The Slavery Issue: Western Politics and the Compromise of 1850
The Slavery Issue: Western Politics and the Compromise of 1850
Growing Influence. Although less than three hundred thousand people voted for the Free Soil Party in 1848, these antislavery partisans exerted an influence on the national political agenda that far outpaced their numbers. Topping the list of priorities for Free Soilers, of course, was keeping slavery out of the western territories acquired from Mexico. Many Whigs and Democrats disagreed: they preferred to keep the explosive question of slavery in the territories on the political sidelines, but the discovery of gold near Sacramento, California, in 1848—causing the thousands of prospectors who headed west the following year—made postponing the issue impossible. The political crisis over whether the North or the South would control the settlement of the former Mexican lands almost tore the nation apart in 1850.
California Gold Rush. At first Easterners were skeptical about the gold-flecked rumors spreading from John Sutter’s mill. After President Polk confirmed the “extraordinary character” of the strike in his annual message to Congress in December, gold fever engulfed the United States. More than eighty thousand gold seekers made it to San Francisco in 1849 alone—about twenty five thousand arriving by sea and fifty five thousand who crossed the continent by overland routes. And this was only the beginning: each year after 1849 thousands of people arrived in California hoping to strike it rich. Most people in the federal government agreed that the political future of the West had to be determined. The fate of California, now bustling with settlers, as well as the political destiny of New Mexico (inhabited by former Mexicans) and the Mormons at the Great Salt Lake, could no longer be postponed.
Washington in Disarray. Still, no one had come up with a solution to the slavery question. Congress, especially, was descending into anarchy over the matter. Fire-eating Southerners began to demand secession if Free Soilers’ claims to abolish the slave trade ever became law; antislavery Whigs and Democrats in the House drafted a bill to organize California as a free state; and President Polk weighed in with a plan to extend the Missouri Compromise line (36°30′) to the Pacific. No compromise could take place before Zachary Taylor was sworn in as president.
Nationalist. Many Southerners expected (or at least hoped) that Zachary Taylor, the owner of more than one hundred slaves, would take their side on the extension issue. However, they were soon disappointed. Taylor proposed admitting California and New Mexico immediately into the Union as states, bypassing the territorial stage. Let the Californians decide for themselves whether to allow or prohibit slavery, the nationalist-minded president argued. This delighted Free Soilers: since slavery had been illegal under Mexican law, immediate admission of California and New Mexico—a huge territory containing the present-day states of New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado—would bar slavery from ever taking root there. In addition, a large proportion of those who had migrated to California also opposed slavery.
A New Free State. These antislavery Californians quickly seized the initiative and in October 1849, with the Taylor administration’s blessing, met in convention and applied for admission to the Union as a free state. Southern senators, who had long counted on their control of the Senate as a check to antislavery policies, were livid. “For the first time, we are about permanently to destroy the balance of power between the sections,” seethed first-term Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis. He added that if California was admitted as the sixteenth free state, the fifteen states of the South would be reduced to permanent minority status within the Union. This was unacceptable to most Southerners, who feared that slavery confined to the South would quickly suffocate. The South, more and more of its representatives were saying, would either have to concede victory to the Free Soilers or leave the Union.
Compromiser. To most people, compromise on the slavery issue seemed impossible. However, the seventy-two-year-old Henry Clay insisted there was still room for an equitable solution, as there had been in 1820 in the Missouri crisis. In his long career Clay had helped broker several deals that alleviated sectional tensions, including the Missouri Compromise. If anyone in the government was able to ease the crisis over California in 1850, it was Clay. He began from the position that California should be admitted quickly to the Union as a free state and that the South should receive something in the bargain to avoid further talk of disunion. With this in mind, the Kentuckian worked out eight separate proposals “founded upon mutual forbearance” and introduced them to the Senate.
An Uneasy Bargain. Known as the Compromise of 1850, Clay’s proposals became the source for the most famous congressional debate in U.S. history, and although the various speeches centered on different aspects of the slavery question, the debate was really about the political importance of the West and who would decide its future. Clay was the first to defend his proposals before the Senate. He grouped his first six proposals in pairs, each of which gave one concession to the North and one to the South. First, to offset the admittance of California as a free state, Clay suggested organizing the remaining Mexican cession without restrictions against slavery. Second, the long-disputed Texas-New Mexico border should be fixed well east of the Rio Grande, but in exchange the federal government should assume Texas’s preannexation debt. The third proposal dealt with the slave trade in the District of Columbia, which particularly enraged abolitionists since it routinely split apart black families. The international slave trade was abolished by federal law in 1808, but the buying and selling of slaves between states was still legal and took place within shouting distance of the U.S. capitol. Clay proposed that the slave trade be abolished in the District of Columbia but that the continuance of slavery there should be guaranteed unless both neighboring Maryland and Virginia agreed to abolish it.
Too Many Concessions? Clay admitted that these three pairs of compromises seemed to favor the North: “[Y]ou have got what is worth more than a thousand Wilmot Provisos,” Clay told the Northern senators. Nature, he said, would effectively bar slavery from even the neutral territory of New Mexico. To redress this imbalance, Clay offered two additional proposals to his Southern colleagues. The first stated, to Southerners’ delight, that Congress had no jurisdiction over the lucrative interstate slave trade; the second called for a strong and strictly enforced fugitive slave law.
