UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Failure of Compromise
*The Mexican War was in many ways a great victory for America, but
it was also the start of a great tragedy. Just as many of
the officers who served in the war would later go on to lead
armies against one another in the Civil War, so too did the
political debates that followed the war lead to the great debate
that could only be solved by other means.
*Some Northerners were offended that, although Southerners had
gotten as much of Mexico as they could hold in the Mexican War,
the Northern Democrats’ slogan of ‘54° 40’ or Fight!’ had been
compromised down to the 49th parallel. Southerners, on the
other hand, had been insulted by the proposed Wilmot Proviso,
banning slavery in the new territories, and even by some
Northerners’ attempts to prevent the War entirely.
*The issue at the heart of much Northern opposition to expansion
was slavery. However, the two major parties did not want to
divide themselves (or the nation) along sectional lines, and so
made every effort to ignore the issue. Happily, the Senate
remained balanced, and neither side could overwhelm the other.
*In 1848, James K. Polk, worn out from his term of office, stood
by his pledge not to run for re-election. The Democrats
selected General Lewis Cass, a veteran of the War of 1812.
He was seen as pompous, unpleasant, and worst of all, outspoken on
the issue of the expansion of slavery. He believed in the
concept of ‘popular sovereignty,’ which would allow the
inhabitants of any given territory to determine for themselves if
they wished to be a slave state or a free state. Many people
liked this idea because it made the decision democratic and also
put the responsibility off on the inhabitants of the new
territories rather than on their own Congressmen.
Abolitionists opposed it, however, because ending the curse of
slavery was more important than respecting the will of the people,
if the people chose wrongly.
*The Whigs chose a war hero, ‘Old Rough and Ready’ Zachary Taylor,
and avoided discussing the slavery issue publicly. Taylor, a
man with few stated political views (but a slave-owning Louisiana
sugar planter), was promoted as a common man and war hero, and he
did not talk about slavery.
*In fact, Taylor, despite being a Southern slaveholder, opposed
the expansion of slavery into the territories, while his
Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, a self-made New Yorker,
supported the expansion of slavery to appease the South.
*To oppose both the supposedly pro-slavery Democrats and the
carefully silent Whigs, anti-slavery Northerners created the
Free-Soil Party and nominated Martin van Buren as their
candidate. Their principal goal was to keep slavery out of
the territories, but they also supported public works, protective
tariffs, and free homesteads for western settlers. They
believed in the dignity of both the free factory worker and the
small farmer who suffered from competition for money and respect
with enslaved blacks, and their slogan was ‘Free soil, free
speech, free labor, and free men.’
*Although many ‘conscience Whigs’ opposed to slavery supported the
Free Soil Party, so did some Democrats, especially in New York,
who stood by the Free Soil candidate, Martin van Buren, with the
result that Taylor won the election by a narrow margin (Taylor won
1,360,967 popular and 163 electoral vote, Cass won 1,222,342
popular and 127 electoral votes, and Van Buren won 291,263 popular
votes). Still, the Senate remained balanced, and neither
side could overwhelm the other, and as long as that balance
remained, the Union was safe.
*In 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill near
Sacramento, California. Soon more and more gold was found
throughout Northern California and the California Gold Rush
began. A few men made fortunes mining, and many more made
fortunes exploiting the miners—among them Levi Strauss, who sold
his first blue jeans there.
*Although the total number of migrants during the gold rush years
is uncertain, the non-Indian population in California increased
from 14,000 in 1848 to 223,856 by 1852. In fact, by late
1849 the population had already reached 100,000. This was
more than enough to form a state, so in 1849, a group of
Californians, wanting order in their settlement, drafted a state
constitution that excluded slavery (partly so free white miners
would not have to compete with slave labour), and applied for
admission to the Union. The South was outraged, knowing
that, if the proposed California state constitution was accepted,
the Senate would be unbalanced.
*In 1850, the South was powerful and prosperous. Cotton
production was expanding while remaining profitable.
Southerners dominated the Supreme Court, the Presidency, and the
Cabinet, and the Senate (though not the House) was balanced.
