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Compromise of 1850
In the late 1840's many issues were dividing the interests of the North, South and West. When Zachary Taylor was inaugurated in March, 1849 it set in motion a series of events that would not culminate until after his death in 1850. Northern abolitionists had grown in power to the point of controlling the House of Representatives - they easily added the Wilmot Proviso to major bills in the House.
Faced with the rise of the abolitionists in the north, and unwilling to forgo the Southern vote, Democrats rallied around the concept of "Popular sovereignty." It was hardly a new phrase or concept. The idea dated back to the 1500's and was embodied in the works of Rousseau and Locke. The concept meant that each new state would decide the slavery question for themselves before entering the Union. Lewis Cass called the idea "squatter sovereignty" in his presidential bid in 1848.
In late 1849 California's incredible growth during its gold rush brought tension in Congress to a high level. Admitting it to the Union would tip the precious balance of slave states and free states in the Senate in favor of the free states for the first time ever. Southern Senators were appalled at the concept and the state of Mississippi called for a Nashville Convention. Measures like the Wilmot Proviso had repeatedly passed in the House and it wouldn't be long before similar measures came before the Senate.
Northern members of the House were also adamantly against the slave trade and slavery in Washington D. C. A proposal to end slavery in our nation's capital was in committee in the House as 1849 ended. The territory of New Mexico and the state of Texas were in a war of words over the borders claimed by the former Republic and many in Washington felt real war might break out at any time.
Major players in the drama about to be played out in front of the public eye included Henry Clay, who hammered out the Missouri Compromise (Compromise of 1820) and the compromise on the Tariff of Abominations in 1833. Clay represented a strong coalition of moderate thinkers in the Senate including Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster and Henry Foote. Southern extremist pro-slavery forces were led by John C. Calhoun and, later, Jefferson Davis, while northern extremist abolition forces were led by William Seward, a close friend of President Taylor, both of whom were Whigs. Taylor was a slaveholder who opposed the entire compromise but wanted California (and New Mexico) to enter the Union. Vice President Millard Fillmore from New York was a moderate Whig who supported the compromise.
Seward had convinced Taylor that by directly admitting California, skipping the territorial process, the question of it being a free or slave state could be avoided. Taylor's suggestion to Congress that California be added to the Union without it becoming a territory in December, 1849, combined with the proposed Nashville Convention, precipitated the turmoil in Congress in January, 1850.
There were five distinct laws in the Compromise of 1850. First, the state of California would be admitted to the Union as a free state. This would tip the balance in the Senate against the slave states for the first time. Second, slave trade in Washington D. C., then the largest slave market in the United States, would be banned (slavery itself was still allowed). Third, the United States would pay Texas 10 million dollars for land it would give up to the U. S. Fourth, when admitted to the Union, states in this territory (Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona) would enter under popular sovereignty. Fifth, the Fugitive Slave Act would be strengthened.
Stephen Douglas drafted the original, individual bills for both the House and Senate. Proponents of the compromise were helped by the death of Calhoun at the end of March. A Committee of Thirteen was drafted in the Senate to study the problems with the Compromise. Henry Clay, as chairman, backed a committee proposal to combine the bills into a single Omnibus bill. There was little modification of Douglas's original language, but the battle appeared to be headed for a draw -- the
President Taylor tried to keep Southerners at the table with threats when talk of disunion rose. When Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens mentioned "disunion" in a meeting in February, Taylor told them he would personally lead the United States Army against seccessionists in their state. Southerners later held the Nashville Convention, where only Georgia and South Carolina agreed that secession was a possible answer to the problems.
President Taylor's unexpected death in July, 1850 meant that abolitionist William Seward was out as an adviser to the President and moderate Daniel Webster was in. Still, by the end of July it appeared as though the Compromise of 1850 was dead in the water. Tired and sick of Washington, Clay left for a rest in Newport, Rhode Island. Then Douglas broke the Omnibus bill apart. Millard Fillmore's support became obvious on August 6th, when he threw his support behind the bill reimbursing Texas for land deeded to the United States - the easiest bill to pass. Fillmore played a crucial role in passing the Compromise of 1850 by getting northern Whigs to cooperate with Democrat Douglas, whether with yes votes or abstentions. By the middle of September each of the bills had passed both houses and were signed by the President.
There is a belief that Winfield Scott destroyed the Whig party with his disasterous campaign of 1852. This is wrong. The divisions created by the pro-abolition northern Whigs and the Compromise of 1850 destroyed the Whig Party, which could no longer unite across sectional lines.
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Compromise of 1850 was last changed on - May 26, 2006
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