Compromise of 1850

Author:William M. Wiecek

Page 477

The Compromise of 1850 comprised a related series of statutes enacted by Congress in an attempt to settle sectional disputes related to SLAVERY that had flared since 1846, with the outbreak of the Mexican War and the introduction of the WILMOT PROVISO. After California's 1849 demand for admission as a free state and the concurrent appearance of southern disunionist sentiment, what had begun as a contest over the constitutional status of SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES absorbed other issues related to the security of slavery in the extant states and expanded into a crisis of the Union.

From proposals submitted by President Zachary Taylor and Senator HENRY CLAY, Senator STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS marshaled measures through Congress that admitted California as a free state; established the Texas-New Mexico boundary and compensated Texas and holders of Texas securities for territory claimed by Texas but awarded to New Mexico; abolished the slave trade in the DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (but Congress rejected a proposal to abolish slavery itself there); amended the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 by the drastic new measure known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; and created Utah and New Mexico Territories. (See FUGITIVE SLAVERY.)

Both major parties hailed the Compromise as a final settlement of all problems relating to slavery. Southern disunion sentiment abated, while the Free Soil coalition, which had made a respectable beginning in the 1848 election, began to disintegrate. FRANKLIN PIERCE was elected President in 1852 on a platform extolling the finality of the Compromise and condemning any further agitation of the slavery issue.

But the territorial and fugitive-slave measures only extended and inflamed the slavery controversy. The New Mexico and Utah acts were couched in ambiguous language that left the status of slavery in those two immense territories unsettled, though Congress did decisively reject the Free Soil solution embodied in the Wilmot Proviso

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of 1846. The acts also contained sections providing for APPEAL of slavery controversies from the TERRITORIAL COURTS directly to the United States Supreme Court, an effort to resolve a politically insoluble problem by nonpolitical means.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a harsh and provocative measure that virtually legitimated the kidnapping of free blacks. It thrust the federal presence into northern communities in obtrusive ways by potentially...

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