The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was an attempt to avoid secession and civil war between the North and the South. After the Mexican American War, territories needed to be defined and their stance on slavery needed to be finalized. The compromise was written by Henry Clay of the Whig Party. Clay, along with Democrat Stephen Douglas, convinced Congress to pass the compromise, which consisted of several smaller bills. The compromise addressed the following issues: California’s position as a free or slave state, Texas’ boundaries, and the capital’s role in the slave


The territory of California, which had experienced tremendous growth during the gold rush of 1849, petitioned Congress to become a free state. However, this would disturb the balance of free and slave states maintained by the Missouri Compromise. Also at issue was the large amount of territory the U.S. had gained from its recent war against Mexico. Texas claimed ownership of this new territory, which extended through much of modern day New Mexico. Finally, Washington D.C., the nation's capital, was home to the largest slave market in the U.S., a fact which upset many people.

The Great Debate

The Great Debate

Henry Clay, known for his work in the Missouri Compromise and Nullification Crises, was identified as the "Great Compromiser", and after drafting the Compromise of 1850, he had created what was called the "Great Debate." When proposing his bill, Clay's major opponent of the bill was John C. Calhoun, an influential southern senator. Calhoun claimed that if passed, the proposal would only destroy the equilibrium between the North and South, and as a result, the only option for the South would be to secede. Senator Daniel Webster supported Clay's decisions, gaining the label as the "Villain of the North." But above all, Clay and Webster's biggest obstacle came from President Taylor. However with the back-to-back deaths of both Taylor and Calhoun, it was smooth sailing for Clay from that point on. The President who took on Taylor's position, Fillmore not only supported the Compromise, but he persuaded northern Whigs to back the act as well. After about eight months of debate, Stephen Douglas took over the debate from Clay and made one fundamental move: he broke the compromise into several different sections. By presenting each section one by one, Douglas gained majority support easily and efficiently.


Map of the United States After the Compromise of 1850
Map of the United States After the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise was passed as a series of four smaller bills. Under these bills, Texas gave up the disputed land but was given ten million dollars, which it used to pay off its debt to Mexico. New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah were organized as states without mention of slavery. This decision was passed by popular sovereigntywhen the territories applied for statehood. Slavery remained legal in Washington D.C., but the slave trade was abolished. Furthermore, it was declared that Congress had no right to interfere with inter-state slave trade. Finally, California was admitted as a free state. Since this disrupted the balance of free and slave states, the controversial Fugitive Slave Act was passed to appease the South.


The Compromise did what it was meant to do; it appeased both sides -- temporarily. Both sides were grateful to have found a compromise, but they were unhappy with the actual provisions. The most controversial aspect to the Compromise of 1850 was its approval of the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the act managed to appease the concerns of those who supported slavery, the tranquilizing effects were only temporary. The act made abolitionists more determined in their fight against slavery and forced those ambivalent about the topic to take a definite stance. The Compromise danced around the issue of slavery rather than actually addressing it, so in the end, the Compromise of 1850 only delayed the inevitable -- civil war.