When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union” between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition as the nation expanded west in the coming decades.
The Northwest Ordinance
As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention set about creating a new government, representatives to the Congress of the existing government established under the Articles of Confederation were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio,” that stipulated “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . ” That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slave states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.
The Louisiana Purchase
Circumstances changed in 1803 when Napoleon Bonaparte sold President Thomas Jefferson 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase created new challenges for the federal government. Besides land ownership issues regarding the native inhabitants, Congress eventually had to address the question of the expansion of slavery in the new territory.
In 1818, when the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood, roughly 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory. Southerners expected Congress to admit Missouri as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood measure that would gradually end slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment started a year of bitter debate in both houses of Congress. Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts in the future, Congress also prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Territory, north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30′ north latitude).
War with Mexico
Although not a perfect solution in the minds of all parties (especially abolitionists), the Missouri Compromise muffled the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for over three decades. Things changed in 1846 when the U. S. started a war with Mexico that vastly expanded American territorial possessions in the West.
The Wilmot Proviso
Three months after the war began, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot inserted a “proviso” into an appropriations bill sponsored by President James K. Polk that proposed ending hostilities by purchasing Mexican territory. Wilmot’s proviso stipulated that, in any land acquired from Mexico, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime . . . ” The measure passed in the House, but Southerners defeated it in the Senate. Wilmot reintroduced the proviso again in 1847, with the same results. In 1848, he unsuccessfully attempted to have it inserted into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. If the Wilmot Proviso re-energized simmering sectional disagreements over the extension of slavery, the results of the Mexican-American War once again brought the issue to a boil.
When the Mexican-American War ended, Congress could no longer avoid sectional concerns dividing the nation. Five crucial issues required congressional attention:
- The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced Mexico to cede vast tracts of land to the United States, including most of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah. The Missouri Compromise addressed the extension of slavery in the Louisiana Territory, but it did not apply to the newly acquired Western territories. As Southerners pushed for the extension of slavery, many in the North were clamoring for abolition.
- The area of New Mexico ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that the State of Texas also claimed. Although hostile natives had prevented Texans from establishing hegemony in the area prior to the war, slaveholders viewed New Mexico as prime real estate for the extension of the South’s peculiar institution. Free Soilers had other ideas and pushed for the federal government to exercise its authority in the area. Some Texans advocated the use of military force to resolve the dispute, while others urged secession. The controversy reached crisis proportions when President Millard Fillmore reinforced federal troops stationed in New Mexico and vowed to resist forcibly any Texas militiamen that entered the disputed territory. Southern political leaders responded by sending Texans offers of military support against the federal troops.
- In 1848, the discovery of gold in California launched the Gold Rush of 1849. By 1850, the mushrooming population of California was lobbying for statehood. Because most “Forty-niners” were from northern states, the constitution of the new state would likely not allow slavery. Southerners opposed California’s petition because the admission of another free state would upset the fragile balance of power in the U. S. Senate.
- The Constitution abolished U. S. participation in the international slave market by 1808, but it did not address interstate slave trading. By 1850, the federal capital evolved as the largest slave market in North America. That fact troubled abolitionists who were clamoring for an end to the slave trade, if not the outright termination of slavery in the nation’s capital.
- Finally, alarmed by increasing numbers of runaway slaves abetted by Northerners, Southerners were demanding stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. That act put teeth into the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 4, Section 2), which stated that “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” Although the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made it a punishable offense to aid an escaped slave, some Northerners began doing just that, as the Underground Railroad emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century. Southern hostility grew when some Northern states enacted measures prohibiting state officials from aiding in the capture or jailing of runaway slaves.
Henry Clay’s Compromise Proposal
When Congress convened in 1850, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of measures on January 29, aimed at addressing the pressing sectional problems facing the nation through the spirit of compromise. Clay’s proposals included:
- Admitting California to the Union as a free state
- Organizing the other territories ceded by Mexico (particularly New Mexico and Utah) with no restrictions on slavery
- Settling the Texas boundary dispute in favor of the United States, in exchange for federal assumption of $10 million of Texas debt
- Abolishing the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia, and
- Enacting a more stringent fugitive slave law
Prolonged Congressional Debate
For the next ten weeks, Congress, the press, and the public at large engaged in heated debates over Clay’s proposal. On March 4, Virginia Senator James Mason rose on the Senate floor to deliver a speech prepared by John C. Calhoun, because the aging Senator from South Carolina was too ill to deliver his prepared text. Calhoun adamantly defended the institution of slavery, the concept of states’ rights, and the South’s repeated attempts to stem what he perceived as Northern aggression. He warned that “agitation has been permitted to proceed, with almost no attempt to resist it, until it has reached a point when it can no longer be disguised or denied that the Union is in danger.” Calhoun warned Northerners “If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so, and we shall know what to do. . .”
