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The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 acted as a band-aid over the growing wound of sectional divide.


  • The Compromise of 1850 acted as a temporary truce on the issue of slavery, primarily addressing the status of newly acquired territory after the Mexican-American War.
  • Under the Compromise, California was admitted to the Union as a free state; the slave trade was outlawed in Washington, D.C., a strict new Fugitive Slave Act compelled citizens of free states to assist in capturing enslaved people; and the new territories of Utah and New Mexico would permit white residents to decide whether to allow slavery.
  • Ultimately, the Compromise did not resolve the issue of slavery’s expansion; instead, the fiery rhetoric surrounding the Compromise further polarized the North and the South.

The Mexican Cession begs the slavery question

At the end of the Mexican-American War, the United States gained a large piece of western land known as the Mexican Cession.
The Mexican Cession. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The issue of whether to permit slavery in the territories organized in this new land consumed Congress at the end of the 1840s. During the war, Congressman David Wilmot introduced the Wilmot Proviso, a proposal to ban slavery in any new territory acquired from Mexico. The measure passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
Congress was also seeking resolutions for several other controversial matters. Antislavery advocates wanted to end the slave trade in the District of Columbia, while proslavery advocates aimed to strengthen fugitive slave laws. But the most pressing problem was California: the many emigrants who had flocked to the territory upon the discovery of gold in the late 1840s had forced the question of its statehood and status as a slave or free state.
The presidential election of 1848 determined which of these issues would be tackled first. Southern Mexican-American war military hero Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848, much to the satisfaction of southern slaveholders. Although Taylor himself owned more than one hundred slaves, he prioritized national unity over sectional interests. He called on Congress to admit California as a free state.

The Great Compromiser vs. The Great Nullifier

The debate in Congress heated up quickly. Kentucky senator Henry Clay, also known as the “Great Compromiser,” offered a series of resolutions, most of which aimed to limit slavery’s expansion. Clay answered Taylor’s request, calling for California to enter the Union as a free state, but he coupled this antislavery provision with a more robust federal fugitive slave law in hopes of sectional compromise.
Clay's resolution angered the deathly ill John C. Calhoun, also known as the "Great Nullifier” due to his role in the Nullification crisis. Calhoun, too sick to speak, had his friend deliver a speech condemning Clay's proposal as endangering Southern rights and prosperity. Calhoun reinforced the need for a stronger fugitive slave law and condemned what he saw as northern aggression, warning that the South would leave the Union sooner than submit to limitations on slavery.
Soon thereafter, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster countered Calhoun in his famous “Seventh of March” speech. Webster called for national unity, famously declaring that he spoke “not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American.” While Webster denounced slavery, he regarded disunion as much worse.
Then, Whig senator William H. Seward declared that slavery was incompatible with the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and proclaimed that slavery would be extinguished in the country. Seward’s speech, in which he invoked the idea of a "higher moral law" than the Constitution and displayed contradictions within the Constitutional text itself, brought abolitionist rhetoric from the margins to the mainstream.
From left to right: Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and William Seward. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The speeches made in Congress were published in the nation’s newspapers. The American public followed with great interest, anxious to learn how the issues of the day, especially the potential advance of slavery, would be resolved.
However, President Taylor and Henry Clay’s inability to cooperate stalled the government’s resolutions on slavery. Taylor then became suddenly ill and died within five days. Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him as president and worked with Congress to flesh out the “final” terms of the compromise.

Provisions of the Compromise of 1850

The package of bills included four major provisions:
  • A new, stricter Fugitive Slave Law: Congress passed a strict fugitive slave law, which required officials in all states and territories to assist with the return of enslaved people who had escaped to freedom or pay a substantial fine. Ordinary citizens were also required to assist in recapturing escapees or face fines or imprisonment. There were no safeguards to prevent opportunists from claiming that any person of African descent, including free black citizens of the North, was an escapee.
  • Admission of California as a free state: To balance the Fugitive Slave Act's concession to the South, Congress admitted California as a free state.
  • Popular sovereignty in New Mexico and Utah territories: Congress avoided a direct decision on the question of slavery in the new Territory of New Mexico and the Territory of Utah, employing the principle of popular sovereignty. This allowed white residents of the territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
  • A ban on slave trading in Washington, DC: Antislavery advocates welcomed Congress’s ban on the slave trade in Washington, DC, although slavery itself continued to be legal in the capital.
Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief over the deal brokered in 1850, choosing to believe it had saved the Union. However, the compromise stood as a temporary truce in an otherwise white-hot sectional conflict. Popular sovereignty paved the way for unprecedented violence in the West over the question of slavery.

