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Compromise of 1850

Compromise of 1850. The annexation of Texas to the United States and the gain of new territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the close of the Mexican War (1848) aggravated the hostility between North and South concerning the question of the extension of slavery into the territories. The antislavery forces favored the proposal made in the Wilmot Proviso to exclude slavery from all the lands acquired from Mexico. This, unsurprisingly, met with violent Southern opposition. When California sought (1849) admittance to the Union as a free state, a grave crisis threatened. Also causing friction was the conflict over the boundary claims of Texas, which extended far westward into territory claimed by the United States. In addition, the questions of the slave trade and the fugitive slave laws had long been vexing. There was some fear that, in the event of strong antislavery legislation, the Southern states might withdraw from the Union altogether.

The possibility of the disintegration of the Union was deprecated by many but was alarming to some, among them Henry Clay, who emerged from retirement to enter the Senate again. President Taylor was among those who felt that the Union was not threatened; he favored admission of California as a free state and encouragement of New Mexico to enter as a free state. These sentiments were voiced in Congress by William H. Seward. John C. Calhoun and other Southerners, particularly Jefferson Davis, maintained that the South should be given guarantees of equal position in the territories, of the execution of fugitive slave laws, and of protection against the abolitionists.

Clay proposed passage of a series of measures, originally separate then combined as an omnibus compromise bill. Support for this plan was largely organized by Stephen A. Douglas. The measures were the admission of California as a free state; the organization of New Mexico and Utah territories without mention of slavery, the status of that institution to be determined by the territories themselves when they were ready to be admitted as states (this formula came to be known as popular sovereignty); the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia; a more stringent fugitive slave law; and the settlement of Texas boundary claims by federal payment of $10 million on the debt contracted by the Republic of Texas.

These proposals faced great opposition, but Daniel Webster greatly enhanced the chances for their acceptance by his famous speech on Mar. 7, 1850. Taylor's death and the accession of conservative Millard Fillmore to the presidency made the compromise more feasible. After long debates and failure to pass the omnibus bill, Congress passed the measures as separate bills in Sept., 1850. Many people, North and South, hailed the compromise as a final solution to the question of slavery in the territories, but the measures lacked broad support as a group in Congress, each having been passed by different legislative coalitions. The issue of the extension of slavery reemerged in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and seven years later the factions were fighting the Civil War.

See E. C. Rozwenc, The Compromise of 1850 (1957); H. Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict (1964); F. M. Bordewich, America's Great Debate (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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