Not intimidated by Calhoun’s threats, New York Senator William H. Seward, leader of the anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs,” responded that “No free state claims to extend its legislation into a slave state,” however, the Constitution empowered Congress to exclude slavery from the territories. Beyond that, Stewart avowed that slavery “subverts the principle of democracy” and that “there is a higher law than the Constitution, the law of God in whose sight all persons are equal.” Regarding Calhoun’s threat of disunion, Seward warned that “those who would alarm us with the terrors of revolution have not well considered the structure of this government, and the organization of its forces.”
Critics, including Clay and President Zachary Taylor, characterized Seward’s speech as wild and reckless. Reckless or not, Seward’s pronouncements represented the views of many abolitionists as accurately as Calhoun’s declarations represented the position of many slaveholders and others in the South.
Speaking for the moderates, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster rose in defense of Clay’s proposals, asserting that “I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, . . .” Webster went on to support the spirit of compromise to save the Union. Patriotic as it was, Webster’s speech so alienated abolitionists in his home state that it ruined his political career.
Ten weeks of Senate debate over Clay’s proposals produced no positive results, so on April 18, Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi moved to appoint a select committee of seven Whigs and six Democrats, known as the Committee of Thirteen, to grapple with the issues. Seven of the members were from slave states—John Bell (Tennessee), John M. Berrien (Georgia), Henry Clay (Kentucky), Solomon W. Downs (Louisiana), William R. King (Alabama), Willie P. Mangum (North Carolina), and James M. Mason (Virginia); and six were from free states—Jesse D. Bright(Indiana), Lewis Cass (Michigan), James Cooper (Pennsylvania) Daniel S. Dickinson (New York), Samuel S. Phelps (Vermont), and Daniel Webster (Massachusetts). Seven of the members were Whigs—Bell, Berrien, Clay, Cooper, Mangum, Phelps, and Webster; and six were Democrats—Bright, Cass, Dickenson, Downs, King, and Mason. All but two of the members—Phelps (an ardent supporter of the Wilmot Proviso) and Mason (an extreme states’-rights advocate) were moderates willing to subjugate sectional views to save the Union.
An Omnibus Bill Emerges
Against Clay’s wishes, the Committee of Thirteen packaged their colleague’s proposals into an Omnibus Bill, which they presented to the full Senate on May 8. Their clumsy attempt to force senators to trade votes for measures they opposed in return for measures they supported backfired. Radicals on both sides voted down the bill on July 31.
Notwithstanding what was transpiring in the Senate, the possibility for compromise improved when President Taylor died unexpectedly on July 9, 1850. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder, Taylor opposed the extension of slavery and supported the admission of California as a free state, to the point that he was intractable regarding compromise solutions. Taylor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, a New York Whig, was much more amenable to the spirit of compromise to save the Union. Encouraged by Fillmore’s position after the defeat of the Omnibus Bill, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas became the moderates’ new standard-bearer.
Stephen Douglas’ Solution
With Clay’s blessing, Douglas dissected the Omnibus Bill, reducing it to separate measures closely resembling Clay’s original proposals. The strategy worked. Congressmen unwilling to support the Omnibus Bill in its entirety, because it contained objectionable components, agreed to support individual parts of the bill. Congressional leaders cobbled together enough support from the various factions involved to enact each of the separate measures.
Underscoring the political shrewdness of Douglas and his allies is the fact that only four senators and twenty-eight representatives voted for every one of the measures. On a more ominous note, the votes on each of the bills were divided upon sectional rather than party lines—a clear sign that the two-party system, along with the fabric of the Union was unraveling. Between September 9 and September 20, 1850, President Fillmore signed the separate bills into law.
In their final form, the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the sectional differences dividing the nation by:
- Admitting California to the Union as a free state
- Authorizing the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to determine the status of slavery within their borders
- Settling the Texas boundary dispute in favor of the United States, in exchange for federal assumption of $10 million of Texas debt,
- Abolishing the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia, and
- Enacting a more stringent fugitive slave law to help ensure the return of runaway slaves.
Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that it had saved the Union. President Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”
Chase was correct. Enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Act almost immediately provoked violence against slave-catchers and Federal agents in the North. Southerners responded with renewed threats of secession. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which invoked the concept of popular sovereignty that diffused the slavery dispute in New Mexico and Utah, incited wanton murder and lawlessness in “Bleeding Kansas.” Three years later, the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford nurtured the growth of the Republican Party, alienating Southerners even more. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 proved to be the death knell of the spirit of compromise. Ultimately, only the tragedy of four years of civil war would determine the future of the Union, and slavery in the United States.