What do you think?

Who do you think got the better deal in the Compromise of 1850, the North or the South? Why?
How did the Compromise of 1850 amplify the threat of disunion?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Raen V
    "Anti-slavery advocates did not want to abolish slavery where it already existed; rather, they wanted to keep slavery out of the western territories for the benefit of white laborers settling in the area. Abolitionists, however, thought disallowing slavery’s expansion was key to slavery eventually becoming abolished"

    So do the anti-slavery advocates and abolitionists have different beliefs?
    (21 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user HollieBeth
      Yes. Abolitionists believed all people were equal, therefore everyone has equal rights and people of all colors can own property, vote, worship, attend school, etc. Anti-slavery advocates were opposed to slavery for other reasons (often having to due with politics or economics) but they didn’t necessarily believe freed slaves should be allowed to have the same rights as them.
      (21 votes)
  • mr pink green style avatar for user Mike Graf
    One could say the abolitionists got a better deal because despite the law demanding return of fugitive slaves, laws are only as real as practiced. Many laws, even today, are toothless because the proximal populace does not want them enforced. Does anyone know how this Fugitive Slave Law actually played out in practice?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jada.polk
    who do u think got the better deal in the compromise of 185o
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      The North; the South's only concession of value that it received was the Fugitive Slave Law (which was also nullified or resisted by the North). Ultimately it wasn't about who got the "better deal", it's about the growing intensity of tension and animosity between the two sides.
      (16 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nadia Vasco
    How was the Compromise of 1850 a cause of the Civil War?
    (10 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user sfor0041
      The four main changes in the Compromise of 1850 caused tensions to build up before the civil war. The south already believed that a slave economy would benefit the nation as a whole and were constantly ready to defend against any anti-slavery institutions put in place. Also, having California as a free state and popular sovereignty for Utah and New Mexico serves as a threat to how the south makes their living because free states would have more power in congress, making slavery more likely to be abolished. These tensions would be offset in 1860, the time of Abraham Lincoln's (who is against slavery) presidency.

      This is 5 years late but hopefully it helps the next reader :)
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user olivia.smith
    "Taylor then became suddenly ill and died within five days."
    Just out of curiousity, does anyone know what illness killed Taylor? I find it odd that he suddenly died, especially when his "inability to cooperate stalled the government’s resolutions on slavery."
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      You're right, it definitely seems strange. Over the years, there have been several theories that Taylor's death was an assassination instead of just a gastrointestinal disease. Nobody knows what killed Zachary Taylor for sure, but it's most commonly believed that it was some sort of diarrhoea or G.I. disease
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Isaac D. Cohen
    In paragraph 4 (counting the overview) mention is made of "Anti Slavery Advocates". What did these people believe? And how did their position differ from pro slavery advocates or abolitionists?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user chastity elder
    how did this cause the civil war?
    (5 votes)
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  • mr pink green style avatar for user angel
    why were they in slavery that is for the Mexican american war
    (3 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Austin
      At that point in U.S History, slavery was still thriving in the southern states of the U.S. This means there were still slaves in almost all southern states and some northern ones too. The Civil War had not taken place yet, even though the Compromise was one source of tension on the topic of slaves that lead to the most of the South seceding from the Union. Slavery, even though opposed by most in the North, had not been abolished yet. The Mexican-American War and the land gained by the war just added to the growing issue of slavery and if it should be allowed.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Valenzuela, Francisco
    How did the Compromise of 1850 amplify the threat of disunion?
    (5 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Sarah Marcotte
    One part of the Missouri Compromise was to limit slavery's expansion in the country by constricting it to the southern half of the country. When Congress allowed for states to use popular sovereignty to decide if it were a slave state or not, did that nullify that part of the Missouri Compromise?
    (5 votes)
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