scene.

Figure 5. This 1850 print, Scene in Uncle Sam’s Senate, depicts Mississippi senator Henry S. Foote taking aim at Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. In the print, Benton declares: “Get out of the way, and let the assassin fire! let the scoundrel use his weapon! I have no arm’s! I did not come here to assassinate!” Foote responds, “I only meant to defend myself!”

With neither side willing to budge, the government stalled on how to resolve the disposition of the Mexican Cession and the other issues of slavery. The drama only increased when on July 4, 1850, President Taylor became gravely ill, reportedly after eating an excessive amount of cherries washed down with milk. He died five days later, and Vice President Millard Fillmore became president. Unlike his predecessor, who many believed would be opposed to a compromise, Fillmore worked with Congress to achieve a solution to the crisis of 1850.

Link to learning

The sudden death of Zachary Taylor caused some to believe that his demise was no accident. In 1991, nearly 150 years after his death, Taylor’s body was exhumed for a series of tests to determine if foul play was involved.

How were scientists able to determine that President Taylor was probably not poisoned?

In the end, Clay stepped down as leader of the compromise effort in frustration, and Illinois senator Stephen Douglas pushed five separate bills through Congress, collectively composing the Compromise of 1850.

  1. First, as advocated by the South, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that provided federal money—or “bounties”—to slave-catchers and compelled Northern compliance with apprehending escaped slaves.
  2. Second, to balance this concession to the South, Congress admitted California as a free state, a move that cheered antislavery advocates and abolitionists in the North.
  3. Third, Congress settled the contested boundary between New Mexico and Texas by favoring New Mexico and not allowing for an enlarged Texas, another outcome pleasing to the North. In return, the federal government paid the debts Texas had incurred as an independent republic.
  4. Fourth, antislavery advocates welcomed Congress’s ban on the slave trade in Washington, DC, although slavery continued to thrive in the nation’s capital. Finally, on the thorny issue of whether slavery would expand into the territories, Congress avoided making a direct decision and instead relied on the principle of popular sovereignty, allowing each side to believe they might prevail. This put the onus on residents of the territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Popular sovereignty followed the logic of American democracy; majorities in each territory would decide the territory’s laws. The compromise, however, further exposed the sectional divide as votes on the bills fell along strict regional lines.

Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief over the deal brokered in 1850, choosing to believe that, once again, a compromise and mutual concessions had saved the Union as it had thirty years earlier. Rather than resolving divisions between the North and the South, however, the compromise stood as a truce in an otherwise white-hot sectional conflict. Tensions in the nation remained extremely high; indeed, southerners held several conventions after the compromise to discuss ways to protect the South. At these meetings, extremists who called for secession found themselves in the minority, since most southerners committed themselves to staying in the Union—but only if slavery remained in the states where it already existed, and if no effort was made to block its expansion into areas where citizens wanted it, thereby applying the idea of popular sovereignty.

A map shows the states and territories of the United States from September 9, 1850, to March 2, 1853, as well as part of Mexico. States include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas (with a “neutral strip” at its northernmost point), Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Territories include Oregon Territory, Unorganized territory, Minnesota Territory, Utah Territory, and New Mexico Territory.

Figure 6. This map shows the states and territories of the United States as they were from 1850 to March 1853.

Try It


Compromise of 1850: five laws passed by Congress to resolve issues stemming from the Mexican Cession and the sectional crisis

Free-Soil Party: a political party committed to ensuring that White laborers would not have to compete with unpaid enslaved laborers in newly acquired territories

Fugitive Slave Act: a provision of the Compromise of 1850 requiring Northern cooperation in apprehending escaped enslaved people

popular sovereignty: the principle of letting the people residing in a territory decide whether or not to permit slavery in that area based on majority rule

Wilmot Proviso: an amendment to a revenue bill that would have barred slavery from all the territory acquired from Mexico