Compromise of 1850

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The United States after the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, with the Mexican Cession still unorganized
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The United States after the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress in September 1850 that defused a political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired in the Mexican–American War. It also set Texas' western and northern borders and included provisions addressing fugitive slaves and the slave trade. The compromise was brokered by Whig senator Henry Clay and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas with the support of President Millard Fillmore.


A debate over slavery in the territories had erupted during the Mexican–American War, as many Southerners sought to expand slavery to the newly-acquired lands and many Northerners opposed any such expansion. The debate was further complicated by Texas's claim to all former Mexican territory north and east of the Rio Grande, including areas it had never effectively controlled. These issues prevented the passage of organic acts to create organized territorial governments for the land acquired in the Mexican–American War. In early 1850, Clay proposed a package of bills that would settle most of the pressing issues before Congress. Clay's proposal was opposed by President Zachary Taylor, anti-slavery Whigs like William Seward, and pro-slavery Democrats like John C. Calhoun, and congressional debate over the territories continued.

After Taylor died and was succeeded by Fillmore, Douglas took the lead in passing Clay's compromise through Congress as five separate bills. Under the compromise, Texas surrendered its claims to present-day New Mexico and other states in return for federal assumption of Texas's public debt. California was admitted as a free state, while the remaining portions of the Mexican Cession were organized into New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory. Under the concept of popular sovereignty, the people of each territory would decide whether or not slavery would be permitted. The compromise also included a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law and banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C. The issue of slavery in the territories would be re-opened by the Kansas–Nebraska Act, but many historians argue that the Compromise of 1850 played a major role in postponing the American Civil War.


Free states in early 1850
Slave states (without Texas' claims to New Mexico)
Territories (later state borders, Gadsden Purchase)
Missouri Compromise Line 36deg30' Missouri Compromise Line.svg
  Free states in early 1850
  Slave states (without Texas' claims to New Mexico)
  Territories (later state borders, Gadsden Purchase)

The Republic of Texas gained independence from Mexico following the Texas Revolution of 1836, and, partly because Texas had been settled by a large number of Americans, there was a strong sentiment in both Texas and the United States for the annexation of Texas by the United States. [1] In December 1845, President James K. Polk signed a resolution annexing Texas, and Texas became the 28th state in the union. [2] Polk sought further expansion through the acquisition of the Mexican province of Alta California, which represented new lands to settle as well as a potential gateway to trade in Asia. [3] His administration attempted to purchase California from Mexico, [4] but the annexation of Texas stoked tensions between Mexico and the United States. [5] Relations between the two countries were further complicated by Texas's claim to all land north of the Rio Grande; Mexico argued that the more northern Nueces River was the proper Texan border. [6]

In March 1846, a skirmish broke out on the northern side of the Rio Grande, ending in the death or capture of dozens of American soldiers. [7] Shortly thereafter, the United States declared war on Mexico, beginning the Mexican–American War. [8] In August 1846, Polk asked Congress for an appropriation that he hoped to use as a down payment for the purchase of California in a treaty with Mexico, igniting a debate over the status of future territories. [9] A freshman Democratic Congressman, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, offered an amendment known as the Wilmot Proviso that would ban slavery in any newly acquired lands. [10] The Wilmot Proviso was defeated in the Senate, but it injected the slavery debate into national politics. [11]

In September 1847, an American army under General Winfield Scott captured the Mexican capital in the Battle for Mexico City. [12] Several months later, Mexican and American negotiators agreed to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which Mexico agreed to recognize the Rio Grande as Texas's southern border and to cede Alta California and New Mexico. [13] The Missouri Compromise had settled the issue of the geographic reach of slavery within the Louisiana Purchase territories by prohibiting slavery in states north of 36°30′ latitude, and Polk sought to extend this line into the newly acquired territory. [14] However, the divisive issue of slavery blocked any such legislation. As his term came to a close, Polk signed the lone territorial bill passed by Congress, which established the Territory of Oregon and banned slavery in it. [15] Polk declined to seek re-election in the 1848 presidential election, [16] and the 1848 election was won by the Whig ticket of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. [17]


Three major types of issues were addressed by the Compromise of 1850: a variety of boundary issues, the status of territory issues, and the issue of slavery. While capable of analytical distinction, the boundary and territory issues were actually included in the overarching issue of slavery. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery interests were each concerned with both the amount of land on which slavery was permitted and with the number of States in the slave or free camps. Since Texas was a slave state, not only the residents of that state but also both camps on a national scale had an interest in the size of Texas.