However, there did not seem to be much room on the continent for
new slave states. In fact, the New Mexico and Utah
territories had already indicated a desire to be free states, as
had California, even though parts of California and most of New
Mexico lay below the Missouri Compromise line.
*The US government also claimed that a large section of Texas was
part of other US territories, while Texans threatened to attack
Santa Fe, the major city in the area, and reclaim it by physical
force if necessary.
*An additional insult was the attempt by abolitionists to end
slavery in the District of Columbia, where it was regarded as a
bad representation of the nation to foreign diplomats, as well as
a moral crime. A free district between slave-holding
Virginia and Maryland would also increase the problem of fugitive
slaves by giving them a place to escape to.
*Fugitive slaves were another sore point for Southerners.
Many slaves, especially in the upper South, were guided and
protected on their way north along the Underground Railroad.
Although laws dating to 1793 required runaways to be returned to
their masters, they rarely were, in part because Northern
officials often would not enforce the law. To some
Southerners, the moral judgments constantly made by the
Northerners in their assistance to runaway slaves was even more
galling than the loss of valuable property. Although by 1850
the number of slaves who escaped to the North and freedom was
probably about 1,000 a year—fewer than the number who became free
legally—the principle of the thing was too important to ignore.
*In 1850, great issues including California, slavery in the
territories, fugitive slaves, and more threatened the nation with
catastrophe. Once more into the breach strode the three
giants of Antebellum politics.
*Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, diplomat at Ghent, architect
of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise Tariff of 1833, now
seventy-three and suffering from a terrible cough stood up and
with the assistance of the ‘Little Giant,’ Stephen Douglas of
Illinois, proposed that both North and South compromise one more
time, each giving up something so that both could co-exist
*John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was sixty-eight and dying of
tuberculosis. He was so ill he could not read his own
speech, so his fellow senator from South Carolina, Andrew Pickens
Butler read it for him. Calhoun also wanted to hold the
Union together, and approved of the purpose of Clay’s plan, but
not its methods. He wanted more safeguards for the South and
for slavery, and for a preservation of the political balance,
although he also said that if the North was unwilling to settle
with the South, then the two regions should separate peacefully,
or the South might be forced to choose between submission and
resistance. It later turned out that he even had a scheme to
hold the Union together whereby the US would have two
presidents—one from the North and one from the South, each with
his own veto. However, Calhoun never got to present that
plan, as he died shortly after, even before the debate
ended. His last words were ‘The South! The
South! God knows what will become of her.’
*Finally, the Godlike Daniel Webster, sixty-eight and suffering
from liver problems, gave his last great address to the
Senate. In order to preserve the Union, he pleaded for as
many concessions as possible to the South, including a new
fugitive slave law. As for slavery, it would fail to expand
on its own—the Great American Desert and the lands beyond the
Rocky Mountains were too infertile to support plantations.
Compromise was the only answer. In his 'Seventh of March'
speech, Webster convinced the North and won the day, although
abolitionists, who had long thought him their friend, now
considered him a traitor. In truth, though, he had never
trusted the abolitionist movement, fearing it would split the
*Among these abolitionist opponents was a freshman senator from
New York named William Henry Seward, who opposed any concession as
a betrayal of Christian principles on the evil issue of
slavery. He appealed to a Higher Law than the Constitution,
as, to many people’s surprise, did President Taylor.
*Zachary Taylor was a Free Soil man, and, moreover, furious at
Texas’s threat to attack Santa Fe. He threatened to march an
army to Texas and hang all the ‘damned traitors’ in the
state. He also threatened to veto the compromise if it was
*Pro-slavery Southerners, especially the strident younger
generation called ‘fire-eaters’ who had come to see slavery as not
just a necessary evil, but as a positive good, preferable to the
wage slavery in the Northern factories, suggested that they might
secede from the Union if any concession were made to the
North. Taylor’s opposition to the expansion of slavery
simply made them angrier.
