Compromise of 1850

Date: From 1850-09-09 to 1850-09-20

Place: Washington, DC

Following the election of Zachary Taylor in 1848 and the end of the Mexican War, the status of slavery in the new territory acquired from Mexico remained unresolved. The Wilmot Proviso had attempted to solve the problem by barring slavery’s expansion but failed three separate times. The subsequent gold rush in California exacerbated the situation by dramatically increasing its population and fostering a desire for statehood. Conflict over the extent of Texas’ western border also provoked a Congressional response.

The ensuing Compromise was initially envisioned by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others. It was complicated and contained many provisions. Originally envisioned as an Omnibus Bill that would put the entire compromise in place with one vote, it failed and each of its provisions had to be passed separately, largely due to the guidance of Stephen A. Douglas. In the end, the compromise admitted California as a free state and created the territories of New Mexico and Utah, leaving their slave status to a vote when they achieved statehood. Texas relinquished its western claims to New Mexico in return for Congress assuming the debts it incurred as an independent republic. As a concession to southerners agitated about the lax enforcement of federal fugitive slave legislation and the increasing number of runaways to the free states, Congress amended the Fugitive Slave Act, increasing the penalty for harboring and assisting runaways from $500 to $1,000 and six months in jail, and requiring citizens to assist in the enforcement of the law. As a concession to northerners, the slave trade was permanently banned from the District of Columbia.

The Compromise of 1850 succeeded in tempering sectional animosity for a time but mounting dissatisfaction with the agreement - the Fugitive Slave Act in particular - eventually limited its effectiveness. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively broke the issue open again, eventually leading to the Civil War.

Fergus M. Bordewich, America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012); Robert V. Remini, At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union (New York: Basic Books, 2010); David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 90-120; “An Act to Amend, and Supplementary to, the Act Entitled ‘An Act Respecting Fugitives From Justice, and Persons Escaping from the Service of their Masters,’ Approved February Twelfth, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Three,” 18 September 1850, Statutes at Large of the United States 9 (1862):462-65.