By: Henry Clay
Date: January 29, 1850
About the Author: Henry Clay (1777–1852), a Kentucky lawyer, served three terms in the House of Representatives, often serving as speaker of the House, and four terms as a senator. A titan of nineteenth-century politics and a famous orator, Clay supported the War of 1812, opposed the Mexican War, and declared that he would side with the Union against his home state in the event of Civil War.
Henry Clay's last hurrah as a political leader came when, as senator from Kentucky, he promoted the Compromise of 1850. The compromise admitted California into the Union as a free state, divided the rest of the land acquired from Mexico into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia and, most controversially, created a strong Fugitive Slave Law. It also helped set the United States on the road to the Civil War, an outcome that Clay did not expect.
During the 1840s, the national debate over slavery focused on its expansion into the newly acquired western territories rather than its outright abolition. Southerners believed that it was their constitutional right to take slaves into the territories with them and that Congress lacked the authority to stop them. Militant Southerners threatened secession if slavery was banned in the new lands. Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery, some on moral grounds and some because they feared competing with slave labor.
After several heated debates in Congress, Clay proposed a compromise bill. He hoped that the legislation would satisfy politicians on both sides of the issue. Instead, it aroused fierce opposition. In one pivotal moment during the debate, Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina argued that the South had been reduced to a subordinate position and that dis-union would follow unless the North made concessions to restore the political balance. Congress approved Clay's resolutions, including the seventh resolution that led to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
January 29, 1850
It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable and just basis: therefore,
- Resolved, That California, with suitable boundaries, ought, upon her application to be admitted as one of the States of this Union, without the imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery within those boundaries.
- Resolved, That as slavery does not exist by law, and is not likely to be introduced into any of the territory acquired by the United States from the republic of Mexico, it is inexpedient for Congress to provide by law either for its introduction into, or exclusion from, any part of the said territory; and that appropriate territorial governments ought to be established by Congress in all of the said territory, not assigned as the boundaries of the proposed State of California, without the adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.
- Resolved, That the western boundary of the State of Texas ought to be fixed on the Rio del Norte, commencing one marine league from its mouth, and running up that river to the southern line of New Mexico; thence with that line eastwardly, and so continuing in the same direction to the line as established between the United States and Spain, excluding any portion of New Mexico, whether lying on the east or west of that river.
- Resolved, That it be proposed to the State of Texas, that the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the legitimate and bona fide public debt of that State contracted prior to its annexation to the United States, and for which the duties on foreign imports were pledged by the said State to its creditors, not exceeding the sum of ——dollars, in consideration of the said duties so pledged having been no longer applicable to that object after the said annexation, but having thenceforward become payable to the United States; and upon the condition, also, that the said State of Texas shall, by some solemn and authentic act of her legislature or of a convention, relinquish to the United States any claim which it has to any part of New Mexico.
- Resolved, That it is inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia whilst that institution continues to exist in the State of Maryland, without the consent of that State, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.
- But, resolved, That it is expedient to prohibit, within the District, the slave trade in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein as merchandise, or to be transported to other markets without the District of Columbia.
- Resolved, That more effectual provision ought to be made by law, according to the requirement of the constitution, for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State, who may escape into any other State or Territory in the Union. And,
- Resolved, That Congress has no power to promote or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slave-holding States; but that the admission or exclusion of slaves brought from one into another of them, depends exclusively upon their own particular laws.
Widely regarded as the chief concession to the South, the Fugitive Slave Law caused widespread outrage among people in the North by putting teeth in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. Slaves who escaped from their masters could now be pursued by federal marshals who had the power to assist anyone trying to recapture a slave and to punish anyone who aided a runaway. Abolitionists were furious at the legislation and several celebrated cases, particularly the Anthony Burns episode, helped their cause.
Burns, a Virginia slave, escaped in 1854 and went to Boston. When a fugitive slave commissioner ordered him returned to slavery, the people of Boston rioted and killed a jailer. Hundreds of state militia and federal soldiers then ushered Burns at enormous cost to the ship that returned him to captivity. In reality, strong Northern opposition meant that few escaped slaves were ever returned to slavery and few rescuers were actually prosecuted. But the law struck fear in the hearts of blacks, both slave and free. Any person of color could be kidnapped, identified as a former slave, and sent into slavery. To avoid Burns's fate, many blacks immigrated to Canada.
Additonally, it soon became obvious that the compromise only offered a temporary solution to the problem. By allowing the residents of New Mexico and Utah to choose whether or not to permit slavery, Congress placed its imprimatur on the idea of popular sovereignty. In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas– Nebraska Act, which decreed that popular sovereignty should settle the issue of slavery in the two territories. Conflict erupted as soon as the bill became law. Proslavery forces clashed with antislavery settlers in years of violence that came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas"; the era is often regarded as a prelude to the Civil War.
Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay and the American System. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.
Remini, Robert. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003.