Compromise of 1850

By: Madelyn Becker

The Compromise of 1850

The Civil War began in 1861, but the republican crisis that set the stage for the conflict unfolded in 1850. The Compromise of 1850, a series of legislative bargains over the western territories and slavery, demonstrated that American political leaders could still defuse sectional tensions. What they could not do was resolve deeper social and political problems that simmered under the surface of legislative bargains, congressional balancing, and soaring oratory. Excluding slavery from American politics made it possible for the Democrats and the Whigs -- the two major parties of the antebellum period --to function north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Although from 1820 to 1846 the parties maintained cross sectional alliances that suppressed sectional ideologies, the events that led to the Compromise of 1850 revealed how fragile those alliances were. To maintain the two party balance, national leaders would have to quarantine the issue of slavery. But national expansion and the rise of militant abolitionism made it increasingly difficult to exclude slavery from national attention.

The dispute that led to the Compromise of 1850 was at its root a crisis of republicanism, the ideological tradition that grew out of the movement for American independence. Both sections used their own version of republicanism to make sense of the crisis of the late 1840s; despite masterful diplomacy, the agreement of 1850 failed to resolve the conflict between them. Partisan allegiances returned after 1850, but the Compromise forced Americans to realize that they might have to “form a more perfect union” than the one they had inherited.

The Compromise of 1850 consists of five laws passed in September of 1850 that dealt with the issue of slavery. In 1849 California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state, potentially upsetting the balance between the free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of resolutions on January 29, 1850, in an attempt to seek a compromise and avert a crisis between North and South. As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was amendedand the slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished. Furthermore,California entered the Union as a free state and a territorial government was created in Utah. In addition, an act was passed settling a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico that also established a territorial government in New Mexico.
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