The Compromise of 1850 Delayed the Civil War For a Decade

Measure Devised by Henry Clay Dealt With Enslavement in New States

Engraved portrait of John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay
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The Compromise of 1850 was a set of bills passed in Congress which tried to settle the issue of enslavement, which was about to split the nation. The legislation was highly controversial and it was only passed after a long series of battles on Capitol Hill. It was destined to be unpopular, as just about every part of the nation found something to dislike about its provisions.

Yet the Compromise of 1850 served its purpose. For a time it kept the Union from splitting, and it essentially delayed the outbreak of the Civil War for a decade.

The Mexican War Led to the Compromise of 1850

As the Mexican War ended in 1848, vast stretches of land acquired from Mexico were going to be added to the United States as new territories or states. Once again, the issue of enslavement came to the forefront of American political life. Would new states and territories be free or allow enslavement?

President Zachary Taylor wanted California admitted as a free state, and wanted New Mexico and Utah admitted as territories which excluded enslavement under their territorial constitutions. Politicians from the South objected, claiming that admitting California would upset the balance between free states and those that allowed enslavement and would split the Union.

On Capitol Hill, some familiar and formidable characters, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, began trying to hammer out some sort of compromise. Thirty years earlier, in 1820, the U.S. Congress, largely at the direction of Clay, had tried to settle similar questions about enslavement with the Missouri Compromise. It was hoped that something similar could be achieved to lessen tensions and avoid a sectional conflict.

The Compromise of 1850 Was an Omnibus Bill

Henry Clay, who had come out of retirement and was serving as a senator from Kentucky, put together a group of five separate bills as an "omnibus bill" which became known as the Compromise of 1850. Clay's proposed legislation would admit California as a free state; allow New Mexico to decide whether it wanted to be a free state or one that allowed enslavement; enact a strong federal law targeting freedom seekers, and preserve the system of enslavement in the District of Columbia.

Clay tried to get the Congress to consider the issues in one general bill, but couldn't get the votes to pass it. Senator Stephen Douglas became involved and essentially took the bill apart into its separate components and was able to get each bill through Congress.

Components of the Compromise of 1850

The final version of the Compromise of 1850 had five major components:

  • California was admitted as a free state.
  • Territories of New Mexico and Utah were given the option of legalizing enslavement
  • The border between Texas and New Mexico was fixed.
  • A stronger law targeting freedom seekers was enacted.
  • The trade of enslaved people was ended in the District of Columbia, though the system of enslavement remained legal.

Importance of the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 did accomplish what was intended at the time, as it held the Union together. But it was bound to be a temporary solution.

One particular part of the compromise, the stronger Fugitive Slave Act, was almost immediately a cause of great controversy. The bill intensified the hunting of freedom seekers who had made it to free territory. And it led, for example, to the Christiana Riot, an incident in rural Pennsylvania in September 1851 in which a Maryland farmer was killed while trying to apprehend freedom seekers who had escaped from his estate.

Disassembling the Compromise

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, legislation guided through Congress by Senator Stephen Douglas only four years later, would prove even more controversial. Provisions in the Kansas-Nebraska Act were widely disliked as they repealed the venerable Missouri Compromise. The new legislation led to violence in Kansas, which was dubbed "Bleeding Kansas" by the legendary newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also inspired Abraham Lincoln to become involved in politics again, and his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 set the stage for his run for the White House. And, of course, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 would inflame passions in the South and lead to the secession crisis and the American Civil War.

The Compromise of 1850 may have delayed the splitting of the Union many Americans feared, but it couldn't prevent it forever.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Ashworth, John. "Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic: Volume 1 Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Hamilton, Holman. "Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850." Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
  • Waugh, John C. "On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and how it Changed the Course of American History." Books on the Civil War Era 13. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003.
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McNamara, Robert. "The Compromise of 1850 Delayed the Civil War For a Decade." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Compromise of 1850 Delayed the Civil War For a Decade. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Compromise of 1850 Delayed the Civil War For a Decade." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).

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