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Compromise 3: Clay and The 1850 Debate

May 2024
5min read

Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe

On a raw evening in winter of 1850, a weary-looking, feeble, and desperately ill old man arrived unannounced at the Washington, D.C. residence of Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had come to seek Webster’s help in his battle to save the Union. He believed that Webster’s legendary eloquence would be essential in preventing what appeared to be a headlong rush by Southern states to secede from the Union and possibly initiate civil war.

Webster welcomed his colleague and noticed that the 72-year-old Clay looked ill and coughed incessantly. (Neither man would live another three years.) He listened intently as the Kentuckian outlined a compromise that would at least postpone a national crisis that had begun as a result of a war with Mexico that both men had opposed.

The Mexican surrender in 1848 had ceded to the United States vast new territories, which included the lands within the present-day states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, a corner of Wyoming, and the western slope of Colorado. In addition, Mexico had recognized the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, the United States agreed to pay Mexico $15 million and to satisfy $3.25 million in claims by its citizens against Mexico.

This great stretch of land had been free of slavery under Mexican law, and most Northerners expected that it would continue to be so. But Southerners, who had contributed so much to the military effort, argued that they had a right to introduce slavery into the region. Quarreling between the North and South had already arisen over the issue. The war with Mexico had barely begun when, on August 6, 1846, Rep. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania had moved an amendment to an appropriations bill forbidding slavery in any territory that the United States might acquire as a result of the conflict. This “Wilmot proviso” set off a wild debate and ended with the passage of the proviso in the House, where Northerners held a majority, but not in the Senate.

Abolitionists also sought to put an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. It was a disgrace, they protested, that visitors and foreign dignitaries might observe the buying and selling of human beings in the nation’s capital. Because Congress controlled the District, such an action would be perfectly constitutional.

The situation worsened when the Mississippi state legislature passed a resolution denouncing the notion that slavery could be excluded from the new territories. The resolution also called upon other Southern states to meet together in Nashville in early June 1850 to discuss the problem and adopt a course of action. Radicals throughout the South endorsed the call, recognizing it as a perfect vehicle to bring about secession.

Debate in the U.S. House grew extremely heated. “I . . . avow before this House and country,” cried Robert Toombs of Georgia, “and in the presence of the living God, that if by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico . . . and to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon the States of this Confederacy, I am for disunion and . . . I will devote all I am and all I have on earth to its consummation.” Arguments flared into fistfights and finally resulted in a melee. “Had a bomb exploded in the hall,” recalled the sergeant-at-arms, “there could not have been greater excitement.”

In the Senate the situation—for the moment—was much calmer. Clay knew immediately that only compromise could avert approaching disaster. And while compromise meant that each side needed to give something up, it did not require the sacrifice of principles or beliefs. With compromise, there could be no losers; each contending group of partisans must gain something they regarded as important. So Clay spent the next several weeks working out a settlement that would be acceptable to both North and South.

On January 21, his work done, he trudged over to Webster’s house and outlined his proposals. They talked for an hour. Webster marveled at what Clay had produced and was sure it would be “satisfactory to the North and to the reasonable men of the South.” Clay then set off to round up as many senators who would join him in preventing secession.

Finally, on January 29, 1850, he rose in the Senate to present eight resolutions, which in combination, he asserted, would bring about “an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery.” They provided for the admission of California and New Mexico without mentioning slavery. The people in these territories, not Congress, would determine whether slavery would be included or excluded. Because there was a quarrel between New Mexico and Texas over their common boundary, Clay also proposed that the United States assume Texas’s debt before annexation on the condition that Texas forgo all territorial claims upon New Mexico. The resolutions further declared it was “inexpedient” to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia but “expedient” to forbid the slave trade there. Finally, Clay’s proposals called for the passage of a more effective fugitive slave law and forbade Congress from interfering with the slave trade. Here was something for both North and South, and over the next several months Clay explained and defended his proposals, begging his colleagues to join him in winning their passage for the sake of the Union. President Zachary Taylor had his own plan for the territories and wanted to admit California separately because its population had swelled from 6,000 to 85,000 virtually overnight, owing to the discovery of gold in the foothills of Sierra Nevada. To separate California from the compromise, however, would upset the balance between what the North and South could expect to receive from the passage of Clay’s resolutions as a body.

Then Sen. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi suggested forming a committee that could shape the eight resolutions into a single bill. Clay resisted this suggestion, calling such a package a “sort of omnibus”—a term that referred to the newest form of urban mass transportation. Obviously, a single bill had a better chance of preventing a presidential veto, while a series of measures would give Taylor the opportunity to pick and choose. The compromise depended on passage of all the proposals, so Clay yielded to Foote.

During the lengthy debate that followed, the dying Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, in a speech read by a colleague, blamed the North for bringing the country to the edge of disaster and entreated it to yield to each of the Southern demands. Webster, in his famous 7th of March Speech, responded by blaming both sections for the present crisis and warning of the indescribable horrors of war that secession would bring.

As the debate continued, the Nashville Convention convened, and, despite many threats from those who favored secession, the members decided to wait and see what Congress decided. Suddenly, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor died of cholera and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore, a close friend of Clay and a man who favored his compromise. Unfortunately, when the single bill was brought to the Senate floor later that month, every one of the resolutions was defeated. The omnibus failed because the senators were required to swallow it whole. They could not vote for one proposal and against another. The omnibus thus united those who opposed compromise.

A defeated Clay left Washington and went on a three-week vacation to restore his health. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois thereupon took command of the compromise forces, claiming that if each resolution were voted on separately, all would pass. In August he brought each separate bill to a successful vote, providing what would be called the Compromise of 1850. The Nashville Convention adjourned without recommending secession.

The Compromise of 1850 delayed the Civil War for a decade, giving the North valuable time to further industrialize and strengthen its ability to survive a protracted war, an advantage the South would not enjoy. And those 10 years would also see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln, the statesman who would restore the Union after it split apart.

Many in the North reviled the compromise because it produced a tougher fugitive slave law, but, as Webster reminded them, it was the law of the land and must be obeyed by all. Little of lasting importance can be accomplished without willingness on the part of all involved to seek to accommodate one another’s needs and demands. The Compromise of 1850 is a prime example of how the power brokers of that period avoided a catastrophic smash-up—just in time—and saved the Union.

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