THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
*In many ways a great victory for America, the Mexican War 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 War for Southern Independence, 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 ‘54o 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 slaver 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 of slavery. Happily, the Senate remained balanced, and neither side could overwhelm the other.
*In 1848, Polk, worn out from his term of office, stood by his pledge not to run for re-election. The Democrat selected was 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 it because it made the decision democratic. Many politicians liked it because it relieved them of the burthensome choice. 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 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, while the Whigs avoided the issue of slavery. (In fact, Taylor, a Southern slaveholder opposed slavery in 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. Their principal goal was no slavery in 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 were 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 a larger number of Democrats who stood by the Free Soil candidate, Martin van Buren, with the result that Taylor won the election by a narrow margin. (Taylor: 1,360,967 popular; 163 electoral. Cass: 1,222,342 popular, 127 electoral. Van Buren: 291,263 popular.) Happily, the Senate remained balanced, and neither side could overwhelm the other, and as long as that balance remained, the Union was safe.
*Incidentally, because the last day of Polk’s term was a Sunday and Taylor refused to be sworn in on the Lord’s Day, the United States spent a day without a president or vice-president. Some have suggested that this made the president pro tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, acting president for the day, but most Constitutional scholars feel this is ridiculous.
*In 1848, gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, California. Soon more and more gold was found throughout Northern California. James K Polk said "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service." 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. This was more than enough to form a state, and in 1849, a group of Californians, wanting order in their settlement, drafted at President Taylor’s suggestion a state constitution that excluded slavery, and applied for admission to the Union. The South was outraged, and, if it 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 claimed a large section of Texas as 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 (by them at least) 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.
*Fugitive slaves were another sore point for Southerners. Many slaves, especially in the upper South, were guided and protected on their way north by what was called the Underground Railroad. These and other runaways, although required by a 1793 law to be returned to their masters, 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 more galling than the theft of valuable property. Although by 1850 the number of slaves who escaped to the North and freedom was probably about 1,000 a year—less than the number who became free legally—the principle of the thing was too important to ignore—one Southern senator said ‘although the loss of property is felt, the loss of honor is felt more.’
*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 1832, 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 peacefully.
*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. It later turned out that he even had a scheme whereby the US would have two presidents—one from the North and one from the South. 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. ‘Let us not be pygmies,’ he said, ‘in a case that calls for men.’ 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 Union.
*Among these abolitionist opponents was a freshman senator from New York named William H. 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 too compromising.
*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 slavery simply made them angrier.
*Then he died. On 4 July, 1850, one of the hottest on record, President Taylor badly overate at a Fourth of July party, particularly favouring the cherries and cream. This apparently led to a case of acute indigestion, 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. Shortly afterwards, the Compromise of 1850 was created.
*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 the 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 towards the ending of slavery.
*The great concession to the South, which got the short end of the stick on most of the Compromise, was the Fugitive Slave Act, although that too hurt the South in the end. The Act not only jailed suspected runaways and tried them without a jury, it paid the judge more to find against the slave than for him, and could force local law enforcement officials in the North to help Southern slave catchers.
*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 it, and Southerners hated the North for failing to co-operate in good faith. The Compromise only delayed the Civil War for ten years—long enough for the North to grow strong enough to win it.
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This page last updated 9 November, 2003.