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The Crisis of 1850 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3273


On a hot July day in 1849 a party of Texas slave owners and their slaves arrived in the California gold fields. As curious prospectors looked on, the Texans staked out claims and put their slaves to work panning for gold. White miners considered it unfair that they should have to compete with slave labor. They held a mass meeting and resolved "that no slave or Negro should own claims or even work in the mines." They ordered the Texans out of the gold fields within 24 hours.

Three days later, the white miners elected a delegate to a convention that had been called to frame a state constitution for California. At the convention, the miners' delegate proposed that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" should ever "be tolerated" in California. The convention adopted his proposal unanimously.

California's application for admission to the Union as a free state in September of 1849 raised the question that would dominate American politics during the 1850s: Would slavery be allowed to expand into the West or would the West remain free soil?

It was the issue of slave expansion--and not the morality of slavery--that would make antislavery a respectable political position in the North, polarize public opinion, and initiate the chain of events that led the United States to civil war.

In 1849, the free states held a commanding majority in the House of Representatives. Therefore the political power of proslavery Southerners depended on maintaining a balance of power in the Senate. If California was admitted as a free state, there would be 16 free states and only 15 slave states. The sectional balance of power in the Senate would be disrupted, and the white South feared that it would lose its ability to influence political events.

Southern politicians talked openly of secession. Robert Toombs of Georgia declared that if the North deprived the South of the right to take slaves into California and New Mexico, "I am for disunion."

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