The Compromise of 1850: America’s Final Attempt to Pretend Slavery is OK

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Imagine that your house is on fire. 

You see it, but instead of calling the fire department, you turn your back and pretend that it’s not happening. And then you look again, grimace, and sign a compromise with the house saying you’ll get to dealing with it in a little bit. 

Hopefully, the house can just sort this whole fire thing out by itself in the meantime.

But, eventually, you’re going to have to do something, or you’ll be left with a pile of ashes where your country once stood — err, house. Where your house once stood.

For more than fifty years after Americans won their independence in 1776 — a movement inspired by the doctrine that “all men are created equal” — slavery was a small but menacing flame that cast flickering, foreboding shadows onto the conscience of the people. 

Northerners, who were living the benefits of a free labor economy and despised the inflated power of Southern slaveholders, were fighting to ban the institution once and for all; if not everywhere, then at least in the new territories added to the country. While Southerners — at least the White ones — wanted desperately to protect the institution that they felt defined their society.

Congress, the arena where such differences were meant to be worked out, avoided making a decision, even though it really should have been an easy one to make. But every ten years or so, the debate would be reignited by some event or movement, and the country would be forced to face the reality of slavery once again — and the imperative to end it.

The Compromise of 1850 was one of the last of the “we’ll get to it later” bills before the start of the American Civil War, which began only a decade later, in 1861. Like the bills that came before it, it danced around the issue of slavery rather than addressing it outright, and, because of this, it did nothing to put out the fire. 

Instead, it stoked the flames until there was no other option besides a terrible, bloody, and nation defining war.

What Was the Compromise of 1850?

The Compromise of 1850 was a set of five bills that helped settle a conflict between Northern and Southern states that emerged after the US acquired a large swath of land from Mexico after winning the Mexican-American War. The main issues were slavery and borders, and the Compromise was one of the last attempts made by the two sides to reconcile their differences — mainly pertaining to slavery — leading up to the outbreak of the American Civil War. 

The five bills were originally proposed as one omnibus bill by Senator Henry Clay in March 1850, which meant they were all wrapped into one package that was to be passed or denied in its entirety. Congress debated the bill for eight months without passing it, probably because getting any group of people — especially one made up of starkly differing views — to agree on one thing, let alone five things at once, is nearly impossible.

Clay stepped down in frustration in November 1850 and the bills were taken up by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who separated them and almost immediately got each one pushed through and approved. Sorry, Clay.

But in the end, the Compromise did little to decide one way or the other about slavery, serving only to prolong and exacerbate the already white-hot tension that was boiling under the surface of American politics.

What Were the Main Points of the Compromise of 1850?

The five bills that made up the Compromise of 1850 addressed the most contentious issues of the previous few years. Both the North and the South wanted to lay claim to the Mexican Cession, the territory the United States acquired after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo — which ended the Mexican American War — that could be used to push their respective agendas. 

This pitted the two sides against one another on a multitude of issues, and the agreement proposed by Clay offered, well, compromises to try and make both sides happy.

Henry Clay, the senator who originally wrote the bill, began the document by writing,

“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 aris- ing out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable and just basis.”

US Archives

While the bill largely addressed territorial issues, this introduction makes it clear what the document was really about: preventing disunion over the issue of slavery. 

Bill #1: Texas-New Mexico Boundaries

The first statute of the Compromise of 1850 served the purpose of establishing the borders between Texas and the territory it had previously claimed — New Mexico. It took a big square chunk out of Texas’ northwest (that you’ll now recognize as the modern state of New Mexico, as well as Utah and parts of Nevada) and turned this land over to the federal government, which divided it into the New Mexico and Utah territories. 

The Compromise of 1850: America's Final Attempt to Pretend Slavery is OK 1
Source: cnx.org
The Compromise of 1850: America's Final Attempt to Pretend Slavery is OK 2
Source: cnx.org

In exchange, Congress gave Texas $10 million to clear its debt — the modern day equivalent of $330 million worth of belt buckles and cowboy hats, which we can only assume is what Texas owed all that money for. 

