COMPROMISE OF 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was an important set of five bills that was passed by the United States Congress in September of 1850. In general, the Compromise of 1850 dealt with the issue slavery and the divide it had created in the United States in the years before the start of the American Civil War. For example, while slavery had been practised in the United States for a long period, it was a controversial issue by 1850. This is because of the emergence of the American Abolitionist Movement, which sought to bring about an end to slavery in the United States. As such, the Compromise of 1850 was proposed to deal with the issue and the new western territories of the expanding country.
WHAT LED TO THE COMPROMISE OF 1850?
As stated above, the Compromise was a set of five bills that attempted to deal with issues facing the United States at the time. More specifically, the bills were centered around the issue of slavery in new territories that were gained from the Mexican-American War. The Mexican-American War was a conflict between the United States and Mexico that occurred from 1846 until 1848. The conflict between the two countries was sparked following the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845. Before 1845, Texas was a republic called the ‘Republic of Texas’ and was considered to be a sovereign nation alongside Mexico and the United States. However, the Republic of Texas had a large population that was loyal to the United States, which caused President James K. Polk to annex Texas in 1845. However, this angered Mexico, as it believed that some of the territory that the United States claimed was in fact belonging to Mexico. As such, this resulted in the outbreak of the hostilities between the two nations.
The Mexican-American War resulted in several significant battles and thousands of casualties for both sides. Regardless, Mexico was unable to withstand the advances of American forces and ultimately lost following the Battle for Mexico City. The resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed on February 2nd, 1848, saw the United States control over large sections of the modern southwestern United States. For instance, the treaty gave the United States control over the modern states of California, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. As well, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also gave the United States control over parts of what would later become the states of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
The control over these territories created a crisis in the United States in relation to the issue of slavery. At the time, slavery was only practised in the states south of the 36°30′ latitude. Whereas, the states north of the 36°30′ latitude banned the practise of slavery. This was the result of the earlier Missouri Compromise, which was agreed to following the Louisiana Purchase.
The Missouri Compromise was an act of federal legislation from 1820 that created a physical divide between the Northern and Southern states on the practise of slavery in the United States. The compromise included a rule that no new slave states could be added in the western regions of the Louisiana Territory that were located north of the latitude 36°30’ line, and all slaves states were to be located below the line. The Missouri Compromise is significant to the Compromise of 1850, because the 36°30′ latitude again came to play a significant role.
TERMS & PASSAGE OF THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
Following the capture of new western territories from the results of the Mexican-American War, the issue of slavery again became a hot issue. This is because some wanted to extend the 36°30′ latitude of the Missouri Compromise, while others wanted to allow the new states to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery. The issue was at the forefront for United States President Zachary Taylor, who was elected to office in 1848 as a member of the Whig Party.
President Taylor became president in a turbulent time in American history, as both the country and the Congress were divided due to the issue of slavery. As for Taylor, he supported the idea of California becoming a state and argued that Congress should not decide the issue of slavery for the states. In short, Taylor wanted to maintain the Union and did not want to increase the already high tensions.
Senator Henry Clay proposed a compromise on January 29th in 1850 as a means of solving the issue and resolving the tensions. Clay was a central figure of the earlier Missouri Compromise of 1820. For the Compromise of 1850, Clay argued for several key factors, that he believed would help avoid a crisis. First, Clay’s proposal called for California to be added as a ‘free’ state. Second, he argued that Texas should give up some of its territory for debt relief. Third, Clay called for the establishment of new territories, which included Utah and New Mexico. Fourth, he favored a ban on slavery in the District of Columbia. Collectively, these first four proposals did not offer much for Southern ‘slave’ states, as they were generally more favored by the Northern states. As such, for Clay’s fifth proposal he argued in favor of a more powerful fugitive slave law. Escaped slaves were a problem for the Southern slave owners. This was due, in part, to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves from the Southern states escape to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. As a result of this, legislators created the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which sought to stop the practise of escaped slaves. However, the 1793 law failed to stop fugitive slaves from escaping north, so Henry Clay proposed a new fugitive slave law that would offer more protections for the slave owners and force escaped slaves to be returned to the slave plantations. In fact, Clay’s proposal eventually became the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Clay hoped that his proposal would be enough to gain support by both Northerners and Southerners. While it did gain some support, it was also widely criticized by both sides. As such, the compromise faced fierce debate. In fact, United States President Zachary Taylor did not support the idea. Regardless, debate over the compromise continued throughout the summer of 1850. In fact, President Taylor died in July of 1850 with the issue still not resolved. Taylor’s death was significant, because his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, became the next President of the United States. This was significant because Fillmore supported Clay’s Compromise and quickly began to work on its passage. At the same time, Henry Clay was suffering from tuberculosis, and could no longer argue in favor of his compromise. As such, Senator Stephen A. Douglas took over for Clay and went to work on passing the proposal. In fact, it quickly passed through the Senate after Douglas settled some outstanding issues related to borders and it was next sent to the House of Representatives, where it was also passed. Next, President Fillmore signed the separate bills and they became law. The main issues covered in the bills surrounded the settlement of borders, the new fugitive slave law and the end of slavery in the District of Columbia.
IMPACTS OF THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was intended to maintain the union of the United States in a time in which it was dealing with a crisis. President Fillmore saw it as a reasonable solution to the problems facing the country at the time and hoped that it would help the nation avoid a major conflict. While the terms of the Compromise of 1850 did lessen the tensions, it was also heavily criticized by people in both the Northern and Southern states. For example, some Southern states were angered by the Compromise of 1850 because they argued that it did not do enough to protect slavery, and they were worried about the inclusion of western territories. However, some Northern states were also angered by the Compromise of 1850.
For the most part, Northern states hated the terms of the new fugitive slave law (Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). This is because a major provision of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was that Northerners were now responsible for returned escaped slave back to their original plantations. Northerners resented the idea that they were responsible for helping to capture escaped slaves and return them to plantations in the Southern states. For instance, some Northern states and prominent Northerners refused to follow the conditions outlined in the law. More specifically, Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’, which was published in 1852 in response to the conditions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Another example was the actions of the Harriet Tubman, who was a famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Despite the new law, she continued helping slaves to escape, and began helping them escape further north to Canada. This was because, Canada was part of the British Empire and escaped slaves could not be returned from there.
Therefore, historians often view the Compromise of 1850 as a measure that only delayed the crisis in the United States over slavery. For instance, just over a decade later, the country was thrust into the major events of the American Civil War. Because of this, the Compromise of 1850 is an important topic of discussion in the lead up to the outbreak of the Civil War. For instance, hostilities around the issue of slavery would emerge just four years later with the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 and ‘Bleeding Kansas’.
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