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American History: The Compromise of 1850 Essay


The compromise of 1850 represents a package of five different bills that were enacted in September of 1850 in the United States of America. Though established with the main intention of keeping the country together and avoiding the possibility of confrontations as much as possible, this package was one of the major activities the hat propelled the onset of the American Civil War in the year 1961 (Russel 293).

Henry Clay brought the bill to the floor of the Senate. He received support from other Republican representatives, like Daniel Webster. Unlikely democrat support came from Senator Stephen Douglas, leading to its approval. The bill aimed at salvaging the Union by reaching an agreement regarding slavery in the South (Russel 294).

Contentious Issues Resulting in the Compromise

Several issues of contention necessitated the drafting of the compromise. The major issue that necessitated the drafting of the compromise was the US-Mexican War. This war resulted in the United States acquiring big territories of California and New Mexico Utah (Hamilton 580).

Concerns arose about whether to allow these territories into the Union as slave states or free states, as the Wilmot Proviso Bill of 1846 did not succeed in stopping slavery within the territories that won during the war. The state of Texas wanted to acquire the north Missouri area with the aim of extending the slave trade. It also wanted to acquire the New Mexico area for the same purpose. The Republicans were pushing for the stoppage of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. (Russel 295).

There was a polarized debate about the treatment of the blacks as slaves, which divided the states in the north and the states in the south. The states in the south had the fear that allowing new free states to join the Union would disrupt their freedom to trade in slaves. The opposition reached the extent of the states in the south, refusing the fugitive slaves from coming back. This polarization resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, which occurred back in 1803.

Allowing the free states to the Union was deemed as a call for cessation and warfare. Therefore, there were only two options; to reach a form of compromise between the southern and the northern states or to allow the South to secede from the Union (Hamilton 590). Lastly, the compromise was necessitated by extensive population growth and the gold rush, which attracted multitudes of people to California.

The California Convention agreed to ban slavery and the slave trade in its jurisdiction after meeting in 1849. It also asked the US government to allow California to become a member of the Union on the status of a free state. However, the Missouri Compromise would be violated if California was to be accepted as a member of the Union (Russel 301).

The request by the California territory on December 3, 1849, to be allowed into the Union as a free state and its constitutional prohibition of slavery within its state resulted in a crisis that needed a compromise to settle. The issue was even complicated further by unresolved concerns of extending slavery regions that were ceded by Mexico in 1848. Senator Henry Clay termed as the “Great Compromiser”, drafted the Compromise of 1850 to maintain the equilibrium between the slave and the free states (Hamilton 582).

Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser”

Henry Clay stood up on the 29th day of January 1850 in the Old Senate Chambers to start a debate that ended up being the most important in his entire career. He was proposing measures that would ensure a lasting solution. He had to go back to Congress to pursue the compromise because the strife was threatening to divide the nation and possibly resulting in the civil war.

Clay came up with a total of eight resolutions that aimed at resolving the dispute that emanated from the areas that were taken by America after the Mexican war. However, the major issue was whether states engraved from those territories would stop or permit slavery. Clay spearheaded this contentious debate for a period of six months (Hamilton 585-586).

The Mississippi Senator was of the opinion that the resolutions drafted by Clay should be in the form of a single bill. Clay later endorsed this to be the first Omnibus bill by the Senate, which he explained to be neither southern nor northern, but fair and equal- a true compromise. Clay pleaded with the House members to pass the bill during his speech in the House, a call that the House heeded to and saw California become a free state.

The other impact of the bill was that Washington DC would bring to an end the slavery it promoted. The fugitive slaves in the south states were also protected further in the bill (Hamilton 590). This proposed compromise, according to Clay, was a true representation of the “Reunion of (the) Union”.

Clay’s efforts were, however, thwarted by the Senate’s rejection of the proposed bill 7 days later. The Northerners were against any attempt of returning back fugitive slaves, while the Southerners were unhappy about the restrictions on slavery (Hamilton, “Democratic Senate Leadership” 410).

The Enactment Phase of the Compromise

The proposed bill was strongly opposed by President Taylor, thus it did not pass. His sudden death, however, brought a new hope over the success of the bill. The initial failure of the bill unified the opposition so much that they agreed never to support any bill from the opposing side, even if it meant they lose their own benefits (Hamilton, “Democratic Senate Leadership” 410). It should, however, be noted that this bill was rejected as a package, though the congressmen were never against provisions individually.

Clay resigned from the Senate following the deterioration of his health from tuberculosis. He, however, sponsored Stephen Douglas, an energetic young Illinois Democrat, who divided the bill into individual bills. The division of the bills allowed the Congress to vote on individual bills. In September 1850, all the five individual bills were approved by the Congress and ascended to by the new president, Fillmore (Hamilton, “Democratic Senate Leadership” 411).

The Provisions of the Compromise of 1850

Although the compromise appeared to benefit each of the states, the northern states appeared to gain more from the compromise. The gains of the north included the admission of California in the Union as a free state, abolishing the slave trade within Washington, DC, and Texas lost the boundary row with New Mexico (Hamilton, “Democratic Senate Leadership” 416).

In return, the south received a sum of $10 million as compensation for its loss from the federal government, a new Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, and the territories of Utah and New Mexico were allowed to decide on their issues based on “popular sovereignty” (Gara 55). A comparison of these benefits between the south and north shows that the north had better and stronger benefits that were longer lasting than the South.

Works Cited

Gara, Larry. “The Fugitive Slave Law: A Double Paradox.” Civil War History, 10.3 (1964): 54-56. Print.

Hamilton, Holman. “Democratic Senate Leadership and the Compromise of 1850.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 41.3 (1954): 403-418. Print.

Hamilton, Holman. “Texas Bonds and Northern Profits: A study in Compromise, Investment, and Lobby Influence.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 43.4 (1957): 579-594. Print.

Russel, Robert. “What was the Compromise of 1850?” Journal of Southern History, 22.3 (1956): 292- 309. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "American History: The Compromise of 1850." March 22, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-history-the-compromise-of-1850/.

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