Calhoun’s Rejection. The final version of the Compromise closely resembled Clay’s original eight proposals, and debate over the bill provided some of the most famous political oratory in U.S. history. When Clay finished introducing the legislation, the Southern ideologue John C. Calhoun took the floor. Calhoun was in such failing health, dying within the month, that he sat wrapped in a blanket while a stand-in read his speech to a packed Senate chamber. He flatly rejected the compromise, insisting that the North should yield on every point of argument. If it refused, the South could never remain in the Union with its “honor and safety” intact. Instead of offering his own compromise, Calhoun offered what became known as “peaceable secession.” “[L]et the States… agree to separate and part in peace,” he argued. “If you are unwilling… tell us so, and we shall know what to do.”
Webster. Calhoun’s arguments offended the Unionist sentiments of the last of the “great triumvirate” of United States senators, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In words that would be memorized by millions of American schoolchildren, Webster urged the passage of the compromise: “I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” There could be no such thing as peaceful disunion, Webster insisted. The only way to head off the convulsion of secession was for the North to accept its constitutional obligation, “binding in honor and conscience,” to return fugitive slaves.
Seward. The debate was not confined to the aging leadership: senatorial newcomer William Seward of New York also delivered what became a famous speech. Denouncing the Compromise (and his Whig colleague Webster), Seward declared that there was a “higher law than the Constitution”—God’s law. This higher law stood firmly against evil and, as Seward noted, slavery and compromises with slaveholders. The speech instantly propelled Seward to the front ranks of antislavery politics in the North.
Douglas. As the senators made their speeches and debated higher and more temporal laws, legislators worked behind the scenes to construct the legislation of compromise. It was not an easy task. Clay’s strategy was to lump all eight proposals in one untidy “omnibus” package—forcing legislators to vote either up or down. Yet senators on both sides worked to eliminate the parts they opposed by voting against the bill as a whole. Finally, President Taylor himself weighed in against the omnibus bill. Feeble and exhausted, the “Great Compromiser” Henry Clay departed the sultry capital, leaving the compromise in the hands of the young Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. Thus the Compromise of 1850 was, in many ways, a last gasp for the older generation of legislative giants such as Clay, Calhoun, and Webster (all three of whom would be dead by 1852). It was up to a new generation of legislators to decide the future of the Western territories.
Assembling the Majorities. If nothing else, Douglas proved to be a brilliant legislator. He broke up Clay’s omnibus package into eight separate bills and marshaled majorities for each, usually by building on a core of support from Western Democrats from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan and Whigs from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. To this “compromise core” he then arranged separate coalitions for each bill: antislavery Northerners for a free California, or proslavery Southerners for a fugitive slave law. Fortunately for Douglas and the compromisers, President Taylor died suddenly in July 1850—removing a certain obstacle to the eight compromise measures. His successor, Millard Fillmore of New York, was a conservative career politician and far more willing to support compromise than Taylor.
The Devil in the Details. One by one, Douglas’s measures passed in Congress and received the President’s signature, although just four senators and twenty-eight representatives voted for every one. California became the thirty-first state, and Congress carved New Mexico and Utah territories from the rest of the Mexican Cession, both to be admitted “with or without slavery as [its] constitution may prescribe.” In a single stroke territory that became the states of Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of Colorado was added to the United States. Texas accepted a narrower boundary with New Mexico and received $10 million to pay off its preannexation debts. Congress also outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia after 1 January 1851. In a bitter blow for abolitionists, the federal government also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 by appointing federal commissioners—each of whom possessed the authority to issue arrest warrants, assemble posses, and compel private citizens for assistance—and charged them with returning runaway slaves to their owners. Fugitives would not be allowed to testify in their own defense, could not obtain a jury trial to air their views, and were to be returned to slavery on the mere submission of an affidavit from an aggrieved slaveowner. Moreover, a commissioner received a fee of ten dollars if he ruled in favor of a slaveowner, but only five dollars if he found for the fugitive. This was designed to account for the increased paperwork involved in returning a runaway to slavery, but it struck even some neutral observers as immoral. Antislavery partisans in the North and West vowed to resist the federal law.
Western Slavery? President Fillmore, stepping into the White House after Taylor’s death in the summer of 1850, hailed the Compromise as a “final settlement” for each and every remaining sectional problem. For the moment, most Americans seemed ready to accept the Compromise. Only antislavery activists and Southern-rights ideologues came out publicly against the legislation in its early days. Ironically, the part of the Compromise that generated the most explosive opposition was the Fugitive Slave Law—not the predicted battle over the status of the territories of California and New Mexico. When the territorial legislatures of Utah and New Mexico voted to legalize slavery, few slave owners brought their property there, and California’s U.S. senators in the 1850s quickly allied themselves with Southern, not Northern, interests. It would take the next showdown over slavery’s expansion in the territories to dismantle the Second Party System and, eventually, the Union.
Holman Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (New York: Norton, 1964);
James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire (New York: Knopf, 1982).
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