Study Guide

Compromise of 1850 Themes

By Henry Clay

  • Slavery

    Let's be real: the Compromise of 1850 is all about slavery. It was motivated by slavery, it makes decisions about slavery, it includes laws about slavery. The whole thing started when California wanted to enter the Union as a free state, threatening to overturn the equal representation the southern slave states had in the Senate.

    All of the different statutes or bills in the Compromise deal with slavery in some way. Can it exist in this territory? What happens if a slave escapes? Is it cool to buy you some slaves in Washington D.C.? These are the questions the legislation tried to answer.

    We can't imagine abolitionist northerners were too happy about being drafted into posses to chase runaway slaves. Ditto the southerners whose entire economy and way of life was made possible by the "peculiar institution," and were mighty unhappy when they thought that the system of slavery was under threat. Compromise or not, the nation would soon be blasted apart over the issue.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. How does the Compromise of 1850 fit into the national discussion of slavery over the course of the antebellum era in America?
    2. What are the different ways that slavery is addressed in the different parts of the Compromise?
    3. Reading the text, can you get a sense of the author's opinion of slavery? What about the audience's?
    4. What other major development(s) in American history at the time of the Compromise of 1850 directly influenced the slavery discussion?

    Chew on This

    There was no way for the Compromise of 1850 to be about anything other than slavery, because of the integral role slavery played in the southern economy.

    Think about it, folks. It was our pretty recent history that educated political leaders were screaming in the Senate about not being able to keep African Americans as their personal property.

  • Wealth

    Seems like it's always about the Benjamins. The Compromise of 1850 doesn't address wealth in the most straightforward way, but it's in the background as a concern or motivation for a lot of its legislation. Money's offered as compensation or payment, systems are set up to prevent corruption in the new territories, and so on.

    One of the major motivations for southerners to want to expand slavery in the first place was that their economy was based on plantations and slave labor. Without slavery, the South's economy would collapse. Slaves were valuable commodities; owning them was a very profitable investment for plantation owners, so if one of them managed to escape, it was a huge financial loss. Can you believe we're even talking about human beings like this?

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What would you say were the main economic incentives behind the Compromise of 1850?
    2. Did the North have any economic reasons in their pursuit of the Compromise?
    3. How does the pursuit of wealth relate to the origins of the Compromise of 1850?
    4. Does the final Compromise legislation promote the increasing wealth of Americans? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Southern politicians largely fought to protect their way of life because they felt economically threatened by the North.

    The average price of a slave in 1850 was $400-$600; that's about $12,000-$15,00 in today's money. A young man in his prime work years could cost as much as $35,000. No wonder they wanted runaways returned.

  • Power

    If you've ever had to set up a government (and who hasn't in this day and age), then you know that you have to define who has power and how much. The balance of power: it's a pretty crucial detail. From the nation's founding, the government was always careful to have about the same number of slave and free states. So whenever the nation acquired new territory, that balance had to somehow be restored.

    The Compromise of 1850 establishes or adjusts the government of four states to maintain this delicate power balance. The Fugitive Slave Act that's part of the Compromise also includes some new powers for very specific (and, ISHO scary) purposes.

    The other balance of power that the compromise tried to navigate was that between the federal government and the states. The Constitution said that, unless it explicitly assigned a power to the feds, it belonged to the states. Arguments over that started in 1776 and didn't end until…well, they never ended.

    Questions About Power

    1. Why was it necessary to outline the power structures of the new territories?
    2. How did Congress distribute power between the federal and the state governments? What power did they give and what did they keep for themselves?
    3. What does the final Compromise legislation indicate about how people generally interpreted the powers of the federal government in 1850?
    4. Why was it so important to have a balance of free and slave states?

    Chew on This

    If the people of any given states wanted to have slavery, or a sales tax, or a toxic waste dump, the feds had no right to deny the people's wishes.

    The whole states' rights argument was just an excuse to own slaves.

  • States' Rights

    Who's got the power: the federal government or the sovereign states? It's the signature argument of the antebellum era. The nation was adding new states like nobody's business, making it pretty crucial to lay out clearly what powers they were allowed to have relative to the federal government. You get lazy about keeping an eye on these things, and you could end up with some pretty nasty conflict—maybe even a civil war.

    Back in the antebellum era, "states' rights" was a euphemism for "we want to own slaves." But states' rights showdowns continued up through the 20th and 21st centuries. Many were still about race, like the time President Eisenhower sent in the 201st Airborne Division to forcible integrate Little Rock's Central High School when the state ignored the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and refused to desegregate.

    When it came to slavery, the feds won that round. But don't worry; we've still got abortion, medical marijuana, open carry, voter ID requirements, and death with dignity statutes: States and the feds still have plenty to fight about.

    Questions About States' Rights

    1. How can we link the question of states' rights between the Compromise of 1850 and the Civil War a decade later? Were people concerned with the same issues?
    2. What kinds of powers does the Compromise generally give to the states, and which does it keep for the federal government?
    3. Why would it have been important for the Compromise to address states' rights?
    4. What was it about the antebellum era that made states' rights such a relentless and problematic issue?

    Chew on This

    Southern states were actually one of the biggest winners in 1850, because they forced the compromise. But they won the battle and eventually lost the war.

    If something is as morally wrong as slavery, the federal government should be able to outlaw it regardless of what the state residents think. What if a state thought murder was OK? Oh, wait. Some did.

  • Rules and Order

    Faced with massive amounts of new territory, the government had to find ways to organize and regulate those territories, who'd one day become new states. The senators writing the Compromise of 1850 are busy establishing sets of rules and organization for the territories, not to mention ways of enforcing those rules. Can't have those cowboys and outlaws running around in the wide-open, uncivilized west.

    You'll have noticed that the list of rules for the organization of New Mexico is repeated practically verbatim for Utah. After months and months of debating, you wouldn't want your legislation to go down on a technicality because you didn't spell things out enough.

    Especially in legislation that was such a controversial and sensitive balancing act for a potentially nation-busting issue, the devil is in the details. Or is it, God is in the details? Anyway, we've got the Senate: protecting law and order since 1787.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Why might an emphasis on rules and order be particularly appealing for the Compromise of 1850?
    2. How does the author use language to keep up the theme of rules and order throughout the Compromise text?
    3. What kinds of rules are being set in the text, and what's their ultimate purpose?
    4. Was the Compromise ultimately successful in creating and/or maintaining rules and order?

    Chew on This

    The focus on rules and order contrasts with the traditional vision of the "Wild West," and the relative lawlessness of these regions that were far from the big cities.

    All heck was going to break loose about slavery regardless of the rules and laws. The Compromise of 1850 was a Band-Aid solution.

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