Study Guide

Compromise of 1850 Analysis

By Henry Clay

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  • Rhetoric


    You could argue that the Compromise of 1850 actually relies on implied ethos, since it's coming from the government, an authority. However, the actual style of writing is designed to convey information and rules, so ultimately the main form of rhetoric is logos.

    Even when dealing with the most hotly debated aspects of the Compromise, the final result doesn't try to do anything but lay out the law.

    For example: "when admitted as a State, the said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission." (Texas.Section 2. 4) Or, from the Fugitive Slave Act: "all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may he required, as aforesaid, for that purpose." (Fugitive Slave Act.Section 5.2)

    Both of these are dealing with emotional, complicated issues—the expansion of slavery and requiring everyone to help catch runaway slaves—but the way the ideas are written take emotion out of the equation. Legislation is generally written this way, because it has a job to do and needs to not take sides.

    Just lay out the rules, and let the people fight it out as they will. There will be plenty of emotion later.

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    The Compromise of 1850 is an Act of Congress. It defines laws and legal structures. Its primary purpose is to create legislation, rather than tell a story or inspire people with poetry (not everyone can be Stephanie Meyer).

    Being a legal document, the Compromise sacrifices elegant prose, metaphors, and similar devices for the sake of being extremely, extremely thorough. The legislators had to make sure every detail of every law was covered, to avoid any creative interpretation of the rules. This means there's a lot of very long sentences and lots of repetition.

    Also, the Compromise is a compilation of several different bills, which have different aims and were passed separately. So overall, it's broken down by statutes within the larger Compromise.

    How it Breaks Down

    Clay's Resolutions

    The text starts off with Henry Clay's original eight resolutions proposed as the Compromise to the Senate. The final results are slightly different, but generally these summarize what the Compromise was aiming to accomplish. So if you need to quickly review the Compromise, it's a good summary.

    Texas Borders and Government for New Mexico

    Since New Mexico bordered Texas, the boundary dispute between the two was absorbed into the section that set up New Mexico's territorial government. Besides setting up that government, this part also talks about how big Texas is and how much money it's going to get from the federal government to compensate for giving up part of New Mexico.

    California Becomes a State

    California had already applied to be a state, so this short section says that in fact it is a state. Henry Clay immediately begins drawing up plans for Universal Studios' Harry Potter ride.

    Establishing a Government for Utah

    Here, they almost verbatim repeat the set-up for the government of New Mexico, but this time for Utah.

    The Fugitive Slave Act

    To make the existing fugitive slave law more effective, this one adds more governmental support for enforcing the law. It also requires everyone to chip in and help catch runaway slaves, including northerners who deplore slavery.

    Banning the Slave Trade in Washington, D.C.

    The last of the bills passed stops the trading or sale of slaves in the nation's capital. It also gives the government authority to break up anyone who dares set up a slave depot in the city. Slaveowning, however, is still permitted.

  • Tone

    Completely Unemotional

    The Compromise of 1850 wasn't just a political, legislative document, but the whole point of its existence was to try and relieve tension between groups of people who had very different opinions. You're not going to do that very well if you use language to express some kind of emotional response to any of the laws being laid out.

    Take the Fugitive Slave Act, the most controversial and in the end, the most emotionally charged part of the Compromise. It describes how the courts, for instance, "shall from time to time enlarge the number of commissioners, with a view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor, and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act." (Fugitive Slave Act.Section 3.1)

    That's saying that the courts can increase the number of people hunting down slaves if they feel it's necessary. Of course, slaves become "fugitives from labor" and all the means of hunting them down are referred to as "reasonable facilities." Language throughout the Compromise is like this, avoiding embellishment, emotional adjectives, and anything really that could be construed as favoring one side or the other. Kind of like calling torture "enhanced interrogation."

    Neutral tone like this would be essential for the purpose of the Compromise. If after all that debating, the final results looked like they favored the North or the South, who knows how the other side would have reacted.