Proposals for Texas northwestern boundary Texas proposed boundaries.svg
Proposals for Texas northwestern boundary

The independent Republic of Texas won the decisive Battle of San Jacinto (April 21, 1836) against Mexico and captured Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He signed the Treaties of Velasco, which recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of the Republic of Texas. The treaties were then repudiated by the government of Mexico, which insisted that Mexico remained sovereign over Texas since Santa Anna had signed the treaty under coercion, and promised to reclaim the lost territories. To the extent that there was a de facto recognition, Mexico treated the Nueces River as its northern boundary control. A vast, largely-unsettled area was between the two rivers. Neither Mexico nor the Republic of Texas had the military strength to assert its territorial claim. On December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas was annexed to the United States and became the 28th state. Texas was staunchly committed to slavery, with its constitution making it illegal for the legislature to free slaves.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made no mention of the claims of the Republic of Texas; Mexico simply agreed to a Mexico–United States border south of both the "Mexican Cession" and the Republic of Texas claims. [18] After the end of the Mexican–American War, Texas continued to claim a large stretch of disputed land that it had never effectively controlled in present-day eastern New Mexico. New Mexico had long prohibited slavery, a fact that affected the debate over its territorial status, but many New Mexican leaders opposed joining Texas primarily because Texas's capital lay hundreds of miles away [19] and because Texas and New Mexico had a history of conflict dating back to the 1841 Santa Fe Expedition. [20] Outside of Texas, many Southern leaders supported Texas's claims to New Mexico in order to secure as much territory as possible for the expansion of slavery. [21]

Another issue that would affect the compromise was Texas's debt; it had approximately $10 million in debt left over from its time as an independent nation, and that debt would become a factor in the debates over the territories. [22]


Map of Mexico. S. Augustus Mitchell, Philadelphia, 1847. New California is depicted with a northeastern border at the meridian leading north of the Rio Grande headwaters. Map of Mexico including Yucatan and Upper California 1847.jpg
Map of Mexico. S. Augustus Mitchell, Philadelphia, 1847. New California is depicted with a northeastern border at the meridian leading north of the Rio Grande headwaters.

California was part of the Mexican Cession. After the Mexican War, California was essentially run by military governors. President James K. Polk tried to get Congress to establish a territorial government in California officially, but the increasingly sectional debates prevented that. [23] The South wanted to extend slave territory to Southern California and to the Pacific Coast, but the North did not.

From late 1848, Americans and foreigners of many different countries rushed into California for the California Gold Rush, exponentially increasing the population. In response to growing demand for a better more representative government, a Constitutional Convention was held in 1849. The delegates unanimously outlawed slavery. They had no interest in extending the Missouri Compromise Line through California and splitting the state; the lightly populated southern half never had slavery and was heavily Hispanic. [24]

Other issues

Aside from the disposition of the territories, other issues had risen to prominence during the Taylor years. [25] The Washington, D.C. slave trade angered many in the North, who viewed the presence of slavery in the capital as a blemish on the nation. Disputes around fugitive slaves had grown since 1830 in part due to improving means of transportation, as escaped slaves used roads, railroads, and ships to escape. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 had granted jurisdiction to all state and federal judges over cases regarding fugitive slaves, but several Northern states, dissatisfied by the lack of due process in these cases, had passed personal liberty laws that made it more difficult to return alleged fugitive slaves to the South. [26] Congress also faced the issue of Utah, which like California and New Mexico, had been ceded by Mexico. Utah was inhabited largely by Mormons, whose practice of polygamy was unpopular in the United States. [27]


