Compromise of 1850

Compromise of 18502018-11-28T09:54:54+00:00

About the Author: Christopher Averill has taught AP® US History for 27 years and been actively involved in APUSH® grading for 22 years. Christopher has served as an APUSH® exam reader, table leader, exam leader, and question leader. Christopher was integral in establishing the AP® Teacher Best Practices Workshops at the annual AP® US History reading. He has been endorsed by the College Board as an AP Consultant since 1999 and has conducted numerous AP single-day workshops as well as Teaching and Learning Seminars. Starting in 2010 he began a four year term on the AP® US History Test Development Committee. Additionally, he was a Faculty Consultant editor for the 15th edition of the Alan Brinkley American History textbook.

Compromise of 1850 for APUSH®

America’s victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) added a lot of land to the divisive nation. Questions of how to incorporate the new land into the Union increased the sectional conflict ripping America apart. Northerners wanted the new lands to be slave free. Southerners, not wanting to weaken their representation in Congress, adamantly pushed back Northern efforts to outlaw slavery in the new land. The question of how the new land would handle the slavery question and the resulting re-balancing of Congressional power shaped the Compromise of 1850.

There were five major elements of the Compromise of 1850:

  1. California entered the Union as a free state.
  2. The remaining Mexican Cession lands would become the territories of Utah and New Mexico which would decide the issue of slavery in that area based on popular sovereignty (voter decision).
  3. The federal Fugitive Slave law would be strengthened to catch runaway slaves.
  4. The slave trade in Washington D.C. would be abolished.
  5. Texas would receive $10 million for their western lands and these lands would be added to the New Mexico territory.

This compromise was extremely significant because it established several of the issues that eventually led to the Civil War.  The political balance in Congress for the next ten years leading to the Civil War favored the northern states.  Additionally, the South was angered over the fact that The Fugitive Slave law, though much more stringent than previous federal laws, would not be enforced.  The idea of popular sovereignty which might allow for the spreading of slavery enraged many northern abolitionists.

In the end, The Compromise of 1850 kept the union together for a decade and some historians believed that because of the industrial growth that took place during that time, the North would have the resources and industrial might to win the War when it came. If the war was fought in 1850, the South may have achieved independence with the resulting separation of nations making America look extremely different than it does today.

Context of Compromise

Following the Mexican-American War in 1848, America received the northern 1/3 of Mexico. These lands included cotton-producing areas into which the South could expand its slave economy. Opposition to the expansion came from the North and the West. A very loud abolitionist movement in the North opposed the spread of slavery into any western lands on moral grounds. In the West, the Free Soil Party opposed it because of economic competition with free labor. The South believed that slaves were property, protected under the 5th Amendment, and thus could be taken anywhere, especially into the Mexican Cession lands. The proposal to have popular sovereignty determine the question of slavery in the New Mexican and Utah lands was met with much resistance on both sides.

The proposal to have popular sovereignty determine the question of slavery in the New Mexican and Utah lands was met with much resistance on both sides.

As if the question of slavery’s constitutional and ethical presence in the new lands was not divisive enough, the political balance between the north and south in Congress was even greater.  A year after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War in 1849 was signed, gold was discovered in California. Thousands of U.S. citizens flocked to the territory with dreams of becoming rich.  California would thus quickly ask for admittance as a free state.  The Southerners believed that New Mexico would come in as a slave state and balance the north-south political scale in Congress. However, few of the former Mexican citizens residing in New Mexico wanted to enter the Union as a slave state. Thus, proposing that California enter into the Union as a free state was a solution that few southerners supported.

As if the question of slavery’s constitutional and ethical presence in the new lands was not divisive enough, the political balance between the north and south in Congress was even greater.

One of the perpetual problems for slave owners was the promise of freedom for slaves if they escaped to the North.  Hundreds, if not thousands of slaves, escaped northward either through the Underground Railroad and its supports or through other avenues. The resulting call in the South was that the Federal government do something dramatic to stop it. Thus, a stricter Fugitive Slave law enforced by the federal government on the northern states was demanded.

The debate involved a great deal of political maneuvering. The three great legislators of their age were to participate in this major debate together. Daniel Webster from Massachusetts, Henry Clay from Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun from South Carolina were to do battle for the last time. Webster supported the Compromise while Calhoun vehemently opposed it. Clay, the Great compromiser, brought together moderates and business interests from both regions who preferred peace and economic stability over a costly and divisive war.

That Peculiar Institution: Hundred Years of Headache

Slavery’s expansion into newly acquired lands had tested the concept of federalism since the purchase of Louisiana in 1803. The basic conflict revolved around the constitutional power given to Congress to legislate over territories and the personal guarantee of property which was protected under the 5th Amendment. Since slaves had been judicially determined to be property, southerners believed that any denial of that right into any territories was a violation of their civil liberties.

Slavery’s expansion into newly acquired lands had tested the concept of federalism since the purchase of Louisiana in 1803. The basic conflict revolved around the constitutional power given to Congress to legislate over territories and the personal guarantee of property which was protected under the 5th Amendment.

Thus, when Congressman James Tallmadge from Pennsylvania proposed an amendment to the Missouri State constitution prohibiting the further introduction of slaves, the southerners were outraged. This was a violation of both 5th amendment freedoms and a state’s right to choose whether or not to have slavery. Though the Compromise of 1820 solved the issue temporarily, it did not answer the basic constitutional conflict involving federalism – the division of powers between the federal and state governments as written in to the U.S. Constitution.

Though the Compromise of 1820 solved the issue temporarily, it did not answer the basic constitutional conflict involving federalism

Thus, with the acquisition of new territories following the Mexican-American War in 1848, the question would again arise: Can Congress constitutionally legislate on the question of slavery in the territories?

Continuity and Change… and Compromise

The continuity that occurred once again was that political compromise in the federal legislature had prevented a Civil War. The southerners were threatening secession of the denial of Missouri as a slave state in 1820, yet the Compromise of 1820 averted a possible war.  South Carolina had not only voided a federal law but was threatening secession over the federal tariffs in 1833. This showdown was stopped and the union maintained with the Compromise Tariff of 1833.  Thus, the Compromise of 1850 averted a war over the similar issues of federal dominance and tyranny over states through political compromise.  Slavery’s expansion into new territories and the threats of secession amongst southern “fire-eaters” would be soothed as before with political compromise.  Cooler heads had once again prevailed.

The Compromise of 1850 averted a war over the similar issues of federal dominance and tyranny over states through political compromise.

However, this was not to last for long. The question of slavery’s expansion into new territories would be temporarily settled. Complete polarization of the nation over the question of slavery’s expansion into the territory would begin even before the ink had dried. This division started with the reversal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854.  Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress passed its constitutional authority to legislate on the question of slavery in the territories to the people in the form of popular sovereignty and erased the Compromise line. Slavery could now effectively move into formerly free territories. The result would be a Civil War in the Kansas territory, the destruction of the Whig party, and the fraying of the national union in 1861 with the onset of the Civil War.

Keep Learning!

The Missouri Compromise

Missouri Compromise for APUSH Apprend
Learn More

Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion APUSH
Learn More

Mercantilism

Mercantilism for APUSH
Learn More

The XYZ Affair

XYZ Affair for APUSH Apprend
Learn More

Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation for APUSH
Learn More