Study Guide

Compromise of 1850 Historical Context

By Henry Clay

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Historical Context

Remember all those times that you were fighting with your sibling over that new toy, or who got to use the swing first, or who got to control the remote, and your mom or dad came over and got you to share peacefully and everyone was happy?

Neither do we.

You may have learned to share, but someone was always grumpy about it.

Welcome to the world of 19th-century compromises over slavery in the West. No one gets exactly what they want, but Congress manages to postpone civil war for about 40 years.

Buckle up, 'cause it's going to be a pretty unsatisfying ride.

Flustered Founders

When the Revolutionary War began, every state permitted slavery, even the northern ones. But many of the Founding Fathers, even ones who owned slaves, recognized that slavery didn't exactly jibe with the essential American value of liberty. In fact, it trampled all over it. Thomas Jefferson knew it, and in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included a reference to the evils of slavery but blamed it on the British (source).

When the Continental Congress axed this reference from the final draft of the Declaration, they were making a choice that would guide future legislative compromises about slavery for the next eighty years: the difficult question of slavery had to be secondary to the issue of keeping the nation together.

So when the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, it was loaded with compromises about slavery. For example, to give southern states more equal representation in Congress, it allowed them to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes even though they weren't citizens. To please the North, it allowed states the freedom to decide to prohibit the import of slaves into their own territory. The South was placated with a clause that said that slaves that ran away to free states were still the property of the slaveowner and had to be returned.

The Founders were also committed to the idea of limited government, and this was another reason they didn't draft a Constitution that outright told the states what to do about slavery. But many of the northern founders, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, worked at the local level to form anti-slavery societies, and Founders from the South tended to soft-peddle any anti-slavery attitudes they might have held in order to avoid alienating their constituents.

So far so…good?

Growing Pains

By the early 19th century, the northern states had become free, but slavery had expanded in the South. Things started to get really heated once the country began to expand. There had always been a careful balance in Congress ensuring that there were an equal number of states in the "slavery" and "non-slavery" camps (guess which camp got higher reviews on Yelp).

This was crucial for making sure that, in the Senate at least, both sides were equally represented. Slavery was the economic engine of the South, and southerners wanted it protected at all costs. A free-state majority might just go ahead and pass laws emancipating the slaves, and the whole economy of the South would tank.

So any time new territory was bought or "acquired" in war, people started worrying about the slave status of any new states that might be formed out of that territory. When the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the U.S., you just knew there would be trouble.

The Immovable Object meets the Irresistible Force

How could this major sectional difference ever be resolved so that slave and free states could peaceably co-exist?

Hint: It couldn't.

Still, the Senate tried, even as abolitionist movements started gaining steam.

Antislavery sentiment existed in the U.S. since its founding, with prominent statesmen like Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton expressing the wisdom of the gradual emancipation of slaves and ending this wholesale violation of personal liberty.

Clay's Missouri Compromise had calmed things down for a while, but slave rebellions and abolitionist agitation kept things simmering.

At first, the most active abolition movement was centered in the American Colonization Society, which believed that slaves should be free, but would never be able to exist in American society because of prejudice. The solution was obviously to send them back to Africa but this time give them their own colony. This idea appealed to many, including Henry Clay, because it gave sympathetic northerners their moral satisfaction, while promising the racists that blacks would be removed from the U.S. (source).

By the way, this idea actually sort of happened. It's called Liberia.

The American Anti-slavery Society was founded in 1833 and included many women's suffrage leaders. Women thought they needed emancipation as well.

Another factor stoking abolitionist sentiment was the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the U.S. in the early 1800s. It preached that God's grace was available to all people, not just a religious elite. Your fate wasn't predestined, like the Calvinists thought; things could get better.

Free Blacks and slaves, definitely appreciating those ideas, joined the many new congregations that sprung up during the Awakening. There was more talk about slavery as a moral sin that needed to be eradicated immediately.

This made slaveowners a little anxious, natch, and they tried to put their slaves' awakenings back to sleep. Nobody was about to emancipate the slaves, no matter what God thought about it.

Can't We All Just Get Along? (Apparently Not)

Missouri, created out of the Louisiana Territory, decided to apply for statehood in 1818. They wanted in, and they wanted in as a slave state.

This was a problem.

At the time, the Senate was balanced—11 slave states and 11 free—and accepting Missouri as a slave state would tilt things in favor of the South. There were no territories on deck wanting to join Team Free.

Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of the Senate and Union lover, rose to the occasion. He proposed what came to be known as the Missouri Compromise, where Maine would be carved out of Massachusetts into a free state, restoring the balance for now. There would then be an imaginary line drawn at the 33rd parallel above which any future states would be free, and below which slavery would be permitted. The Compromise passed in 1820.

In 1832, Clay had to step up to the plate again to save the Union after South Carolina threatened to secede if a tariff enacted by the Jackson administration wasn't withdrawn. Clay got John C. Calhoun to work with him on another tariff that everyone could agree on. Slavery wasn't the issue, but states' rights were. And states' rights, in the antebellum period, were code words for slavery.

From 1835 to 1844, Congress wasn't even allowed to bring up the subject of slavery. That's right, the House of Representatives passed a Gag Rule that forbade congressmen from bringing up any legislation that even touched on the topic of slavery. Finally, President John Quincy Adams was like "um, no," and put an end to that (sourceCalifornia Here We Come

The Mexican-American War was fought from 1846 to 1848, and the result was that the U.S. got a big chunk of land that used to be Mexico. This included everything west of Texas and south of Oregon. According to the Missouri Compromise, the 36th parallel would determine which areas could have slavery, right?