  • Writing Style

    Wordy, with Long Sentences

    The Compromise of 1850 is basically in mid-19th-century version of legalese, so it's not meant for easy reading. It's meant to get all the laws laid out clearly, without leaving too much room for interpretation. One way of doing that is to squeeze all the possible options into single sentences. Take this whopper of an example (this is all one sentence):

    Writs of error, and appeals from the final decisions of said Supreme Court, shall be allowed, and may be taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, in the same manner and under the same regulations as from the Circuit Courts of the United States, where the value of the property or the amount in controversy, to be ascertained by the oath or affirmation of either party, or other competent witness, shall exceed one thousand dollars, except only that, in all cases involving title to slaves, the said writs of error or appeals shall be allowed and decided by the said Supreme Court, without regard to the value of the matter, property, or title in controversy; and except also, that a writ of error or appeal shall also be allowed to the Supreme Court of the United States, from the decisions of the said Supreme Court created by this act or of any judge thereof or of the District Courts created by this act or of any judge thereof, upon any writ of habeas corpus involving the question of personal freedom; and each of the said District Courts shall have and exercise the same jurisdiction in all cases arising under the Constitution and laws of the United States as is vested in the Circuit and District Courts of the United States; and the said Supreme and District Courts of the said Territory, and the respective judges thereof shall and may grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases in which the same are granted by the judges of the United States in the District of Columbia; and the first six days of every term of said courts, or so much thereof as shall be necessary. (Utah.Section 9.9)

    You can't say they weren't thorough. Everything's accounted for there, including (probably) the answer to the meaning of life and what we asked for for our birthday last year. Just in case. And all contained in one sentence.

    Why do this? Well, given the extreme political tension around this whole business, the last thing you'd want to do is leave anything ambiguous. You can't give either side an opportunity to re-interpret the law—so you account for every variation. As for smooshing them all into one sentence, well that's just efficiency over eloquence.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Well, the title of the Compromise of 1850 isn't exactly creative or revolutionary. It's a simple description of what the text is, and when it happened.

    Maybe the most significant feature is the use of the word "compromise." That's really simplifying the situation, but it also emphasizes that this was legislation that required everyone to give up something to get something else done.

    We could also emphasize that a compromise generally means people work together for a common goal. But let's be real—people only agreed to this to avoid war. No one came away from it giving their friends high fives; everyone was willing to give up something in order to keep the peace.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    It's a little tricky to talk about the opening lines of the Compromise, because in the end it was passed in different sections. So what counts as the opening lines? For the sake of clarity, though, we'll go with the first line of the whole business:

    It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery upon a fair, equitable and just basis. (Resolutions.Section 1.1)

    This line actually nicely sums up why we're all here reading about all of this. This first line admits that the whole Compromise is about slavery, and how to deal with it in a way that's fair to everyone. Except, of course, the slaves.

    It's a practical document, with a very practical purpose, so it opens with a succinct description of what its purpose is. If only it really did solve "all existing questions" about slavery. It took a little more than some debate in the Senate to do that in the end.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Like the opening lines, it's a little tricky to pick out the closing lines, given that all the different bills were passed independently. But the actual final lines are the final section of the act banning the slave trade in Washington, D.C.:

    And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for each of the corporations of the cities of Washington and Georgetown, from time to time, and as often as may be necessary, to abate, break up, and abolish any depot or place of confinement of slaves brought into the said District as merchandize, contrary to the provisions of this act, by such appropriate means as may appear to either of the said corporations expedient and proper. And the same power is hereby vested in the Levy Court of Washington county, if any attempt shall be made, within its jurisdictional limits, to establish a depot or place of confinement for slaves brought into the said District as merchandize for sale contrary to this act. (DC.Section 2.1-2)

    It doesn't really give us a summarized, final ending to the Compromise, because it's specific to a particular statute. There is something kind of poetic about ending with a strong statement giving the government the power to break up any slave depots in its own capital. It's as if, after all that the North had to concede to the South, the bill ends with a pro-abolition statement.

