Compromise 3: Clay and The 1850 Debate
Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe
Summer 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 2
On a raw evening in winter of 1850, a weary-looking, feeble, and desperately ill old man arrived unannounced at the Washington, D.C. residence of Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky had come to seek Webster’s help in his battle to save the Union. He believed that Webster’s legendary eloquence would be essential in preventing what appeared to be a headlong rush by Southern states to secede from the Union and possibly initiate civil war.
Webster welcomed his colleague and noticed that the 72-year-old Clay looked ill and coughed incessantly. (Neither man would live another three years.) He listened intently as the Kentuckian outlined a compromise that would at least postpone a national crisis that had begun as a result of a war with Mexico that both men had opposed.
The Mexican surrender in 1848 had ceded to the United States vast new territories, which included the lands within the present-day states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, a corner of Wyoming, and the western slope of Colorado. In addition, Mexico had recognized the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, the United States agreed to pay Mexico $15 million and to satisfy $3.25 million in claims by its citizens against Mexico.
This great stretch of land had been free of slavery under Mexican law, and most Northerners expected that it would continue to be so. But Southerners, who had contributed so much to the military effort, argued that they had a right to introduce slavery into the region. Quarreling between the North and South had already arisen over the issue. The war with Mexico had barely begun when, on August 6, 1846, Rep. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania had moved an amendment to an appropriations bill forbidding slavery in any territory that the United States might acquire as a result of the conflict. This “Wilmot proviso” set off a wild debate and ended with the passage of the proviso in the House, where Northerners held a majority, but not in the Senate.
Abolitionists also sought to put an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. It was a disgrace, they protested, that visitors and foreign dignitaries might observe the buying and selling of human beings in the nation’s capital. Because Congress controlled the District, such an action would be perfectly constitutional.
The situation worsened when the Mississippi state legislature passed a resolution denouncing the notion that slavery could be excluded from the new territories. The resolution also called upon other Southern states to meet together in Nashville in early June 1850 to discuss the problem and adopt a course of action. Radicals throughout the South endorsed the call, recognizing it as a perfect vehicle to bring about secession.
Debate in the U.S. House grew extremely heated. “I . . . avow before this House and country,” cried Robert Toombs of Georgia, “and in the presence of the living God, that if by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico . . . and to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon the States of this Confederacy, I am for disunion and . . . I will devote all I am and all I have on earth to its consummation.” Arguments flared into fistfights and finally resulted in a melee. “Had a bomb exploded in the hall,” recalled the sergeant-at-arms, “there could not have been greater excitement.”
In the Senate the situation—for the moment—was much calmer. Clay knew immediately that only compromise could avert approaching disaster. And while compromise meant that each side needed to give something up, it did not require the sacrifice of principles or beliefs. With compromise, there could be no losers; each contending group of partisans must gain something they regarded as important. So Clay spent the next several weeks working out a settlement that would be acceptable to both North and South.
On January 21, his work done, he trudged over to Webster’s house and outlined his proposals. They talked for an hour. Webster marveled at what Clay had produced and was sure it would be “satisfactory to the North and to the reasonable men of the South.” Clay then set off to round up as many senators who would join him in preventing secession.