*Then Taylor died. On 4 July, 1850, one of the hottest on
record, President Taylor badly over-ate at a Fourth of July party,
particularly favouring the cherries and cream. This
apparently led to a case of acute indigestion (or perhaps
cholera), and on 9 July, he died.
*Vice-President Millard Fillmore was a conciliatory man.
Although a New Yorker and no slaveholder, he supported concessions
to the South for the sake of the Union.
*Northerners such as Fillmore who gave in to Southern demands were
often known as Doughfaces (particularly Northern Democrats who
were supportive of the South).
*Shortly after Fillmore's accession to the presidency, the
Compromise of 1850 was ratified.
*California entered the Union as a free state, making it 32 to 30
in the Senate. In return, both the New Mexico and Utah
territories, such as they were, were opened to popular
sovereignty—their inhabitants could decide if they were to be
slave or free states when the time came.
*Texas gave up its large area of disputed land, almost a third of
the total area it claimed, and in return got a $10 million credit
towards its debts to the Union.
*Slavery remained legal in the District of Columbia, but the slave
trade was outlawed, an apparently reasonable concession that
cleaned up the city, as even Southerners considered actual slave
auctions a bit uncouth, but it was another step toward the ending
*The greatest concession to the South, which otherwise seemed to
come out worse in other parts of the Compromise, was the Fugitive
Slave Act. The Act not only jailed suspected runaways and
tried them without a jury, it paid judges more to find against the
slave than for him, and could force local law enforcement
officials in the North to help Southern slave catchers.
*In practise the Fugitive Slave Act was even sometimes used to
captured legally free Blacks and force them into slavery claiming
that they were runaways (which was hard to disprove, especially
before an unfriendly judge).
*Northerners were offended and disgusted. Many moderates
turned against the South and towards abolitionism.
Northerners, even officers of the law, often refused to assist,
and even obstructed Southern slave catchers when they could, and
support for the Underground Railroad grew. Massachusetts
even made it illegal to help the slave catchers or the Federal
government in the enforcement of this Act.
*The Fugitive Slave Act embittered both North and South against
one another. Northerners hated the law, and Southerners
hated the North for failing to co-operate in good faith. The
Compromise did not prevent a Civil War, it only delayed it for ten
years—long enough for the North to grow strong enough to win it.
*In 1852, the Democrats chose a new candidate, Franklin Pierce of
New Hampshire. He had been both a Representative and a
Senator from that state, and had been president of the 1850 New
Hampshire Constitutional Convention when the state created a new
*Pierce was largely unknown outside of New Hampshire, and was
finally accepted at the Democratic National Convention after 48
ballots. Even more of a dark horse than James K. Polk,
Pierce’s opponents also ridiculed him by saying ‘who is Frank
Pierce?’ He was principally famous for falling off his horse
during the Mexican War (where he served as a brigadier general),
for being very handsome, and for being very young for a
presidential candidate--only 48 in 1852 and soon to be the
youngest president up to that point. Rumour also said that
he drank, and he was described as the hero of many a well-fought
*The Democrats adopted as their platform complete adherence to the
Compromise of 1850, especially the Fugitive Slave Law.
Pierce, known to be a pro-Southern Northerner (or Doughface), was
acceptable to just about everyone in the party. To muster
support they called him ‘Handsome Frank’ and even the ‘Young
Hickory of the Granite Hills.’
*The Whigs were in a difficult position in 1852. Although
they were proud of their accomplishment in creating the Compromise
of 1850, and were most notable for their wisdom and statesmanship,
they had only won presidential elections with war heroes, and
their most prominent statesmen were no longer young. So,
rather than nominate Webster or Clay, the most prominent Whigs
associated with the Compromise, or even a younger politician (and
Clay and Webster both died between the nominating convention and
the election), they chose ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ Winfield Scott.
*Scott was perhaps the greatest military mind of his generation,
and his campaign in Mexico had been brilliant. He was also
an able statesman, but he did not come across that way to
voters. Somewhat stiff and pompous, he was seen by the
common man as distant and arrogant.
*Because no-one dared discuss the major issue of the time, namely,
slavery, this election once again centred on personalities and
mudslinging. Scott was attacked for his pomposity, Pierce
for his obscurity and drunkenness.