    Or it could just be that this was the last bill passed. Which is probably more accurate.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    The Compromise of 1850 is written for judges and politicians rather than the average person, so it's filled with legal language—lots of "whereas"es and "aforesaid"s. It's easy to get lost in the confusing language some of those statutes and even easier to fall asleep reading them.

    Plus, a large portion is repeated almost verbatim, which is easy if you're okay with skipping it but very tedious if you commit to reading the whole thing.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical References

    The Mexican-American War (Texas.Section 1.3-5)
    California applying for statehood (California.Section 1.1)

    Legal References

    The Constitution of the United States
    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1789 (Fugitive Slave Act.Section 1.1)
    An Act to establish the Territorial Government of Oregon (August 14, 1848) (Texas.Section 10.10, Texas.Section 11.3, Utah.Section 9.10, Utah.Section 10.3)

    References to This Text

    Literary References

    Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851)
    Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852)
    Chapter 6 of this book by Mr. Scarlet Letter himself Nathaniel Hawthorne is called "The Compromise and Other Matters," and it's about Pierce and the Compromise.

    Historical and Political References

    Frederick Douglass, "The Fugitive Slave Law," speech to the National Free Soil Convention at Pittsburgh (August 11, 1852)
    Stephen A. Douglas, First, Third, and Fifth Speeches of Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)
    John J. McRae of Mississippi, Speech on the Organization of the House (December 13-14, 1859)
    (This is a speech given by a congressman to the House of Representatives, addressing his opinions on an upcoming vote for Speaker of the House.)
    George Douglas Buddecke, "The Beginning Of The End; Are We Nearing The Climax of a Political Epoch? The Whig Compromise Bill Of 1850 and the M'Kinley And Lodge Bills Of 1890" (The New York Times, November 16, 1890). The author here invokes the Compromise of 1850 to draw parallels to the political situation of 1890, primarily a tariff.

    Pop Culture References

    Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad
    This 1994 TV movie has a prominent storyline about a slave's escape from a plantation, and his pursuit by slave catchers in the early 1850s.
    Edward Williams Clay, "Scene in Uncle Sam's Senate 17 April 1850." (1850). This political cartoon references a point in the debate over the Compromise of 1850, where one senator drew a pistol on another.
    Theodor Kaufmann, "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law" (1850). This drawing is a scathing commentary on the Fugitive Slave Act. It shows four Black men fleeing an ominous group of white men in the distance. On the bottom, a Bible quote and the opening line of the Declaration of Independence are written to remind readers of their moral compass.

  • Trivia

    The Compromise of 1850 protected a clause from the earlier annexation of Texas, which allowed Texas to break itself up into smaller states if it wants to. Like it would ever want to. (Source)

    Henry Clay owned 60 slaves, and one of them sued him in 1828. She didn't want to go back to Kentucky after living in Washington, D.C. She lost the case, but Clay eventually freed her, her husband, and her daughter by the early 1840s. (Source)

    California created a government for itself before it was officially admitted to the Union. People were overwhelmingly against allowing slavery, but not always for the most noble reasons. They saw it as wrong and unnecessary, but they had less noble motivations, too. They didn't want white farmers and gold prospectors to have to compete with slaves for work. (Source)

    Stephen Douglas came in second to Abraham Lincoln in the popular vote in the 1860 presidential election. He beat Lincoln in their 1858 senate race, but he lost the big one. (Source)

    Back in the antebellum era, election campaigns didn't just give out bumper stickers and buttons. They gave full-on medals. The Smithsonian has an example from Stephen Douglas' 1860 election campaign. (Source)

    Henry Clay's mad compromising skills made a huge impression on Abraham Lincoln, who called him "my beau ideal of a statesman." (Source)

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