Taylor takes office

When Taylor took office, the issue of slavery in the Mexican Cession remained unresolved. While a Southern slaveowner himself, Taylor believed that slavery was economically infeasible in the Mexican Cession, and as such he opposed slavery in those territories as a needless source of controversy. [28] In Taylor's view, the best way forward was to admit California as a state rather than a federal territory, as it would leave the slavery question out of Congress's hands. The timing for statehood was in Taylor's favor, as the Gold Rush was well underway at the time of his inauguration, and California's population was exploding. [29] In October 1849, a California constitutional convention unanimously agreed to join the Union—and to ban slavery within their borders. [30] In his December 1849 State of the Union report, Taylor endorsed California's and New Mexico's applications for statehood, and recommended that Congress approve them as written and "should abstain from the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character". [31]

Clay proposes compromise

"The United States Senate, A.D. 1850" (engraving by Peter F. Rothermel):
Henry Clay takes the floor of the Old Senate Chamber; Vice President Millard Fillmore presides as John C. Calhoun (to the right of the Speaker's chair) and Daniel Webster (seated to the left of Clay) look on. Henry Clay Senate3.jpg
"The United States Senate, A.D. 1850" (engraving by Peter F. Rothermel):
Henry Clay takes the floor of the Old Senate Chamber; Vice President Millard Fillmore presides as John C. Calhoun (to the right of the Speaker's chair) and Daniel Webster (seated to the left of Clay) look on.

On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay introduced a plan which combined the major subjects under discussion. His legislative package included the admission of California as a free state, the cession by Texas of some of its northern and western territorial claims in return for debt relief, the establishment of New Mexico and Utah territories, a ban on the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia for sale, and a more stringent fugitive slave law. [32] Clay had originally favored voting on each of his proposals separately, but Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi convinced him to combine the proposals regarding California's admission and the disposition of Texas's borders into one bill. [33] Clay hoped that this combination of measures would convince congressmen from both North and South to support the overall package of laws even if they objected to specific provisions. [34] Clay's proposal attracted the support of some Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs, but it lacked the backing necessary to win passage, and debate over the bill continued. [34]


President Taylor opposed the compromise and continued to call for immediate statehood for both California and New Mexico. [34] Senator John C. Calhoun and some other Southern leaders argued that the compromise was biased against the South because it would lead to the creation of new free states. [35] Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward, who delivered his famous "Higher Law" speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise as well because it would apply the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the pressing of ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols. That provision was inserted by Democratic Virginia Senator James M. Mason to entice border-state Whigs, who faced the greatest danger of losing slaves as fugitives but were lukewarm on general sectional issues related to the South on Texas's land claims. [36]

Debate and results

An animation showing slave and free states and territories, 1789-1861 US Slave Free 1789-1861.gif
An animation showing slave and free states and territories, 1789–1861

On April 17, a "Committee of Thirteen" agreed on the border of Texas as part of Clay's plan. The dimensions were later changed. That same day, during debates on the measures in the Senate, Vice President Fillmore and Senator Benton verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was "out of order." During the heated debates, Compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drew a pistol on Benton.

In early June, nine slaveholding Southern states sent delegates to the Nashville Convention to determine their course of action if the compromise passed. While some delegates preached secession, the moderates ruled and proposed a series of compromises, including extending the dividing line designated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.

Taylor died in July 1850, and was succeeded by Vice President Fillmore, who had privately come to support Clay's proposal. [37] The various bills were initially combined into one "omnibus" bill. Despite Clay's efforts, it failed in a crucial vote on July 31, opposed by southern Democrats and by northern Whigs. He announced on the Senate floor the next day that he intended to pass each individual part of the bill. The 73-year-old Clay, however, was physically exhausted as the effects of tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him, began to take their toll. Clay left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas took the lead in attempting to pass Clay's proposals through the Senate. [38]

Fillmore, anxious to find a quick solution to the conflict in Texas over the border with New Mexico, which threatened to become an armed conflict between Texas militia and the federal soldiers, reversed the administration's position late in July and threw its support to the compromise measures. [39] At the same time, Fillmore denied Texas's claims to New Mexico, asserting that United States had promised to protect the territorial integrity of New Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. [40] Fillmore's forceful response helped convince Texas's U.S. Senators, Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk, to support Stephen Douglas's compromise. With their support, a Senate bill providing for a final settlement of Texas's borders won passage days after Fillmore delivered his message. Under the terms of the bill, the U.S. would assume Texas's debts, while Texas's northern border was set at the 36° 30' parallel north (the Missouri Compromise line) and much of its western border followed the 103rd meridian. The bill attracted the support of a bipartisan coalition of Whigs and Democrats from both sections, though most opposition to the bill came from the South. [41] The Senate quickly moved onto the other major issues, passing bills that provided for the admission of California, the organization of New Mexico Territory, and the establishment of a new fugitive slave law. [42]

