Compromise of 1850

Reese Vogel and Christina McGee

The Point of No Return: Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was a desperate attempt to salvage the Union after the disputed status of territory gained from the Mexican-American War. Henry Clay first proposed the Compromise of 1850. Stephen A. Douglas broke the bill into five parts, and then Daniel Webster helped pass the law through Congress. The Compromise of 1850 was created to solve the argument over slavery in the new territories gained from the Mexican-American War.

The five parts of the Compromise of 1850

  1. Fugitive Slave Law
  2. California enters Union as a free state
  3. Resolved boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico
  4. Slave trade in Washington DC abolished
  5. Organization of conquered lands into New Mexico and Utah territories and gave them popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery

President Millard Fillmore supporting the Compromise of 1850

"I believe those measures to have been required by the circumstances and condition of the country. I believe they were necessary to allay asperities and animosities that were rapidly alienating one section of the country from another and destroying those fraternal sentiments which are the strongest supports of the Constitution. They were adopted in the spirit of conciliation and for the purpose of conciliation."

Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Law was a major component of the Compromise of 1850 that furthered differences between the North and the South. The Fugitive Slave Law was the most important contribution to making the Compromise of 1850 a turning point for the Civil War. Because the North gained so much from the Compromise, Henry Clay devised this new Fugitive Slave Law to offset the anger of the South. The law demanded that all US citizens "to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required." The Fugitive Slave Law gave federal support to slave catchers and oftentimes free black men were captured and made slaves. This law is an example of the tense relations between the North and the South. Many southerners felt that Northern abolitionists were promoting slave revolts by ignoring the law or helping blacks escape the reach of the law. Eventually, this attempt to appease the differing northern and southern views on slavery fails, and in 1860 because of these major regional differences, South Carolina secedes from the Union setting the precedent for other southern states to secede and eventually causing the Civil War.

Burns Fugitive Slave Case of 1854

This was the one of the most famous fugitive slave cases following the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. It involved Anthony Burns, a successfully escaped slave from Virginia and Northerners in Boston protecting black peoples' rights. When Burns' owner came to Boston to collect him, the people of Boston rioted and the federal government had to send troops to quell the disturbance. Later, rich citizens of Boston paid $1,300 for Burns' freedom and he returned to Boston.

Southern Resistance

Overall, Southerners were unhappy with the Compromise because it favored the North. Paul Finkelman says this then caused southern nationalists to "push for more concessions for slavery, while also stimulating them to push their disunion agenda" (Finkelman 38). Before the Compromise, southerners saw secession as a very possible political solution, and the Compromise did not stop this line of thought, even though it prevented immediate secession. Because the Compromise was generally anti-slavery, it made the South more wary of more future limitations on slavery.

The Fire-Eaters

After the Compromise, militant activists, or fire-eaters, in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama organized conventions to protect southern rights. Georgia congressman Alexander H. Stephens called on members of these conventions to prepare “men and money, arms and munitions, etc. to meet the emergency” (Henretta 430). The Compromise made the southerners more wary of increases in the chance of abolition of slavery. This fear made the southerners more mentally and physically prepared for secession and war.

Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854

Although the Compromise of 1850 was the tipping point in causing the Civil War, it could be argued that the Kansas Nebraska Act was equally important. The Kansas Nebraska Act directly violated the Missouri Compromise by granting popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This caused even further anger in the North because it basically repealed the Missouri Compromise which set the line that divided the slave and free states. Nebraska and Kansas were above this 36°30’ line, and therefore should lawfully have been frees states.


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Picture of Stephen Douglas:

Map of Kansas Nebraska Act:

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