Study Guide

Compromise of 1850 Main Idea

By Henry Clay

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  • Main Idea

    We've Got 99 Problems and They're Mostly About Slavery

    The Compromise of 1850 was meant to deal with new territory in the West without the country falling apart over the issue of slavery. To let California become a state without slavery, and to make Texas a little smaller, the North had to give the South something in return.

    The main concessions were money (to Texas) and a much stronger law to deal with runaway slaves. The Compromise also organized the territories of Utah and New Mexico (deliberately sidestepping the slavery question), and banned the slave trade in D.C.

    That's why it's called a compromise.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why would new western territory cause tension over slavery?
    2. What recent major event would have brought up questions of Texas' boundaries?
    3. What do you think both the North and South were trying to achieve in the Compromise?
    4. How was the Compromise of 1850 a compromise? Are there any ways it isn't?

    Chew on This

    The new congressional policy of not dictating slavery in new territories was just a cop-out to force other people to make some of the controversial decisions.

    It sure wasn't a compromise for the people most affected: slaves.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    California decided it wanted to become a state but didn't want to have slaves. Congress had to figure out how to do that without breaking the country.

    The Text

    The Compromise of 1850 gets a bunch of things done at once. Starting with Clay's original list of resolutions, the text includes a series of statues that each addresses one of those resolutions. It's like you get the table of contents, then the chapters.

    • The first statute actually deals with Texas: its borders, its governmental structure, and how much the government is going to pay it to calm down about the aforementioned borders. The land taken away is made into New Mexico, which gets a territorial government. 
    • The next statute makes California a state. Simple enough. 
    • Then Utah gets a territorial government, with the exact same set-up as New Mexico.
    • The last two statutes deal with slavery. First, there's a bill to strengthen the existing Fugitive Slave Act, which includes fun additions like harsher punishments, bigger rewards for slave-catchers, and punishments for people who won't hunt slaves. 
    • The final statute bans the slave trade in DC (not slavery, just selling and trading of human beings). This bunch o' bills was passed separately, but taken together form the Compromise of 1850.


    In order to keep everyone just happy enough to not declare war on each other, the Compromise includes five separate bills mostly about slavery, which together deal with a bunch of state governments, runaway slaves, and the slave trade in the nation's capital.

  • Questions

    1. Looking at the Compromise as a whole entity, what do you think it's trying to accomplish? Does anything change when the bill is split up into its parts?
    2. How do you see the sectional tension of the time period reflected in the text of the Compromise?
    3. Looking at how the Compromise was passed, do you see any parallels to how laws are passed today?
    4. Who do you think got more out of the Compromise—the North or the South?
    5. Which state do you think benefitted most from the Compromise? The least?
    6. Was there anything in the Compromise that would make you think that it would eventually fail to keep the nation together? Do you think the bill did a good job of propping up the institution of slavery?
    7. What does it say about the Senate in 1850 that Clay, a southerner, and Douglas, from Illinois, worked together to make this thing happen?
    8. How did the Compromise ensure that this kind of cooperation would continue to be possible?
    9. Slavery wouldn't be the reason anymore, but what do you think about the idea of the federal government arranging things so that the Senate would be split equally between parties?
    10. Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun have a staredown in the Senate. Who's your money on?

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