Point of No Return

Compromise of 1850 & Mexican-American War

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What was the Point of No Return for the Civil War?

Considering the era between 1840 and the start of the war in 1861, the Compromise of 1850 marked the point of no return for the Civil War. Instead of finally settling the underlying issue of whether or not slavery should be allowed to exist in the U.S., the Compromise of 1850 merely appeased the northerners and southerners with concessions. By failing to tackle the root of the problem, the compromise heightened tensions between the two regions and made military confrontation, the only way to truly resolve the issue of slavery, inevitable.

Radical Views

The Compromise of 1850 inspired radical views, widening the gap between the anti-slavery northerners and pro-slavery southerners so much that military confrontation between the two regions was inevitable. For example, John C. Calhoun, a southern representative at the Congressional debate discussing the Compromise of 1850, proposed the radical idea of dual presidency to permanently divide executive power between the North and the South. Calhoun’s radical view suggested splitting federal power between the two regions, showing that some southerners already wanted to have political power separate from the northerners. However, the northerners, who mostly wanted to preserve the Union, would not allow a split in federal power. This conflict in interests due to the debate over slavery would inevitably lead to the Civil War. Furthermore, these radical views that arose during the crisis of 1850, like those of Calhoun, forced southern Unionists and other pro-slavery moderates, such as Sam Houston, to decide to either become radicals themselves or be completely excluded from the political debate (Bordewich). Frustrated at the extreme regional divisions in the U.S., Houston exclaimed in the Congressional debate, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand,” eight years before Abraham Lincoln would make the phrase famous (Bordewich). Houston’s ringing declaration foreshadows exemplified the already prevalent sentiment that the debate over slavery would inevitably cause the split of the Union, and ultimately lead to the Civil War.

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Imbalance in Free and Slave States

The Compromise of 1850 also upset the balance between free and slave states, an issue that contributed to the rise of the Civil War. For instance, the compromise admitted California as a free state, an action that worried southerners who feared that the addition of free states might lead to an imbalance in favor of free states that would ultimately result in the abolition of slavery. Thus, the compromise increased regional tensions that would eventually result in a military confrontation, the Civil War. In addition, the Compromise of 1850 did not provide any slavery restrictions in Utah or New Mexico, allowing popular sovereignty to decide whether the states would be free or slave. By giving the citizens the right to decide the slavery status of their state, the compromise established a doctrine that would lead to the north and south fighting to make the state follow their beliefs on slavery, heightening regional tensions to the point where Civil War was inevitable.

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Fugitive Slave Act Resistance

Moreover, the Compromise of 1850 strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, enraging the northerners, who often refused to recognize the pro-slavery act. For example, the northerners organized a convention at Syracuse, New York, where they declared the Fugitive Slave Act to be null and void, and insisted that they must resist its enforcement. In addition, many northern states passed personal-liberty laws, which gave all residents, including fugitive slaves, the right to a jury trial, providing fugitive slaves the opportunity to be freed in the North. Furthermore, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional because it violated its citizens’ rights. In this ruling, as stated by Chief Justice Roger Taney in Ableman v. Booth, the Wisconsin Supreme Court “regard[ed] its own judgment as final,” denying the federal government the judicial power to review its decision (Taney). This bold Wisconsin court ruling illustrated the intensity of northerners’ opposition to slavery, and thus, the strengthened regional differences. The resulting heightened tensions between the North and the South would ultimately escalate to a full-blown military conflict, the Civil War.

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Threats of Secession

Finally, the heated debates in creating the Compromise of 1850 led the southerners to threaten succession. At the end of the congressional debates during the crisis of 1850, some northern representatives already feared secession and begged the other representatives to avoid it. For instance, Senator Daniel Webster stated: “I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, not as a northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. I see it will produce war...” (“Peaceable Secession”). Webster’s prediction reflected the possibility of secession leading to military conflict between the South and the North, a threat that became real and imminent thanks to the Compromise of 1850. While the compromise was supposed to resolve regional tensions due to the issue of slavery, southerners still threatened secession, which would ultimately result in war. Southern militant activists, also known as “fire-eaters,” organized conventions to protect “southern rights” of owning slaves. At one such convention in South Carolina, southerners declared “that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do” (“Declaration of the Immediate Causes”). Therefore, the Compromise of 1850 caused southerners to seriously threaten secession, to which the northern Unionists would object, eventually resulting in military confrontation, the Civil War.

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Why was the Mexican-American War not the point of no return?

While the Mexican-American War contributed to the rise of the Civil War, it was not the point of no return because after the Mexican-American war, the U.S. still had the ability to compromise and maintain a balance in free and slave states, as the Missouri Compromise had previously done. At the time of the war, most northern and southern Democrats as well as southern Whigs supported the expansion of the Missouri compromise line west into the new territory acquired from Mexico (Douglas). This proposal would have kept a balance of free and slave states, and could very well have preserved the union if enacted. According to Georgia's declaration of secession, if some congressman from the North had not explicitly tried to ban slavery in the territories, Georgia would not have left the Union, meaning if a satisfactory compromise was reached with the new land acquired from Mexico, secession and war probably would not have occurred (“Georgia”). Politicians at the time of the Mexican-American War made no significant legal effort to attempt to restrict slavery in the South or force slavery upon the north. As long as a compromise could be reached, and the status quo maintained in established states, war could have been avoided, and throughout the entirety of the Mexican-American war, politicians seemed open to compromise and unwilling to change laws in existing states. Therefore, war was not inevitable and the Mexican-American War was not the point of no return.

Works Cited

Bordewich, Fergus M. ""Secession! Peaceable Secession!"" In America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, 160. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.


“Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of Georgia from the Federal Union.” MasterFILE Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=21212260&site=eds-live.


"Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." Avalon Project. 2008. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp.


Douglas, Frederick. “A Negro View of the Mexican War.” Academic Search Complete. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=21212349&site=eds-live.


"Peaceable Secession an Impossibility." In A Library of American Literature, from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, edited by Edmund Stedman and Ellen Hutchinson. New York, New York: Charles L. Webster, 1891.


Taney, Roger. "Ableman v. Booth 62 U.S. 506 (1858)." Justia Law. Accessed November 16, 2015. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/62/506/case.html.