The Compromise of 1850

An increasingly popular "quick-fix" remedy to solving the issue of slavery was being discussed as 1850 began. The idea was to create new states from the territories acquired in 1846 and 1848 as soon as possible. States hoped to rely upon the U.S.Constitution X Amendment, which allowed the state the right to decide for themselves any issue not expressly prohibited by the federal government. Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution at all.
Another "loop-hole" pro-slavery advocates hoped to have in their favor was the proviso of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which stated that all land above latitude 36o; 30' N was to be forever free territory. Federal Courts were in the process of evaluating that provision; they eventually would decide that proviso only applied to the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. That meant that slavery could legally exist north of the 36 o;30' line the Oregon and Mexican Cession Territories.

Many leading politicians of the day, including President Zachary Taylor, firmly believed the soon-to-be-created states should decide for themselves whether to be free or slave states. He publicly supported the move to add the new State of California as a free state in December 1849, based on his correspondence with the territorial governor. Southern leaders in Congress had to respond quickly.

On January 29, 1850, seventy-three year old Henry Clay presented to the U.S. Senate his proposal. Clay had cleverly combined many separate issues and pending bills into one major piece of legislation designed to help the south while letting the north feel as though they were getting something in return. Clay's compromise proposed:

  1. Admitting California as a free state.
  2. Organizing the Mexican Cession Territory without any restriction as to slavery (the Utah and New Mexico territories).
  3. Denying the Texas claim to extend its boundary to where the Rio Grande River begins.
  4. Compensating Texas for #3 (above) by having the federal government assume the $10 million Texas state debt.
  5. Ending the practice of requiring all traded/sold slaves to pass through the District of Columbia but,
  6. Keeping slavery legal in D.C. even though it is not a state.
  7. Rewriting the Fugitive Slave Act, placing it under the jurisdiction of Federal U.S. Marshals.
  8. Denying Congress any future authority to regulate slavery (no more Missouri Compromise-type 36o; 30' provisions).
The North supported the first four points; the south was in favor of the last four. Yet each side thought the other side was gaining too much. By April 1850, this Omnibus Bill was in the hands of a select Senate Committee. They cleaned it up enough to have both northern and southern approval and expected to send it to President Taylor for the July 4th Holiday. Taylor suddenly fell ill and died on July 9th without signing the Bill into law.

Taylor's successor, Milliard Fillmore, did not like the Bill and threatened to veto it. Clay was too ill to continue working and his rival, J.C. Calhoun, had died that spring. New and younger members of Congress whittled Clay's 8 points down to 5 points they felt Fillmore would support.
Here is what they wrote: The Compromise of 1850:

  1. Admitted California as a free state.
  2. Created New Mexico & Utah Territories; they could decide for themselves to be free or slave states.
  3. Revoked the Texas border claim to the source of the Rio Grande River.
  4. Added Texas' $10 million debt to the Federal debt.
  5. Gave U.S. Marshals authority to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anywhere in the U.S. and ended the D.C. detour when selling/trading slaves.
Both northern abolitionists and anti-slavery opponents alike were upset by the final point. They felt that it gave the impression that the U.S. federal government endorsed the issue of slavery . But if they had rejected this point, they might possibly have lost California and its free state status. They could always ignore the Fugitive Slave Act; ignoring the admission of California as a slave state would have been more difficult to do.