*Many Whigs were unhappy with their party’s decisions.
Anti-slavery Whigs, angry at the tacit endorsement of the Fugitive
Slave Law in the promotion of the Compromise of 1850 said ‘we
accept the candidate but spit on the platform,’ while pro-slavery
Whigs feared that Scott, who, though a Virginian by birth, opposed
slavery, would not enforce the law. Five thousand Whigs in
Georgia voted for Daniel Webster, even though he had died shortly
before the election.
*The Free Soil Party also ran a candidate, John Hale of New
Hampshire, who siphoned 156,297 votes away from Scott.
*Pierce beat Scott 254 electoral votes (1,601,117 popular votes)
to 42 electoral votes (1,385,453 popular votes) and, moreover,
beat the entire Whig party. The Whig Party, already
disorganised and with its most brilliant leaders dead, ceased to
function at all, and completely vanished by 1854, depriving the
country of a major party with nationwide support, and bringing an
end to the Second Two-Party System, leaving a dangerous void in
American national politics.
*Pierce’s presidency was not a happy one, however. On 6
January, 1853, Pierce’s youngest and only surviving son, Benny,
was crushed to death in a train wreck. After Benny’s death,
Pierce took to drinking (and his wife also sank into partial
insanity, writing letters to her dead son for months after his
death and refusing to see visitors in the White House).
*Despite this personal tragedy, Pierce’s administration initially
seemed strong and popular. He had a Southern vice-president,
William Rufus de Vane King of Alabama and appointed aggressive
Southerners to his cabinet, including Secretary of War Jefferson
Davis of Mississippi, a hero of the Battle of Buena Vista.
*Inspired by the ideal of Manifest Destiny and by the riches of
California, Americans began thinking of ways to get west faster,
and to seize more land for themselves. One way to do this
might be to build a canal across Central America, most likely in
either Nicaragua or Panama. This was especially popular
among Southerners, who hoped to create new slave states in Latin
America. Some Southerners had schemes of taking control of
more of Mexico, the rich islands of the Caribbean (particularly
Cuba), and possibly other land in Central America as well.
*One such adventurer was the Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny, William
Walker of Tennessee, who made several attempts to lead small
groups of followers--known as 'filibusters'--in invasions of
Central American nations.
*In 1853 and 1854, Walker attempted to take over north-western
Mexico and declared himself president of the Republic of Sonora
and the Republic of Baja California. In 1856 he took control
of Nicaragua, elected himself president, and legalised
slavery. Southerners viewed him as a hero, but Central
American nations allied together to drive him out. He was
later executed by a Honduran firing squad after an attempt to take
over that country failed.
*Concerned about American interest in Nicaragua, the British
occupied Greytown on the Nicaraguan coast, thus encroaching on the
Monroe Doctrine. Fortunately, to ease tensions the US and
Britain had already signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850,
agreeing that neither nation would fortify or hold exclusive
control over any future canal across the Central American isthmus.
*Now that America controlled a large stretch of the Pacific coast,
trade with Asia became more interesting. Americans already
traded with China, but Japan had closed herself off to the western
world for over two hundred years, only allowing a small amount of
carefully regulated trade through the port of Nagasaki.
American merchants asked the government to do something about
this, so the United States sent Commodore Matthew Perry, brother
of the hero of Lake Erie, to Japan in 1853. Using both
modern warships and skilful diplomacy, on a second voyage in 1854
he convinced the Japanese to open their country to trade with
America, which in turn led to Japan trading with other countries
as well. Soon the Japanese would learn from their new trade
partners, and begin an incredible campaign of modernisation, the
Meiji Restoration, creating a constitutional monarchy and bringing
Japan's economy from a feudal agricultural system to an industrial
model by the end of the 1800s.
*Having opened one wealthy island, Americans wanted another.
One of the last remnants of the mighty Spanish empire was the
island of Cuba. Polk had tried to buy it for $100 million,
but the Spaniards had said they would rather see Cuba sunk into
the ocean than sold to Americans at any price.
