As a consequence of the war with Mexico (1846–1848), the United States gained a large territory in the Southwest, now comprising the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado. The question immediately arose as to whether the organization of this territory would permit slavery. In addition, the discovery of gold in California (1848) led to a rush of people to the gold fields and its subsequent request to enter the Union as a free state. At the same time, southerners complained that Northern states were interfering, in violation of the Constitution (Article IV, section 2) and federal law, with the recovery of slaves who escaped to their jurisdiction. Finally, those opposed to slavery were particularly disturbed by its existence in the nation’s capital and campaigned for its abolition there. And, of course, the slave population had continued to grow. In 1830, there had been just over 2 million. In 1850, there were over 3 million. By 1850, these various conflicts created by the presence and continued growth of slavery threatened the existence of the Union.
Faced with this crisis, Whig Senator Henry Clay (1777–1852) proposed a compromise, as he had done 30 years before during the Missouri Crisis (Speech to Congress and Missouri Compromise Act). On January 29, 1850, Clay rose in the Senate to offer a series of resolutions, reproduced here, addressing the issues dividing the country. The resolutions became a set of five laws passed by Congress in 1850, with the assistance of first-term Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (“Nebraska Territory” and “Homecoming” Speech at Chicago). Together, the laws are referred to as the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise succeeded in quelling sectional conflict. Both pro- and anti-slavery factions yielded something to the other. California was admitted as a free state while Congress remained silent on the question of slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories. Texas was reorganized with its present boundaries, and the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was abolished in the District of Columbia. The South also got a stricter fugitive slave law. Clay—always “the man for a crisis,” as Abraham Lincoln called him—died two years after the Compromise of 1850, before sectional conflict ignited again one final time.
Source: Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 1st Session, 244–47, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=022/llcg022.db&recNum=331. Clay presented his resolutions in a speech. We reprint here only the text of the resolutions.
It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these states, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable and just basis: therefore,
Resolved, that California, with suitable boundaries, ought, upon her application to be admitted as one of the states of this Union, without the imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery within those boundaries.
Resolved, that as slavery does not exist by law, and is not likely to be introduced into any of the territory acquired by the United States from the republic of Mexico, it is inexpedient for Congress to provide by law either for its introduction into, or exclusion from, any part of the said territory; and that appropriate territorial governments ought to be established by Congress in all of the said territory, not assigned as the boundaries of the proposed state of California, without the adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.
Resolved, that the western boundary of the state of Texas ought to be fixed on the Rio del Norte, commencing one marine league from its mouth, and running up that river to the southern line of New Mexico; thence with that line eastwardly, and so continuing in the same direction to the line as established between the United States and Spain, excluding any portion of New Mexico, whether lying on the east or west of that river.
Resolved, that it be proposed to the state of Texas, that the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the legitimate and bona fide public debt of that state contracted prior to its annexation to the United States, and for which the duties on foreign imports were pledged by the said state to its creditors, not exceeding the sum of ______ dollars, in consideration of the said duties so pledged having been no longer applicable to that object after the said annexation, but having thenceforward become payable to the United States; and upon the condition, also, that the said state of Texas shall, by some solemn and authentic act of her legislature or of a convention, relinquish to the United States any claim which it has to any part of New Mexico.
Resolved, that it is inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia whilst that institution continues to exist in the state of Maryland, without the consent of that state, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.
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. And,
Resolved, that Congress has no power to promote or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slaveholding states; but that the admission or exclusion of slaves brought from one into another of them, depends exclusively upon their own particular laws.
- What reasons are given for the enactment of the law in the preamble? What does the law say about the future status of slavery in California, the Mexican Territory, and the District of Columbia? What reasons are given in each case? How, and in what ways, does the law represent a compromise between North and South on the question of slavery?
- How would Frederick Douglass (“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”) and John C. Calhoun (Speech on the Oregon Bill) think differently about the Compromise of 1850? What explains the difference in their respective approaches?
- The two resolutions dealing with the state of Texas were only indirectly related to slavery. Texas had claims to territory to its west that the United States won from Mexico in 1848. Organizing that territory did have a direct connection to the slavery issue, but the territory could not be organized without settling the claims of Texas, which joined the Union in 1845, after seceding from Mexico. Clay’s resolutions addressed the Texas border issue, resolving it with a compromise within the broader compromise: Texas gave up its claims on the western territory in exchange for some help paying the debts it had incurred freeing itself from Mexico. To support this compromise, Clay argued that in accepting Texas into the Union, the United States had accepted responsibility for its debts.