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An Uneasy Peace

30d. The Compromise of 1850

Henry Clay
U.S. Senate
The "Great Compromiser," Henry Clay, introduces the Compromise of 1850 in the Senate.

The plan was set forth. The giants — Calhoun, Webster, and Clay — had spoken. Still the Congress debated the contentious issues well into the summer. Each time Clay's Compromise was set forth for a vote, it did not receive a majority. Henry Clay himself had to leave in sickness, before the dispute could be resolved. In his place, Stephen Douglas worked tirelessly to end the fight. On July 9, President Zachary Taylor died of food poisoning. His successor, Millard Fillmore, was much more interested in compromise. The environment for a deal was set. By September, Clay's Compromise became law.

California was admitted to the Union as the 16th free state. In exchange, the south was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah or New Mexico. Texas lost its boundary claims in New Mexico, but the Congress compensated Texas with $10 million. Slavery was maintained in the nation's capital, but the slave trade was prohibited. Finally, and most controversially, a Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law.

Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 overturned the Missouri Compromise and left the overall issue of slavery unsettled.

Compromise of 1850

North GetsSouth Gets
California admitted as a free stateNo slavery restrictions in Utah or New Mexico territories
Slave trade prohibited in Washington D.C.Slaveholding permitted in Washington D.C.
Texas loses boundary dispute with New MexicoTexas gets $10 million
 Fugitive Slave Law

Compromise of 1850

Who gained the most from the Compromise of 1850?

The North

The South

Who won and who lost in the deal? Although each side received benefits, the north seemed to gain the most. The balance of the Senate was now with the free states, although California often voted with the south on many issues in the 1850s. The major victory for the south was the Fugitive Slave Law. In the end, the north refused to enforce it. Massachusetts even called for its nullification, stealing an argument from John C. Calhoun. Northerners claimed the law was unfair. The flagrant violation of the Fugitive Slave Law set the scene for the tempest that emerged later in the decade. But for now, Americans hoped against hope that the fragile peace would prevail.

On the Web
Henry Clay, 1777-1852
This is much less a biography than a collection of raw facts and dates in the life of Henry Clay, but there are so many of them this is a great resource. And coming from the U.S. Congress, we can be sure the information is correct.
Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act (1855)
Some legislatures responded to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 by enacting "personal liberty" laws. The text of the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act of 1855 is offered on this webpage, with some introductory information.
The Seventh of March Speech, Daniel Webster
This is the speech that likely cost Daniel Webster any chance of becoming President. In it he supported, on Constitutional grounds, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The full text of the speech is presented on this webpage from Webster's alma mater, Dartmouth University.
Thoughts on the 1852 Political Campaign
What did the common voter think of politics and national affairs in 1852? Pertinent entries from the diary of the Rev. Alpheus S. Bigelow have been transcribed by a descendant and posted on the Bigelow Society genealogy website.
William Henry Seward's Higher Law Speech
On March 11, 1858, William Seward responded to Daniel Webster's 7th of March Address. Webster had argued that the Constitution demanded that fugitive slaves must be returned, but Seward countered with "But there is a higher law than the Constitution...." The full text is available on this webpage.
Compromise of 1850
From the hands of giants, see Webster and Calhoun's notes on the Compromise of 1850, their final attempt to hold together the nation.
Anthony Burns captured
Anthony Burns was captured and returned under the Fugitive Slave Act in 1854, but not before the courthouse door was beaten down with a battering ram, a deputy was stabbed, and President Pierce ordered Marines and artillery to guard the prisoner.
Compromise of 1850
The division of the nation wasn't the only issue at stake in 1850. Four different plans were proposed to divide the state of Texas.
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