Compromise of 1850

The decade preceding the Civil War began positively with a compromise that seemed to settle the several outstanding issues of the Mexican Cession. Despite lawmakers' efforts, however, slavery remained a burning national question; new political alignments were formed that reflected the division of the country between North and South, and the creation of new territories raised anew the problem of the extension of slavery. Court decisions and popular literature hardened the feelings of both proslavery and antislavery individuals. In the end, the nation could not overcome the fundamental divisions over slavery and states' rights, and the Union was dissolved.

With California ready for statehood in 1850, a solution to the problem of the extension of slavery raised by the Mexican Cession could no longer be delayed. Although President Taylor was the titular head of the Whigs, he had little political clout. The Whigs turned to Henry Clay, who was responsible for the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the settlement of the nullification controversy in the 1830s, to devise yet another compromise that would satisfy all factions.

Clay's omnibus bill. Clay knew that the issues dividing the country went beyond the lands acquired from the war with Mexico. Many northerners were concerned about slaves still being bought and sold in the nation's capital, while southerners wanted a more effective means than the 1793 fugitive slave law for recapturing their runaway slaves. In January 1850, Clay presented a series of resolutions known as the omnibus bill, which addressed all the outstanding questions. According to the bill, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state; New Mexico and Utah would be organized as territories with the status of slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty; the slave trade, but not slavery itself, would be terminated in the District of Columbia; the fugitive slave law would be strengthened; Congress would declare that it had no right to interfere in the interstate slave trade; the disputed boundary between Texas and New Mexico would be adjusted; and the United States would assume the pre‐annexation debt of Texas.

The politics of compromise. The debate in the Senate on the omnibus bill stretched out for six months amid talk of the southern states' seceding from the Union. Clay made an eloquent defense of his proposed settlement on the Senate floor, strongly emphasizing that secession would lead only to war. Calhoun, too ill to deliver his response to Clay's speech, listened as a colleague read it for him. He called for equal rights for the South in the territories, an end to attacks against slavery, and a constitutional amendment that would, in some vaguely described manner, restore power to the southern states. Daniel Webster spoke in support of the compromise and criticized extremists on both sides of the issues—abolitionists as well as the vocal defenders of slavery. He argued that the climate and soil of the territories precluded the extension of slavery there. Senator William H. Seward of New York condemned Clay's resolutions on the grounds that any compromise with slavery was wrong.

The omnibus bill failed because all of the measures had to be voted on as a package. Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, rescued the compromise by pushing through five separate bills, each of which independently drew enough support to pass. In addition to admitting California as a free state, the Compromise of 1850 included the following four pieces of legislation: the Texas and New Mexico Act, under which New Mexico became a territory without restrictions on slavery (that is, the matter was to be settled by popular sovereignty) and the boundary between Texas and New Mexico was settled, with the United States paying Texas $10 million to relinquish all its territorial claims; the Utah Act, which established Utah as a territory under the same terms as New Mexico regarding slavery; an amendment to the Fugitive Slave Act, which put all cases involving runaway slaves under federal jurisdiction in a manner that clearly favored slaveowners; and the Act Abolishing the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia, which did exactly what its title indicates—it abolished commerce in slaves in the capital city, effective January 1, 1851, with the further provision that the District of Columbia could not be used as a shipping point for the purpose of sale.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Although the running away of slaves was never a serious problem, the new fugitive slave law was the one major victory the South won from the Compromise of 1850; it was also the most controversial. Special commissioners were appointed to hear cases regarding fugitives and could issue warrants for the arrest of runaway slaves; the commissioners received ten dollars for every alleged runaway returned to his or her owner but only five dollars if it was determined that the slave should not be returned. Slaves who claimed to be free were not permitted to testify in their own defense and did not have recourse to a jury trial. Anyone who interfered with the capture of fugitive slaves faced heavy fines, and obstructing the return of a slave was punishable by fines, imprisonment, and civil liabilities. Despite the law's enforcement provisions, several northern states enacted personal liberty laws, which prohibited officials from aiding in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Occasionally, violence broke out when a crowd of abolitionists tried to “rescue” slaves who were about to be brought before commissioners. The refusal of many northerners to cooperate with agents exercising their rights under the law made the Fugitive Slave Act a dead letter as soon as it was enacted.

The impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Northern views of slavery hardened after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which she wrote about the injustice of the institution in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The daughter of the noted preacher Lyman Beecher and sister of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Stowe first serialized Uncle Tom's Cabin in an abolitionist magazine in 1851. The story appeared as a book the following year. The novel dramatically portrays the terror of the slave Eliza as she runs across ice floes on the Ohio River, clutching her tiny baby, and the nobility of Uncle Tom as he is whipped to death by Simon Legree. The book makes it clear that the concept of slavery is inherently evil; although Tom had been owned by a “kindly master” before he was sold to Legree, it was the institution itself that led to families being torn apart.

Stowe's novel was an immediate success, selling two million copies by the end of 1852 and waking a mass audience to the harshness of slavery. The impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin is difficult to overestimate. According to Stowe's son, when President Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe at a White House affair, he is alleged to have remarked, “So this is the little lady who started the Civil War.” The story is probably apocryphal, but it makes the point that northern views on slavery indeed changed after the publication of her novel.