*Unable to buy Cuba, American adventurers, many from the best
families of the South, made a couple of poorly-planned private
invasions of the island, which both failed. After the
second, many Americans involved in it were executed.
*In 1854 the Spanish tried to force a confrontation by seizing an
American ship, Black Warrior, for not declaring the cotton
in her hold to the customs officials (which was technically the
law, but rarely actually required). The owners eventually
paid a $6,000 fine and got their ship back. Many Southerners
wanted to use her seizure as an excuse for war.
*America’s ministers to France, Britain, and Spain met in Ostend,
Belgium to consider how to respond, and drew up the Ostend
Manifesto, in which they said the US should offer Spain $120
million for Cuba and, if Spain would not relinquish it, the US
would be justified in wresting Cuba from Spain.
*Free-Soilers were outraged when they heard of this plan, and
forced Pierce to drop it (although Spain did return the fine paid
by the Black Warrior's owners and an additional
indemnity). Once again, slavery had prevented America
achieving her Manifest Destiny.
*Aside from political problems, the United States also faced more
practical difficulties in dealing with her new western
acquisitions. The sea routes from the east coast to the west
were too long, and the overland route was too slow. Some
people feared that without adequate communication between the East
and West, the Pacific territories might break away from the Union.
*Some suggested using camels for transportation, and some were
imported, but most people felt the only way to manage it was with
a transcontinental railroad.
*Once again, there was sectional competition—would the route of
this great railroad benefit the North or the South, or would
multiple railroads have to be built? Southerners, feeling
pressured by the industrial North, wanted a southern route.
However, the best route, it turned out, passed through northern
Mexico. To get the good passes through the southern Rockies,
Pierce appointed James Gadsden of South Carolina minister to
Mexico, where he offered Santa Anna, president for last time, $10
million for the small strip of land now known as the Gadsden
*Northerners saw this as a waste of money, but the Senate
confirmed it, in part because this southern route really was the
best place to build the railroad at the time. Not only was
the terrain less difficult than farther north, but the proposed
line would run through Texas, California, and the organised New
Mexico Territory, whereas the most popular northern route would go
through the unorganised wilds sometimes known as Nebraska.
Some Northerners wanted to organise that territory so the railroad
could be safely run through it, but Southerners did not want
another free territory or a profitable railroad line in the hands
*From Illinois came the Little Giant, Stephen Douglas, who thought
of himself more as a Westerner than a Northerner or a Southerner,
and as a Union man above all. To help spur western growth
and to promote the interests of railroads and real estate in which
he had financial interests, he supported the creation of a
transcontinental railroad across the Great Plains. To get
this done, he had a plan, proposed in 1854.
*The Nebraska Territory would be organised and divided into two
territories: Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas would
completely throw out the old Missouri Compromise and the 36° 30’
line and open both territories to popular sovereignty, thus
letting the people decide if their land would be free or allow
*Many Southerners were excited. At last they had a chance
for more slave states in the existing lands of the United
States. Northerners bitterly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska
Bill, in part because it would abolish the almost-sacred Missouri
Compromise, and because it might allow the spread of
slavery. Many Northerners regarded Douglas as a
traitor. He did not personally care one way or the other
about slavery, but many of his countrymen did. Congressmen
came near to shedding blood, and many members of Congress carried
pistols or knives for self-defence. There was enough support
for the Bill, including that of President Pierce, that it was
passed in 1854.
*The Kansas-Nebraska Act was one more step towards sectional
conflict. Abolitionists and Free-Soilers condemned the act
and made it clear they would oppose all future compromise, but
without compromise, the Southern fire-eaters might well leave the
Union. Indeed, both sides came, more and more, to see their
countrymen as their enemies.
*The Democratic Party would lose much of its power in the years to
come, as anti-slavery Democrats, former Whigs, Free-Soilers,
Know-Nothings, and others in the Midwest and the Northeast, came
together to form a new party, one with entirely sectional and free
labour interests: the Republicans.
This page last updated 14 July, 2020.