Wednesday, March 3, 2021

TIME MACHINE: Compromise of 1850

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TIME MACHINE: COMPROMISE OF 1850

One hundred and seventy years ago marked the passage of the controversial document, the Compromise of 1850. The document was a package of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress in September 1850. These bills were used to defuse a political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired after the Mexican–American War.

A new debate over slavery in the territories had erupted during the Mexican–American War. Many Southerners sought to expand slavery to the newly-acquired lands and many Northerners, wary of economic competition with slave owners in the West, opposed any such expansion. The new state of Texas’ claim to all former Mexican territory north and east of the Rio Grande, including areas that had never been effectively controlled, further complicated the debate. These issues prevented the passage of acts to create organized territorial governments for the land acquired during the recent war – lands that included the present-day states of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and western Colorado.

In early 1850, with the assistance of Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky had proposed a package of bills that would settle the more important issues before Congress. His proposals included:

*The cession by Texas of some of its northern and western territorial claims in return for debt relief
* The establishment of New Mexico and Utah territories
*Admission of California as a free state
*A ban on the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) for sale
*A tougher fugitive slave law


Clay had originally favored voting on each of his proposals separately. However, Democrat Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi convinced him to combine the proposals regarding California's admission and the disposition of Texas's borders into one bill. Both Clay and Foote hoped this combination of measures would convince congressmen from both North and South to support the overall package of laws even if they objected to specific provisions.

Clay's proposal had attracted the support of some Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs like Douglas and Vice-President Millard Fillmore. But the proposal lacked the backing necessary to win passage. President Zachary Taylor opposed the proposal and wanted both California and New Mexico to be admitted as free states. Democrat Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and some other Southern leaders argued that the compromise was biased against the South because it would lead to the creation of new free states. Not long after expressing his opposition to the proposal, Calhoun died at the end of March. Northern politicians like Whig Senator William H. Seward of New York opposed the pro-slavery elements of the Compromise, especially a new fugitive slave law. During a speech on the Senate floor on March 11, 1850, Seward invoked a "higher law than the Constitution" argument to express his opposition against Clay’s proposals.

The debate over Clay’s proposal led to verbal sparring between Vice-President Fillmore and Democrat Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri (who opposed the pro-slavery elements of the proposal) over Texas’s borders. During the pair’s debate, Senator Foote drew a pistol on Benton. In early June, nine slaveholding Southern states sent delegates to the Nashville Convention to determine their course of action if the compromise passed. Some delegates preached secession, while the moderates ruled and proposed a series of compromises that included extending the Missouri Compromise of 1820’s dividing line to the Pacific Coast. The situation took a major turn when President Taylor suddenly died on July 9, 1850. His death led Fillmore to become the 13th President of the United States and the end of presidential opposition to the proposals.

The individual proposals were initially introduced as one "omnibus" bill. Despite Clay's efforts, the bill failed to pass during a crucial vote on July 31, 1850. It was opposed by southern Democrats and by northern Whigs. Clay announced his intention to pass each part of the bill on the Senate floor the following day. However, the 73-year-old Clay became physically exhausted from the effects of tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him nearly two years later. After Senator Clay left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island; Senator Stephen A. Douglas took the lead in attempting to pass Clay's proposals through the Senate.

Instead of presenting Clay's proposals as one bill, Douglas ensured that the proposals were presented as separate bills:

*The Fillmore Administration and the Senate would deny Texas's claims to New Mexico, asserting that the United States had promised to protect the territorial integrity of New Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, the compromise would allow the United States to assume Texas's debts and set the state's northern border at the 36° 30' parallel north (the Missouri Compromise line) and much of its western border followed the 103rd meridian.

*California would be admitted as a free state on September 9, 1850.

*The Territories of New Mexico and Utah would be organized under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

*The nation's capital, Washington D.C., would cease to become a major center for the domestic slave trade. However, slavery would continue to exist within its borders. Although all Southern politicians opposed this proposal, they were eventually outvoted.

*A new fugitive slave law would be created in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Enacted on September 8, 1850; this new law would enforce Federal judicial officials in all states and Federal territories, including those states and territories in which slavery was prohibited, to assist with the return of escaped slaves to their masters from those states and territories that permitted slavery. Anyone who refused to assist in the capture of fugitive slaves or assisted a fugitive would be liable to a steep fine or imprisonment.


By September 1850, both the United States Senate and House of Representatives managed to form an agreement over all major issues and voted for the passage of the new Compromise of 1850. President Fillmore signed four of the proposals, with the exception of the Fugitive Slave Act. He signed that into law after Attorney General John J. Crittenden assured him that the law was constitutional. Many historians argue that the Compromise of 1850 had played a major role in postponing the American Civil War by at least a decade. However, one element of the new compromise - the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Act - led to legal abuses regarding the pursuit of fugitive slaves and the safety of free blacks throughout the country. The new law also led to growing support of the abolition movement and the re-opening of the slavery issue. This led to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a law drafted by Stephen Douglas that would help inflame the slavery issue until the eve of the U.S. Civil War.

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