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The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, resulted in Britain ceding territory to the U.S. that included what are now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, plus parts of Minnesota. (That was the northwestern-most territory back in the day before Portlandia.) The Northwest Ordinance laid down the rules for those territories, including prohibiting slavery there.
The Constitution, in an effort to turn an unruly bunch of states into a country, contained compromises galore about slavery and left most of it up to the states.
The original Fugitive Slave Law was pretty straightforward: if you escape from slavery (or "service of labor" as they say), legally you should be captured and sent back. It codified the clause from the Constitution about runaway slaves. Enforcement of the law in the North was pretty skimpy.
The U.S. bought 800,000 square miles of land from France for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars—about three cents an acre. Everyone immediately started worrying about whether the states that would be eventually carved out of the territory—which stretched from the Mississippi to the Rockies and from New Orleans to Canada—would be slave states or free.
The Compromise of 1850 wasn't the first time a new state caused a ruckus in Congress around the issue of slavery. When Missouri, part of the Louisiana Purchase, wanted to become a state—a slave state—the northern states were not cool with it. Having Missouri be a slave state would upset the balance between slave and non-slave states in the Senate. Congress ended up drawing a line across the country: slavery allowed to the south, and banned to the north. Oh, and luckily Maine was up in its corner and was just like "I guess we can quit Massachusetts and become a state too," so the balance could be preserved. You can learn all about it here.
The nullification crisis refers to an episode in Congress when South Carolina, inspired by defender of the South and slavery John C. Calhoun, argued that states could nullify (void) any federal legislation. So if a state didn't like a law Congress passed, they could just say "nah, bro." The nullification crisis was about a tariff, not slavery, but the underlying argument was the same: the feds could not dictate to the states. It got to the point where South Carolina wanted to secede, but Clay and Calhoun came up with a compromise.
There were always some people in America who weren't on board the slavery train, including lots of the Founding Fathers. But in the early 1800s, the abolitionist movement in the north really gained steam. It had started pretty slowly, but by 1850, northern sentiment towards slavery had shifted from "annoyed" to "outraged."
What would you say if Congress passed a rule saying no one in government could even talk about legislation related to foreign trade or civil rights or establishing National Hot Dog Month (July, btw)? Well, that's basically what the House of Representatives did in 1835, except the issue no one was allowed to talk about was slavery. It stayed like that for almost a decade, until John Quincy Adams put a stop to it. In case you didn't believe how far parts of the country would go to protect slavery, this was one of the more extreme methods.
Before the U.S. won the west from Mexico in war, it tried to buy it. This started the years-long debate over the new land, and the eternal question: "to enslave, or not to enslave?" Representative David Wilmot got up and proposed completely forbidding slavery in the new western territories. Don't be too impressed, though. Wilmot wanted the land free for white farmers. The proviso never passed, but it kept getting brought up over and over for years.
The decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) was one of the final straws breaking the Union Camel's back. Dred Scott (a slave) sued for his freedom in 1846 because his master had taken him to live in non-slave states for years. Not only did the Supreme Court rule that he was still a slave, but Chief Justice Taney declared that blacks were not citizens of the U.S. and never would be. So clearly the whole "slave vs. non-slave state" business wasn't magically solved by the Compromise of 1850.
The United States' war with Mexico started as a boundary dispute between Texas and their neighbors to the south. Texas was itching for some of Mexico's land, and at the end of it, the U.S. got it. That new land had to be incorporated somehow into to the U.S. Cue the Compromise of 1850.
Despite what all those cowboy movies might claim, this is how the West was really won. The treaty ending the Mexican-American War transferred a whole bunch of land from Mexico to the U.S., basically creating what is now the western U.S. Henry Clay had some ideas about what to do with that land.
Let the Never-Ending Debate begin. Henry Clay got the seven-month-long debate started by introducing this giant bill to Congress, encompassing all the essential points of the final Compromise of 1850.
In the midst of all the debating, some southerners decided that they should start a slave empire somewhere nearby—you know, just in case. When a Venezuelan named Narcisco López (who was married to the daughter of a plantation owner) showed up to lead the second of his three failed attempts to liberate Cuba from Spain, these slaveholders saw their chance. They launched an unsuccessful invasion in an attempt to take the land and establish a whole new world of plantation-based slavery.
These men were part of the "filibuster" movement of the 19th century. No, that doesn't mean they like to keep talking in Congress forever. In this case, filibustering refers to taking over a country that's at peace with yours.
Zachary Taylor was only in office for 18 months, but before he died, he was opposed to the Compromise of 1850, because he was supportive of slavery. But his death after partying too hard on the 4th of July—bad barbecued chicken, no doubt—led to the inauguration of Millard Fillmore, a fan of the Compromise.
Six months to the day after Henry Clay introduced his great Compromise…Congress killed it. Happy Anniversary?
Not content to let the Compromise die, Stephen A. Douglas broke up Clay's omnibus bill and started working his way through Washington to pass each piece. First up: California becomes a free state. It eventually became a very expensive state.
In a different back room somewhere else in D.C., congressmen finally put the question of "where does Texas end?" to rest.
The big deal about these two territories was not, you might be surprised to learn, how long their governors' terms were supposed to be. More significant is the fact that Congress very specifically did not tell these new territories whether or not they'd have slavery. That decision was left with the soon-to-be states.
The more controversial parts of the Compromise were saved for the end. The Fugitive Slave Act would soon cause a lot more trouble than, well, fugitive slaves ever had, at least in the North. Douglas supported it though, and helped usher it through the political minefield.
Finally, the last piece of the 1850 puzzle. Sure, the government was going to seriously crack down on the relatively small number of people escaping slavery—but now at least those slaves wouldn't be traded within the borders of Washington. Something about human beings being trafficked openly in the country's capital just didn't sit right with some folks.
Stephen Douglas thought his "popular sovereignty" idea worked so fabulously in 1850, it would definitely work again in 1854 when it was time for Kansas and Nebraska to join the union. Considering that this act led to an event called "Bleeding Kansas," maybe you can guess how it worked out. Shmoop has the deets.
The reason everyone, their mom, and their uncle Gerald quotes the "House Divided" speech is because it became pretty famous as soon as it was given. Lincoln wasn't even all that well-known at the time, but the speech helped put him on the political map. Plus, that image of the divided house was, well, pretty accurate. The peace that the Compromise of 1850 kinda sorta brokered was clearly short-lived.
Their Declaration of Secession laid the blame mostly with the non-slave states' refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act that was part of the Compromise of 1850. Private property rights and all that.
Less than eleven years after Stephen Douglas managed to get the Compromise of 1850 passed, that compromise gave way to all-out warfare. All the issues that had made the Compromise necessary—slavery, states' rights, North vs. South—fueled the Civil War. It was nice while it lasted.