What makes this exchange significant is Texas’ history. In 1836, Texas, which had been taken from Mexico by American settlers, declared itself the Republic of Texas, a sovereign nation separate from both the United States and Mexico. 

The Lone Star State had a distinct culture with a strong sense of independence and a deeply ingrained proslavery precedent, which meant that — at the time of the Compromise of 1850 — Texas, which had been annexed by the federal government only 5 years previously, had a distinct culture; but one that was more Southern than anything. 

Driven by the desire for new land and the opportunity to spread the practice of slavery, Texan settlers continued to move westward, something that led to several disputes and attempts to officially expand Texas’ borders further that direction. 

Northerners feared Texas’ growing size because it meant that the practice of slavery was consuming larger portions of the continent, which set the stage for the Southern slavocracy — a political order of wealthy slaveowners that made up only about 1% of the Southern population but that controlled nearly all the region’s political power — to expand its reach and grow its power. 

It was for this reason that the establishment of the Texas-New Mexico border was important to Northerners. Despite the $10 million hit to their wallet, the North considered it a win. They had cut off Texas’ expansion and mitigated the personal ambitions of those from the state, preventing the potential expansion of slavery into the newly acquired Mexican Cession which the North wanted to establish as free states.

But the Compromise didn’t end the separatist movement in Texas. Not by a long shot.

Not only did it secede in 1860 and fight during the Civil War for its independence and disunion from the whole of the United States — it pushed for secession as recently as 2012.

Bill #2: Admitting California as a Free State

The second statute of the Compromise of 1850 admitted California into the union as a free state, meaning it would not allow slavery, much to the delight of Northern Free Soilers — a group of people interested in keeping the soil of the American West “free” — and abolitionists looking to end slavery altogether.  

California was the crown jewel of the Mexican Cession, given the recent discovery of gold; it was extremely desirable to Southern slaveholders who saw the opportunity to profit off both the mineral and their intended expansion of slavery into the state.

However, the Mexican ban on slavery technically still prohibited the practice in California, and the people there wrote a constitution in 1849 that included the same ban, suggesting they had no interest in making it part of their lives as American citizens. Some Southerners, in denial about this reality, suggested dividing the state in two, a proslavery southern half and a free northern half — a movement that never really took off in popularity. 

Everyone wanted to add California, as it possessed great opportunity, but making it a slave state was something that was quite unlikely. Even President Zachary Taylor — who was a slave owner himself — proposed the admission of California and New Mexico as free states, arguing that the climate in the Mexican Cession, which was arid and dry, wouldn’t be good for plantations. Which, okay, right idea, but wrong reasons.

But because the Senate was split evenly between Northern and Southern representation, in order to annex California, the senators would need to agree on how it would enter the union, and Southern senators were poised to block it — especially after hearing President Taylor’s suggestion — as they were worried that giving up the state of California would concede to the limitation of slavery in new territories. Something which was seen as a dangerous precedent by those who were proslavery.

Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, a staunch defender of slavery and states’ rights — as well as Andrew Jackson’s vice president — was infuriated by Taylor’s suggestion and had a speech delivered on his behalf in protest. 

It portrayed the North as aggressing on the South, painting them to be devilish abolitionists hellbent on stripping Southerners of their rights. The speech also suggested the idea of a dual presidency: one president to represent the North, and one to represent the South. An absurd idea, but it showed that the South was only getting more serious about breaking away from the North in order to protect its interests.

The threat of such a division being forced within the country led to the acquiescence that gave birth to the Fugitive Slave Act, a stricter and more racist version of an already existing strict and racist law.

The North felt the establishment of California as a free state was a success in the fight to prevent new territories from overwhelmingly becoming slave states. But this was something that did not come entirely without cost. 

The trade-off — the Fugitive Slave Act — would have enormous and lasting consequences.

