The Compromise of 1850

The True Point of No Return


In the early 1800s, the United States struggled to create national cohesion as regional differences drove the country apart. Slavery represented the paramount factor in provoking problems that would inevitably result in civil war. Between 1840 and 1861, many events exacerbated the nation’s sectional differences leading up to the war, such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, whose policies, including that of popular sovereignty, sparked a national debate over slavery that grew beyond the government’s control. However, the Compromise of 1850 ultimately marked the point of no return for the Civil War due to its “middle-path” solution. Although it temporarily mollified the North and South, it did not provide a definite solution for the slavery conflict, thereby intensifying regional differences. The compromise failed to properly address the issue of slavery, irrevocably furthering polarization and in turn setting the precedent for the turmoil of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

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Leading up to the Compromise

As a result of the Gold Rush, California was rapidly populated and soon qualified for admission into the Union. In 1849, it ratified a state constitution prohibiting slavery, and the president urged Congress to admit California as a free state. However, California’s potential entrance as a free state angered pro-slavery Southern states, instigating a heated debate in Congress regarding the expansion of slavery.

What was The Compromise of 1850?

The Compromise of 1850 was the passage of five separate laws in an attempt to avert a crisis in Congress. To please the South, it passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave federal support to slave catchers. Then, to satisfy the North, it admitted California as a free state, resolved a boundary dispute between New Mexico and Texas in favor of New Mexico, and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Lastly, the compromise created New Mexico and Utah from the rest of the conquered Mexican lands and invoked popular sovereignty in those states.


The Compromise of 1850 thwarted the immediate threat of war and ostensibly preserved national unity. However, this unity proved temporary and false, as once again conflicts regarding slavery arose, but this time to a more extreme level than ever before.

Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, the most controversial policy of the compromise, resulted in the abandonment of nonviolence. On September 1851, 20 African Americans exchanged gunfire with Maryland slave catchers, killing two of them. After this, violence seemed unavoidable.

Frederick Douglas: “The only way to make a Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is

to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.”

The compromise diminished the legitimacy of federal power in the eyes of both the North and South. Not entirely confident in the compromise’s effectiveness, Southerners continued to threat succession.

Georgia congressman Alexander H. Stephens called on convention delegates to

prepare “men and money, arms and munitions, etc. to meet the emergency.”

Stating it violated state sovereignty, Northern state legislators denounced the Compromise of 1850, passing personal-liberty laws that guaranteed to all residents, including alleged fugitives, the right to a jury trial. In the Ableman v. Booth case of 1857, Wisconsin ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional as it restricted the rights of Wisconsin’s citizens. In denying the authority of the federal judiciary to review its decision, the state denied federal authority. As a result of a faulty compromise, the federal government experienced a loss in its ability to unite the states together as the north and south increasingly polarized on the issue of slavery.

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Poster about Fugitive Slave Act

This poster was made in Boston to warn colored people to stay away from watchmen and Police officers. As a result of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act in the Compromise of 1850, northerners and abolitionists sought to protect innocent colored people against an unjust and corrupt law. As individuals increasingly polarized on their views of slavery, the Union grew closer to the prospect of civil war; thus, the Compromise of 1850 served as a turning point for civil war.

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The Georgia Platform 1850

"Fourth. That the State of Georgia ... will and ought to resist ... any future Act of Congress abolishing Slavery in the District of Columbia, without the consent and petition of the slaveholders thereof, or any Act abolishing Slavery in places within the slave-holding States, ... or in any Act suppressing the slave-trade between slave-holding States; or in any refusal to admit as a State any Territory applying because of the existence of Slavery therein; or in any Act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the Territories of Utah and New Mexico; or in any Act repealing or materially modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves."

The Compromise of 1850's moderate policies did little to resolve issues over slavery between the North and South. The Georgia Platform indicates how southerners grew increasingly discontent with federal policies, implying that any unwanted law could incite calls for secession. Therefore, the compromise indicated the point of no return because its ineffectiveness further aggravated southern fears, pushing the Union towards armed conflict over slavery.

Clay's Resolutions

"But, resolved, That it is expedient to prohibit, within the District, the slave trade in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein as merchandise, or to be transported to other markets without the District of Columbia."

"Resolved, That more effectual provision ought to be made by law, according to the requirement of the constitution, for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State, who may escape into any other State or Territory in the Union.”

The Compromise of 1850 further polarized the sectional differences between the North and South as Congress passed legislation that abolished slavery in some areas of the country, angering the South, and passed the Fugitive Slave Law, angering the North. The increased polarization marked the point of no return as both sides sought to protect their own interests and liberties, prompting calls of secession and the possibility of civil war as no definite solution was reached.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

In response to the controversial Fugitive Slave Law from the Compromise of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe sought to expose the atrocities of slavery, leading to the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This book caused a shift in public opinion about slavery by polarizing opposite sides through forcing moderates to take a strong stance on the debates over slavery. This division pushed the Union towards civil war as people became increasingly set in their views and resistant to any form of compromise. Consequently, the Compromise of 1850 marked the point of no return for the civil war.

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Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

The Compromise of 1850 set the precedent for the widespread application of popular sovereignty in new territories as the compromise allowed the settlers in Utah and New Mexico to decide whether states would come into the Union as a slave or free state. This growing trend of popular sovereignty was reflected in the the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave the power of declaring the status as free or slave state to the people. Although some may argue that the Act was the point of no return for the civil war due to the controversial policies and resulting bloodshed, its policies embodied ideals set forth in the Compromise of 1850. Thus, the Compromise of 1850 was the true point of no return.

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The Compromise of 1850’s moderate, “middle-path” solution attempted to appease everyone. But by conceding the stipulation advanced by the South once again, it alienated Northern abolitionists and, by never ensuring the future continuation of American slavery, did not placate Southern fears. Abolitionists and pro-slavery people grew increasingly defiant to negotiation as a result of the compromise’s ineffectiveness. Thus, it did not solve the long-term problem of slavery, worsening regional tensions as shown by the violence and the federal government’s diminishing control over issues of slavery. The compromise ultimately polarized the country to an immutable extent, demonstrating that it is truly the point of no return for the Civil War.


"Compromise of 1850." American Eras. Vol. 7: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 191-193. U.S. History in Context. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Clay, Henry. "Clay's Resolutions." Social Policy: Essential Primary Sources. Ed. K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 86-88. U.S. History in Context. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Cruikshank, George. "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Government, Politics, and Protest: Essential Primary Sources. Ed. K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 42-44.U.S. History in Context. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Henretta, James and Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, Robert Self. America's History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014.