The debate then moved to the House of Representatives, where Fillmore, Senator Daniel Webster, Douglas, Congressman Linn Boyd, and Speaker of the House Howell Cobb took the lead in convincing members to support the compromise bills that had been passed in the Senate. [43] The Senate's proposed settlement of the Texas-New Mexico boundary faced intense opposition from many Southerners, as well as from some Northerners who believed that the Texas did not deserve monetary compensation. After a series of close votes that nearly delayed consideration of the issue, the House voted to approve a Texas bill similar to that which had been passed by the Senate. [44] Following that vote, the House and the Senate quickly agreed on each of the major issues, including the banning of the slave trade in Washington. [45] The president quickly signed each bill into law save for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; he ultimately signed that law as well after Attorney General Crittenden assured him that the law was constitutional. [46] Though some in Texas still favored sending a military expedition into New Mexico, in November 1850 the state legislature voted to accept the compromise. [47]


Settlement of borders

Map of New Mexico Territory in 1852 New Mexico Territory, 1852.png
Map of New Mexico Territory in 1852
The Utah Territory is shown in blue and outlined in black. The boundaries of the provisional State of Deseret are shown with a dotted line. Utah Territory with Deseret Border, vector image - 2011.svg
The Utah Territory is shown in blue and outlined in black. The boundaries of the provisional State of Deseret are shown with a dotted line.

The general solution that was adopted by the Compromise of 1850 was to transfer a considerable part of the territory claimed by Texas state to the federal government; to organize two new territories formally, the Territory of New Mexico and the Territory of Utah, which expressly would be allowed to locally determine whether they would become slave or free territories, to add another free state to the Union (California), to adopt a severe measure to recover slaves who had escaped to a free state or free territory (the Fugitive Slave Law); and to abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia. A key provision of each of the laws respectively organizing the Territory of New Mexico and the Territory of Utah was that slavery would be decided by local option, called popular sovereignty. That was an important repudiation of the idea behind the failure to prohibit slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. However, the admission of California as a free state meant that southerners were giving up their goal of a coast-to-coast belt of slave states. [48]

Texas was allowed to keep the following portions of the disputed land: south of the 32nd parallel and south of the 36°30' parallel north and east of the 103rd meridian west. The rest of the disputed land was transferred to the Federal Government. The United States Constitution (Article IV, Section 3) does not permit Congress unilaterally to reduce the territory of any state, so the first part of the Compromise of 1850 had to take the form of an offer to the Texas State Legislature, rather than a unilateral enactment. This ratified the bargain and, in due course, the transfer of a broad swath of land from the state of Texas to the federal government was accomplished. In return for giving up this land, the United States assumed the debts of Texas.

From the Mexican Cession, the New Mexico Territory received most of the present-day state of Arizona, most of the western part of the present-day state of New Mexico, and the southern tip of present-day Nevada (south of the 37th parallel). The territory also received most of present-day eastern New Mexico, a portion of present-day Colorado (east of the crest of the Rocky Mountains, west of the 103rd meridian, and south of the 38th parallel); all of this land had been claimed by Texas.

From the Mexican Cession, the Utah Territory received present-day Utah, most of present-day Nevada (everything north of the 37th parallel), a major part of present-day Colorado (everything west of the crest of the Rocky Mountains), and a small part of present-day Wyoming. That included the newly founded colony at Salt Lake, of Brigham Young. The Utah Territory also received some land that had claimed by Texas; this land is now part of present-day Colorado that is east of the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Fugitive Slave Law

One statute of the Compromise of 1850, enacted September 18, 1850, is informally known as the Fugitive Slave Law, or the Fugitive Slave Act. It bolstered the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The new version of the Fugitive Slave Law required federal judicial officials in all states and federal territories, including in those states and territories in which slavery was prohibited, to assist with the return of escaped slaves to their masters actively in the states and territories permitting slavery. Any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave was liable to a fine of $1000. Law enforcement everywhere in the US had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. Suspected slaves could neither ask for a jury trial nor testify on their own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

In addition to federal officials, the ordinary citizens of free states could be summoned to join a posse and be required to assist in the capture, custody, and/or transportation of the alleged escaped slave.

