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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
Finally, on January 29, 1850, he rose in the Senate to present eight resolutions, which in combination, he asserted, would bring about “an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery.” They provided for the admission of California and New Mexico without mentioning slavery. The people in these territories, not Congress, would determine whether slavery would be included or excluded. Because there was a quarrel between New Mexico and Texas over their common boundary, Clay also proposed that the United States assume Texas’s debt before annexation on the condition that Texas forgo all territorial claims upon New Mexico. The resolutions further declared it was “inexpedient” to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia but “expedient” to forbid the slave trade there. Finally, Clay’s proposals called for the passage of a more effective fugitive slave law and forbade Congress from interfering with the slave trade. Here was something for both North and South, and over the next several months Clay explained and defended his proposals, begging his colleagues to join him in winning their passage for the sake of the Union. President Zachary Taylor had his own plan for the territories and wanted to admit California separately because its population had swelled from 6,000 to 85,000 virtually overnight, owing to the discovery of gold in the foothills of Sierra Nevada. To separate California from the compromise, however, would upset the balance between what the North and South could expect to receive from the passage of Clay’s resolutions as a body.
Then Sen. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi suggested forming a committee that could shape the eight resolutions into a single bill. Clay resisted this suggestion, calling such a package a “sort of omnibus”—a term that referred to the newest form of urban mass transportation. Obviously, a single bill had a better chance of preventing a presidential veto, while a series of measures would give Taylor the opportunity to pick and choose. The compromise depended on passage of all the proposals, so Clay yielded to Foote.
During the lengthy debate that followed, the dying Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, in a speech read by a colleague, blamed the North for bringing the country to the edge of disaster and entreated it to yield to each of the Southern demands. Webster, in his famous 7th of March Speech, responded by blaming both sections for the present crisis and warning of the indescribable horrors of war that secession would bring.
As the debate continued, the Nashville Convention convened, and, despite many threats from those who favored secession, the members decided to wait and see what Congress decided. Suddenly, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor died of cholera and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore, a close friend of Clay and a man who favored his compromise. Unfortunately, when the single bill was brought to the Senate floor later that month, every one of the resolutions was defeated. The omnibus failed because the senators were required to swallow it whole. They could not vote for one proposal and against another. The omnibus thus united those who opposed compromise.
A defeated Clay left Washington and went on a three-week vacation to restore his health. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois thereupon took command of the compromise forces, claiming that if each resolution were voted on separately, all would pass. In August he brought each separate bill to a successful vote, providing what would be called the Compromise of 1850. The Nashville Convention adjourned without recommending secession.
The Compromise of 1850 delayed the Civil War for a decade, giving the North valuable time to further industrialize and strengthen its ability to survive a protracted war, an advantage the South would not enjoy. And those 10 years would also see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln, the statesman who would restore the Union after it split apart.
Many in the North reviled the compromise because it produced a tougher fugitive slave law, but, as Webster reminded them, it was the law of the land and must be obeyed by all. Little of lasting importance can be accomplished without willingness on the part of all involved to seek to accommodate one another’s needs and demands. The Compromise of 1850 is a prime example of how the power brokers of that period avoided a catastrophic smash-up—just in time—and saved the Union.