Bill #3 Popular Sovereignty in Utah and New Mexico

With California established as a free state, that left the Utah and New Mexico territories of the Mexico Cession to be assigned their status as pro-slave or pro-basic human decency. 

Congress refused to make a decision one way or another about slavery, or, rather, it was unable to — the annexation of California meant there were 15 free states and 15 slave states. Locked in a stalemate and with both sides unwilling to bend but also desiring to address the issue, Congress came up with the perfect way to not make a decision: popular sovereignty. 

This policy would have the people who had settled in each area decide for themselves whether they would be free or slave states — a perfect representation of American democracy and a totally logical solution, since the people in these territories were the ones who stood to be most affected by whether or not slavery was are wasn’t allowed. 

But not the slaves, obviously. The settlers.

This decision (or non-decision) set a precedent that would plague abolitionists until the Civil War. Popular sovereignty became the policy that Southern slaveholders came to feel entitled to, so by refusing to take a side on the issue, Congress had essentially strengthened a trend of inaction that favored slaveholders. 

The issue of slavery only continued, without any guidance or limitations, leaving tensions to grow. And in this way, the Compromise failed to actually solve the issues it was supposed to address.

This statue also undermined the spirit of the Missouri Compromise — a deal struck in 1820 that established a line across the United States to set a boundary between slave and free states.

Though the line established by the Missouri Compromise didn’t extend into the Mexican Cession (since the territory had still belonged to Mexico in 1820), its implication was that slavery was not to be practiced to the North of it. By allowing Utah and Nevada to operate under popular sovereignty, Congress rejected this and allowed slavery in a “Northern territory.” 

This, again, made popular sovereignty even more the darling of the South, while it was instantly criticized by people from the North.

Opponents of this policy, especially in New England, referred to it as “squatter sovereignty.” They argued that it simply handed power to the people who first settled an area — the “squatters” occupying a certain area with little responsibility for anything but their own interests — regardless of their intentions or ability to govern and organize.

This criticism would prove to be valid after the violence that erupted in Kansas in 1855 and 1856 — a time known as Bleeding Kansas, which was an important precursor to the fighting that would take place during the Civil War. 

While the practice of popular sovereignty was in line with the American sense of direct governance as dictated by the majority, it also created a sense of individualism in each state. The states felt that, because their government was largely under popular control (ruled by the people in the state, rather than by politicians in a distant capital), they were separate sovereign entities each operating under their own set of rules, instead of parts of a larger whole. 

This notion contributed to sectionalism and a general feeling of disunity in the United States; the division President Taylor and Senator Clay had been trying to avoid with this compromise would become even more stark in the years following it.

Bill #4: The Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act was the fourth statute of the Compromise of 1850, and was the most controversial bill of the five. It rewrote and made stricter an existing law, requiring officials and citizens in all states (including free ones) to help in returning escaped slaves. That, or pay a hefty fine.

The original Fugitive Slave Act gave slaveholders the right to recover escaped slaves from other states. However, the Northern states largely did not enforce this law, and the South — who felt they were being cheated — demanded stricter measures in order to preserve their practice of slavery and minimize losses caused by runaway slaves.

This statute was included in the Compromise to appease the South and was intended as a counterweight to the North’s annexation of California. It was a hefty price to pay for the North, as it forced them to partake in an institution many of them were working so hard to try and kill. 

It also made it a crime to not comply with the law, making abolitionists, and Northerners in general, unwilling participants in upholding slavery, causing anger that aggravated the divide between the ever-distancing sides of the country.

But with the new Fugitive Slave Act in place, it led to problems almost immediately. Part of the act awarded a bounty to those who helped return runaway slaves; without any provisions to prevent opportunism, the bill allowed anyone to claim that a person of African descent — free or enslaved, living in the North or South — was an escaped slave, and could turn them in to the authorities in exchange for the bounty. 

This made life for free Blacks in the north, who already lived a difficult life wrought with racism and hardships, that much more precarious.

That Congress allowed the bill to pass while knowing that it would endanger the lives of free Blacks is a reminder that the abolitionist movement was not because people in the North weren’t racist.