The law was so rigorously pro-slavery as to prohibit the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence at the judicial hearing to determine the status of the accused escaped slave. Thus, if a freedman were claimed to be an escaped slave, they could not resist their return to slavery by truthfully telling their own actual history.

The Fugitive Slave Act was essential to meet Southern demands. In terms of public opinion in the North, the critical provision was that ordinary citizens were required to aid slave catchers. Many northerners deeply resented that requirement to help slavery personally. Resentment towards the Act continued to heighten tensions between the North and South, which were inflamed further by abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin , stressed the horrors of recapturing escaped slaves and outraged Southerners. [49]

End of slave trade in District of Columbia

A statute enacted as part of the compromise prohibited the slave trade but allowed slavery itself in the District of Columbia. [50] Southerners in Congress were unanimous in opposing that provision, which was seen as a concession to the abolitionists, but they were outvoted. [51]


Map of free and slave states c. 1856 Map of Free and Slave States.jpg
Map of free and slave states c.1856

Passage of the Compromise of 1850, as it became known, caused celebration in Washington and elsewhere, with crowds shouting, "the Union is saved!" Fillmore himself described the Compromise of 1850 as a "final settlement" of sectional issues, though the future of slavery in New Mexico and Utah remained unclear. [52] The admission of new states, or the organization of territories in the remaining unorganized portion of the Louisiana Purchase, could also potentially reopen the polarizing debate over slavery. [53] [54] Not all accepted the Compromise of 1850; a South Carolina newspaper wrote, "the Rubicon is passed ... and the Southern States are now vassals in this Confederacy." [55] Many Northerners, meanwhile, were displeased by the fugitive slave law. [56] The debate over slavery in the territories would be re-opened in 1854 through the Kansas–Nebraska Act.

Many historians argue that the Compromise played a major role in postponing the American Civil War for a decade, while the Northwest was growing more wealthy and more populous and was being brought into closer relations with the Northeast. [57] During that decade, the Whig Party had completely broken down, to be replaced with the new Republican Party dominant in the North and the Democrats in the South. [58]

Others argue that the Compromise only made more obvious the pre-existing sectional divisions and laid the groundwork for future conflict. They view the Fugitive Slave Law as helping to polarize the US, as shown in the enormous reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin . The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law aroused feelings of bitterness in the North. Furthermore, the Compromise of 1850 led to a breakdown in the spirit of compromise in the United States in the antebellum period, directly before the Civil War. The Compromise exemplifies that spirit, but the deaths of influential senators who worked on the compromise, primarily Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, contributed to the feeling of increasing disparity between the North and South.

The delay of hostilities for ten years allowed the free economy of the northern states to continue to industrialize. The southern states, largely based on slave labor and cash crop production, lacked the ability to industrialize heavily. [59] By 1860, the northern states had added many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population to the advantages already possessed in 1850. The North was better able to supply, equip, and man its armed forces, which would prove decisive in the later stages of the war.

According to historian Mark Stegmaier, "The Fugitive Slave Act, the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the admission of California as a free state, and even the application of the formula of popular sovereignty to the territories were all less important than the least remembered component of the Compromise of 1850—the statute by which Texas relinquished its claims to much of New Mexico in return for federal assumption of the debts." [60]

Other proposals

Proposals in 1846 to 1850 on the division of the Southwest included the following (some of which are not mutually exclusive):

See also

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History of U.S. foreign policy, 1829–1861

The history of U.S. foreign policy from 1829 to 1861 concerns the foreign policy of the United States during the presidential administrations of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. During this era, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, acquired the Mexican Cession by defeating Mexico in the Mexican–American War and partitioned Oregon Country with Great Britain. The period began with the inauguration of Jackson in 1829, while the onset of the American Civil War in 1861 marked the start of the next period in U.S. foreign policy.

The history of the United States Whig Party lasted from the establishment of the Whig Party early in President Andrew Jackson's second term (1833–1837) to the collapse of the party during the term of President Franklin Pierce (1853–1857).


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