Compromise of 1850

Divisions over slavery in territory gained in the Mexican-American (1846-48). War were resolved in the Compromise of 1850. It consisted of laws admitting California as a free state, creating Utah and New Mexico territories with the question of slavery in each to be determined by popular sovereignty, settling a Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute in the former’s favor, ending the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and making it easier for southerners to recover fugitive slaves.

The compromise was the last major involvement in national affairs of Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, all of whom had had exceptional careers in the Senate. Calhoun died the same year, and Clay and Webster two years later.

At first, Clay introduced an omnibus bill covering these measures. Calhoun attacked the plan and demanded that the North cease its attempts to limit slavery. By backing Clay in a speech delivered on March 7, Webster antagonized his onetime abolitionist supporters. Senator William H. Seward of New York opposed compromise and earned an undeserved reputation for radicalism by claiming that a “higher law” than the Constitution required the checking of slavery. President Zachary Taylor opposed the compromise, but his death on July 9 made procompromise vice president Millard Fillmore of New York president. Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the omnibus bill.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois then split the omnibus proposal into individual bills so that congressmen could abstain or vote on each, depending on their interests. They all passed, and Fillmore signed them. The compromise enabled Congress to avoid sectional and slavery issues for several years.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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