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The Impending Crisis

The Compromise of 1850 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3275



Early on the evening of January 21, 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky trudged through the Washington, D.C. snow to visit Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Clay, 73 years old, was a sick man, wracked by a severe cough. But he braved the snowstorm because he feared for the Union's future.

For four years Congress had bitterly and futilely debated the question of the expansion of slavery. Ever since David Wilmot had proposed that slavery be prohibited from any territory acquired from Mexico, opponents of slavery had argued that Congress possessed the power to regulate slavery in all of the territories. Ardent proslavery Southerners vigorously disagreed.

Politicians had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to work out a compromise. One simple proposal had been to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, slavery would have been forbidden north of 36 30' north latitude but permitted south of that line. This proposal attracted the support of moderate Southerners but generated little support outside the region. Another proposal, supported by two key Democratic senators, Lewis Cass of Michigan and Stephen Douglas of Illinois, was known as "popular sovereignty." It declared that the people actually living in a territory should decide whether or not to allow slavery.

But neither suggestion offered a solution to the whole range of issues dividing the North and South. It was up to Henry Clay, who had just returned to Congress after a seven-year absence, to work out a formula that balanced competing sectional concerns.

For an hour, Clay outlined to Webster a complex plan to save the Union. A compromise could only be effective, he stated, if it addressed all the issues dividing North and South. He proposed that:

A week later, Clay presented his proposal to the Senate. The aging statesman was known as the "Great Compromiser" for his efforts on behalf of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise Tariff of 1832 (which resolved the nullification crisis). Once again, he appealed to Northerners and Southerners to place national patriotism ahead of sectional loyalties.

Clay's proposal ignited an eight-month debate in Congress and led John C. Calhoun to threaten Southern secession. Daniel Webster, the North's most spellbinding orator, threw his support behind Clay's compromise. "Mr. President," he began, "I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as Northern man, but as an American ... I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause." He concluded by warning his listeners that "there can be no such thing as a peaceable secession."

Webster's speech provoked outrage from Northern opponents of compromise. Senator William H. Seward of New York called Webster a "traitor to the cause of freedom." But Webster's speech reassured moderate Southerners that powerful interests in the North were committed to compromise.

Still, opposition to compromise was fierce. Whig President Zachary Taylor argued that California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota should all be admitted to statehood before the question of slavery was addressed, a proposal that would have given the North a ten-vote majority in the Senate. William H. Seward denounced the compromise as conceding too much to the South and declared that there was a "higher law" than the Constitution, a law that demanded an end to slavery.

In July, Northern and Southern senators opposed to the very idea of compromise joined ranks to defeat a bill that would have admitted California to the Union and organized New Mexico and Utah without reference to slavery.

Compromise appeared to be dead. A bitterly disappointed and exhausted Henry Clay dejectedly left the Capitol, his efforts apparently for naught. Then with unexpected suddenness the outlook abruptly changed. On the evening of July 9, 1850, President Taylor died of gastroenteritis, five days after taking part in a Fourth of July celebration dedicated to the building of the still unfinished Washington Monument. Taylor's successor was Millard Fillmore, a 50-year-old New Yorker, who was an ardent supporter of compromise.

In Congress, leadership in the fight for a compromise passed to Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois. An arrogant and dynamic leader, 5 foot 4 inches in height, with stubby legs, a massive head, bushy eyebrows, and a booming voice, Douglas was known as the "Little Giant." Douglas abandoned Clay's strategy of gathering all issues dividing the sections into a single bill. Instead, he introduced Clay's proposals one at a time. In this way, he was able to gather support from varying coalitions of Whigs and Democrats and Northerners and Southerners on each issue.

At the same time, banking and business interests as well as speculators in Texas bonds lobbied and even bribed congressmen to support compromise. Despite these manipulations, the compromise proposals never succeeded in gathering solid congressional support. In the end, only 4 senators and 28 representatives voted for every one of the measures. Nevertheless, they all passed.

As finally approved, the Compromise:

The compromise created the illusion that the territorial issue had been resolved once and for all. "There is rejoicing over the land," wrote one Northerner, "the bone of contention is removed; disunion, fanaticism, violence, insurrection are defeated." Sectional hostility had been defused; calm had returned. But, as one Southern editor correctly noted, it was "the calm of preparation, and not of peace."

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