The Compromise of 1850

With the addition of territories ceded by Mexico after the war between it and the US, The Missouri Compromise (of 1820), the prevailing federal law, no longer meets the needs of the United States. Henry Clay, the aged senator from Kentucky, chief author of The Missouri Compromise, comes out of retirement, determined to find a solution, to piece together legislation to appease the various sections of the country and preserve the union. His failing health precludes much “hands on” work, but Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, “the little giant,” takes the omnibus bill, which fails to pass, and submits each component individually, achieving passage.

Zachary Taylor, military hero of the Mexican War, particularly his exploits at the Battle of Buena Vista, is elected president on the Whig ticket. When the California Territory applies for statehood as a free state, the 31st, which Taylor endorses, it threatens the balance of fifteen each anti- and pro- slavery states achieved in the Senate. With the discovery of gold at John Sutter’s sawmill along the American River in California in January, 1848, settlers from throughout the country go to the area (one estimate for the city of San Francisco is that it goes from around 6,000 in population to over 24,000 in one year. Another, from early 1848 to late 1849 puts it at 1,000 increasing to 25,000. The actual records were destroyed by fire). As the Whigs learn with William Henry Harrison, the best way to reach voters is with a war hero at the top of the ticket. But like Harrison, Taylor dies in office.

With The Compromise of 1850, the old men in the Congress make their final parliamentary move; a last moment on the stage. John C. Calhoun, infirmed and near death with throat cancer writes an opinion opposing Clay’s bill, but is unable to deliver it himself, instead having someone help him into the Senate chamber to sit while another (Senator James Murray Mason) reads it aloud. A black coat, which he had gathered around his gaunt body, added to the tragedy and solemnity of the sight. Clay goes to the spas in Newport News, Virginia for his ailing health. Daniel Webster, now approaching seventy years of age, is still strong of voice but his gait is somewhat slowed and he gets winded easier.

Never has the federal government been as close to the reality of disunion.

The Wilmot Proviso, proposed by Democratic Congressman (Pennsylvania) David Wilmot, a slavery opponent, in 1846 amends an appropriations bill and is introduced in the House. It provides that any land acquired from the war with Mexico will not be open to slavery. The first Proviso passes the House but is not voted on in the Senate. The second Proviso (1847) passes the House but is removed in the Senate bill.

The Compromise of 1850 contains these major provisions: the Texas boundary dividing it from New Mexico/Mexico would be established; the US would monetarily compensate Texas for any ceded land and any Texas debt would be paid by the United States; the California territory would enter the union as a nonslave holding (free) state; the territories of New Mexico and Utah, land acquired from Mexico, would be divided without respect to slavery; Washington, D.C. would no longer engage in the (continent’s as well as the) country’s largest public slave trade; the last and most controversial aspect is rigid enforcement by the federal government of the Fugitive Slave Act.

In his Seventh of March Speech (March 7, 1850), Daniel Webster greatly enhances the bill’s chance of passage by publicly endorsing the last component. Henry Clay figures, quite rightly, that only an immensely popular New Englander can help attain passage of the whole bill by approving the Fugitive Slave Act. For Webster, it’s political suicide; he expends decade’s worth of political capital with one speech (abolitionists call him, “Traitor”). The South would secede en masse without a provision whereby the northern states guarantee the slaveholder’s rights.

The Compromise of 1850 passes Congress, and with President Taylor’s death, making Millard Fillmore Chief Executive, he being much more open to compromise than was Taylor; the bill is enacted into law with the new President’s signature.

Webster’s Seventh of March Speech, “I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States” Daniel Webster while receiving plaudits in the rest of the country for its conciliatory tone, costs him much in the way of political support at home, leading to his resignation from the Senate rather than his risking embarrassment at the polls.

In support of his measures, Clay says, on the Senate floor, “I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me here upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Clay and Webster’s measures supply only a temporary fix but they do provide much-needed time. Calhoun more firmly believes the individual states are independent and sovereign, not subject to federal law but Webster’s Senate speech does much to allay states’ righter’s fears.

The Compromise of 1850 accomplishes what it hopes to do (keep the country united) but the solution is only short-term. In the decade following the deaths of the Triumvirate, all occurring around 1850, the North and West combine the necessary men and resources to defeat the South. Alone, the North or West hasn’t the means to subdue the South but in tandem, they are able to accomplish the feat.