Yes, but.

A large territory called California applied for statehood in 1849, insisting on being a free state. California, as you know, takes up most of the west coast (until the Big One) and therefore straddles the 36th parallel. Looks like that magical invisible line wasn't going to work this time around.

Of course, the south wasn't going to let California enter as a free state without something in return. Remember, they had been very sure to maintain a balance in Congress so they'd keep the power to stop legislation they didn't like. This is when Henry Clay (yup, same guy) stepped in and came up with another package deal, which is why we're all here today.

Getting the Compromise of 1850 passed pretty much killed him (and John Calhoun).

Stalemate in the Senate

Clay concocted a Compromise that would permit California to be admitted as a free state but would give some concessions to the South. Soon after he introduced the Compromise bill, the war of the words started (sans Tom Cruise, unfortunately).

We won't go through every single speech that was given or all the changes congressmen proposed—we'd be here for weeks—but there's a couple things to note.

First of all, the debate included one of the most famous speeches ever given in Congress: Daniel Webster's "Seventh of March" speech. Webster, who supported the Compromise, was another legendary senator and part of the "Great Triumvirate" with Clay and John Calhoun. Webster's famous argument was that slavery would be naturally prevented in the west by the fact that the region wasn't all that suited to slavery-based agriculture (source).

Second, there was a very real chance that Texas was going to invade New Mexico. You read that right. Texans weren't too happy about Clay's compromise bill, because it made Texas smaller than they claimed it was. There were some genuine preparations, supported by certain members of the Texas government, for troops to march on Santa Fe. Federal troops were even sent to defend it. Eventually Texas was given a bunch of money to agree to give up their territorial claims on New Mexico, and the invasion didn't happen (source).

Finally, the debates were really about bigger ideas than whether or not to pass this particular bill.

In particular, wrapped up in the standard slavery debate was a question that would haunt Congress until the Civil War: did Congress have the right to legislate slavery at all? Or could the states only decide for themselves? The question was never really answered. Stephen Douglas' "popular sovereignty" idea tried to answer it by leaving the decision up to each state. But in reality, popular sovereignty never really worked out.

After the Storm, But Before the Next Storm

The Compromise of 1850 did a few things successfully. California became a state, Texas finally defined its borders, the slave trade was abolished in D.C. But other parts of the bill just stirred the pot even harder.

The most controversial part of the Compromise bill was the "enhanced" Fugitive Slave Act. At the time it was passed, there was this idea that runaway slaves were pouring out of the South. It's hard to tell how many were actually running, but estimates put it at about 1,000 per year (source). That number doubled after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (source).

The new Fugitive Slave Act just strengthened abolitionist sentiment in the North. The increased persecution of runaway slaves was bad enough. What made it worse was that the Act added punishment for northerners who helped the runaways. It made an awful law more awful.

Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in response to the Act and woke people up to the horrors of slavery. Lincoln is rumored to have said when he met Stowe, "So you're the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war!"

Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. But the book was hugely influential in galvanizing opposition to slavery.

The Christiana Riot

There was even an armed standoff that resulted in the death of a plantation owner. In the small Quaker community of Christiana, Pennsylvania, some slave catchers found their two targets protected by two dozen armed free black men and some white Quakers.

On September 11, 1851, the slave catchers and the slave owner opened fire. When the skirmish was over, the slave owner and a few others were dead, and the runaway slaves ended up fleeing to Canada.

Thus began the American fantasy of fleeing to Canada whenever things get tense down here.

But back to our story. Millard Fillmore's administration tried to charge the rioters with treason, but public outrage and ridicule was so strong that the government had to drop the charges (source

See, even before social media, public shaming could be pretty influential.

What Missouri Compromise?

In 1854, Stephen Douglas tried once again to use popular sovereignty to broker a compromise between slave and free states. Because Douglas was a fan of building a transcontinental railroad that he hoped would run through Illinois on its way west, he proposed organizing the Nebraska territory to make things out there a little more official.

The South protested; that territory was north of the Missouri Compromise line. If Nebraska wanted to become a state, by law it would have to be free. Douglas saw an opportunity to try out his concept of popular sovereignty.

Let's have two territories, he suggested; we'll call them Kansas and Nebraska, and we'll let them decide for themselves if they want to be free or slave. Essentially, the Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise.

President Franklin Pierce supported Douglas, and the senator cobbled together a coalition that passed the bill. Protests from the North started immediately.

So long, Missouri Compromise. Thanks for keeping the Union together for 30 years.


The Kansas-Nebraska Act ended in bloodshed, as pro-and anti-slavery factions flooded into Kansas and battled it out to influence the territory's decision about slavery. It was a preview for the coming attraction: The Civil War. Fighting broke out in 1861, and we all know how that ended (if you don't…well we'd like a word with every adult in your life). By the time Kansas got past its own civil war and joined the Union as a free state, southern states were forming their own separate nation.

The Compromise of 1850 managed to avert total disaster (except for slaves, of course) for a decade, but at a pretty high cost. The tension over slavery was never going to go away.

Some compromises are just Band-Aids on gaping wounds.

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