The period after the Mexican War was a contentious time with between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The United States had acquired vast territories as a result of its victory over Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 would organize all of these territories and hold off disunion for another decade.
The South saw it as an opportunity to tip the balance in favor of the slave states. The North would never agree to this train of events and it appeared that the country was headed for a breakup and the possibility of civil war.
During the deadlock of four years, the Second Party System broke up, Mormon pioneers settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled northern California, and New Mexico under a federal military government turned back Texas’s attempt to assert control over territory Texas claimed as far west as the Rio Grande.
In an attempt to sort out the various territorial and policy issues Senator Henry Clay, a Kentucky Whig, proposed a number of compromises to resolve these issues. But rather than place everything in one bill Clay urged Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, to divide Clay’s bill into several smaller bills, and pass each separately. Clay who was very ill and would die two years later felt that he did not have the strength to push the bills through the Senate.
The Compromise of 1850 came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with “popular sovereignty” (without the Wilmot Proviso) for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and enacting a new fugitive slave law.
Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward who delivered his famous “Higher Law” speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols. Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs supported the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported it because of the stronger fugitive slave law.
The initial debates were quite acrimonious with compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drawing a pistol on Senator Benton. Vice President Millard Fillmore and Senator Benton verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was “out of order.”
In early June 9 representatives from 9 Southern states met at the Nashville Convention to consider what to do if the compromises were passed. Some talked about secession but the moderates won and they proposed a series of compromises, including extending the geographic dividing line designated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.
The initial “omnibus” bill was defeated on July 31st with the majority of Clay’s Whig Party opposed to the measure. Clay left the Senate to recuperate from tuberculosis at Newport, Rhode Island and Douglas took over the shepherding of the bill. He immediately divided the measure into five separate bills.
President Zachary Taylor who had been neutral on the “omnibus” bill died in early July 1850 and Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him. Fillmore was in favor of the compromise and gave it his full support. The Northern Democrats held together and supported each of the bills and gained Whigs or Southern Democrats to pass each one.
The six bills were passed and signed by Fillmore between September 9th and September 20th.
- California was admitted as a free state. It passed the House 150-56. It passed the Senate 34-18.
- The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
- The Territory of Utah was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 97-85.
- The Territory of New Mexico was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 108-97. It passed the Senate 30-20.
- A harsher Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76.
- Texas gave up much of the western land which it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.
Many historians contend that the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War for the next decade. What we do know is that over the decade a number of events took place that strengthened the North and pushed the country to war.
- The divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 introduced by Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise.
- This led to open warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border.
- The Republican Party was formed in 1854 as a coalition of anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs“, Know Nothings and Free Soil Democrats.
- During the decade the Northwest grew more wealthy and more populous and became closer in ideology to the Northeast.
- The Southern stages for the most part stagnated.
- The Fugitive Slave Law polarized the North and the South .
- The free economy of the northern states to continue to industrialize adding many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population.