Instead, they saw slavery as an enemy to their own well-being and, more often than not, couldn’t have cared less about the suffering slaves went through. They believed in the sanctity of the Union, and this principle made it easier for them to appease the South and accept the law — although its symbolism of Southern power would have likely left a bad taste in the mouth of pretty much every Northerner. 

Bill #5: Ending the Slave Trade in Washington, D.C.

In the capital, antislavery Northerners wanted to end the slave trade. The practice was a symbol of the power of slaveholders, and anti-slavery advocates saw it as an embarrassment to the nation — seeing other human beings being traded like farm tools right on their doorstep put pressure on Northern senators to put their money where their mouth was.

The ban of the slave trade in Washington D.C. was added into the Compromise of 1850, a win for Northern abolitionists. Slavery itself, however, was not banned, and wouldn’t be until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Why Was the Compromise of 1850 Necessary?

With the Mexican War ending at the beginning of 1848 and a presidential election revving up for that same year, the country was divided by several issues that would shape the following two years.

The US acquired the Mexican Cession after the end of the war, and the new territory — which dramatically expanded the reach of the United States — was instantly a part of the debate about whether to advance or halt the expansion of slavery. 

The South wanted to expand their borders and annex new states as slave states. The North also wanted to expand their borders, but in the interest of stopping the South’s expansion. And these debates raged over the new territories of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Utah.

These conflicts were in the public consciousness between 1848 and 1850, and would all be gathered together to become the questions that the Compromise attempted to answer. The representatives of both sides were fighting to produce the results that their supporters wanted — amongst divisions that were based almost entirely along regional divides

The North/South Divide

The core of the divide between the North and South in 1850 had to do with slavery, but, in reality, the two regions could not have been more different.  

The North had larger cities and seaports, high population density, and higher diversity among jobs and people. It was industrializing rapidly, connecting via railroads, and adapting a free labor system that was bringing great prosperity 

The South, on the other hand, remained dependent on labor-intensive cash-crop farming, mainly of cotton and tobacco. The best land was held by a small group of wealthy plantation owners, and they made their profit using slave labor. 

Those who weren’t slaves or slaveholders were poor sustenance farmers who valued the system of slavery because, in the Antebellum South, “Whites were equal and Blacks were slaves.” The South relied on exporting its products around the world, and there was little to no industry. Railroad development was scant, and if you lived in 1840s Boston and traveled to 1840s Alabama, you would feel like you had stepped back in time.

In short, the North was run on change, growth, and large-scale interdependence, whereas the South ran on tradition and individualism. These differences led to starkly different economies and cultures, and as the nation grew, these differences would force the two sides apart, with the issue of slavery serving as the flashpoint for disagreements and as a stark reminder of just how separated the two regions of the country had become.

The issue of slavery, and the differences it pointed out, came up more often during periods of territorial expansion, as the two sides were forced, in these situations, to come up with a plan that made both sides happy — something that was far easier said than done.  

The Compromise of 1850, like the Missouri Compromise before it, was a Band-Aid solution to deep gashes that existed in the country’s unity. It addressed all of the auxiliary problems that arose from the disagreement over slavery, which were certainly causing issues, but it failed to address the issue of slavery itself, meaning the core of that disunion was left to fester.

Expansionism

The sentiment of expansionism was predominantly what drove Southerner’s ambitions in the years leading up to the Compromise of 1850. Keen to the way slavery had enriched them, Southern slave owners quickly came to understand that expanding the geographical size of the South would expand their fortunes as well. More land meant more crops, and (maybe more importantly) it meant a continuation and strengthening of the precendent of slavery.

As a result, slave owners were enthusiastic supporters of the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and Mexican Cession. Some southern Whites even took matters into their own hands and filibustered neighboring territories — like Texas — in order to ensure the continuation of slavery in the yet unclaimed territories.

All this new land was unpoliced and ungoverned, meaning that whoever got there first could do pretty much whatever they wanted. This, naturally, led to problems. 

In 1817, Missouri — a part of the Louisiana Purchase — started petitioning for statehood. 

In 1819, the House of Representatives began considering whether to annex the state as free or slave, aware that the settlers who had moved there had already brought the practice with them. The Missouri Compromise helped settle this issue and staved off the crisis that dealing with slavery endlessly brought about. 

The issue of expansionism and slavery became relevant again at the beginning of the Mexican War. In anticipation of gaining new land from the conflict, David Wilmot — a senator from Pennsylvania who had been chosen to represent Northern abolitionists — put forth the Wilmot Proviso, which was an amendment to a standard funding bill that attempted to ban slavery in the territories acquired by Mexico.

Wilmot likely knew that his amendment would have no chance of passing, but by including it, he forced Congress to vote on the issue of slavery, which sparked all sorts of debate and ultimately made the Compromise of 1850 a necessary legislation for the preservation of the Union.

At this point, it was clear that the United States could not continue to expand westward if it did not come to a resolution, one way or another, on the issue of slavery. 

What Was the Impact of the Compromise of 1850?

The Compromise of 1850 would prove to be an ineffective solution to the mounting tensions in the United States and just another bill that failed to address the root of the disunion in the country. 

While it did cool tempers for a short time, its failure to decisively end or support slavery simply left a vacuum where the fighting would continue and in which sectionalism would become secessionalism.

Forming the Republican Party 

The Compromise of 1850 had helped make the practice of popular sovereignty the precedent for deciding on slavery. 

So, in 1854, when the territory of Kansas was organized and being prepared for statehood, the question of slavery inevitably came up. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, establishing popular sovereignty as the norm once again. 

The act passed narrowly in the House and Senate, but Northern Democrats saw it as a great blow to their efforts to contain slavery, and many — including a man by the name of Abraham Lincoln — decided to split from the Democrats and form a new party along with several other one-issue parties at the time; mainly the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, and the Free Soilers. 

Together, they formed the Republican Party, which found support among an entirely Northern base and quickly emerged as a force in American politics, eventually electing Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 — the definitive straw that broke the camel’s back and started the American Civil War. 

This act also directly led to the outbreak of a conflict known as Bleeding Kansas that was the result of the “squatter sovereignty” many Northerners had feared. 

All of these events have their own history, but the Compromise of 1850 played a significant role in their development and also helped pave the way for secession and the war — which turned out to be the nation’s bloodiest and most trying conflict in its history to date. 

In this way, the Compromise of 1850, which was meant to help keep the nation together, contributed directly to its breaking up and near total destruction.

Conclusion

The Compromise of 1850 is an interesting part of American history because it serves as a case study and a snapshot of the division that has always existed in the United States. It can be easy, in the modern era, to attribute the US’s sectionalism to contemporary issues and attitudes. But the history of the division goes back to the country’s inception, when it was established on the values of independence, individualism, and that sectionalism.

Legislation like the Compromise of 1850 can be helpful in resolving the issues that arise from the larger undercurrent, but unless it takes a hard stance on the real problem, it doesn’t do much besides let the problem fester. 

Of course, identifying the source of American disunity is harder nowadays; it’s more complicated than an argument over whether owning other human beings as property is okay.

Like in the 19th century, the US is still largely divided into regions with their own disparate attitudes and cultures. The South, whose politics can be said to align with conservatism — or the current Republican party — still values tradition and individualism. The North — more liberal and aligned with the current Democratic party — tends to place importance on social progress and legislates in favor of the community rather than the individual. 

These values are echoes of the principles that guided each side of the slavery debate, although what we consider North and what we consider South these days is starting to change. 

Virginia, for example, due to the large suburbs popping up near the nation’s capital, is starting to become much more “Northern” — a big feat, considering it was one of the states that seceded and fought federal troops in the Civil War

The United States has always been a divided country; it’s a nation made up of parts, not a single, homogenous whole. It’s no wonder, then, that it still struggles with unity today.

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