America in 1850: A Nation on the Brink
A prior convention in Mississippi in 1849 had already denounced the Wilmot Proviso, a pre-Mexican War attempt to limit slavery in any territory that might be gained from war with Mexico. Although the proviso was hotly debated, it never passed, but the issue was by no means dead. The debates in 1850 in Nashville were divided between moderate voices calling for the perpetuation of the Union and the opinions of extremists determined to perpetuate slavery at any cost. The Compromise of 1850, discussed below, postponed the threat of secession or war, but all knew that the issue of slavery was not going to go away. As the 1850 debates made clear, the battle lines were drawn, and as the decade of the 1850s unfolded, the drift towards war became inexorable, so that when the final break finally occurred in 1860, many felt a sense of relief even while facing the prospect of armed conflict between the states.
The Politics of Slavery in the 1850s. Since the United States Constitution recognized and even protected the institution of slavery, it was clear to everyone at the time that to abolish slavery at the national level would require a Constitutional amendment. To obtain the necessary three-quarters majority of the states to ratify an anti-slavery amendment would have been virtually impossible, given that almost half the states permitted slavery. Dealing with the issue therefore had to be carried out in the context of what the Constitution said on the subject.Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution stated:
At first no federal law was invoked to enforce that article, since it was assumed that the states could handle any problems arising from it. In 1793, however, a dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania regarding a runaway slave led to passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Act stated in part:
In 1808, in accordance with the Constitution, Congress banned the further importation of slaves to the United States. Slave trading within the United States, however, remained legal. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery in areas covered by the act, but the restriction was not extended to other territories. (The Ordinance applied to the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.) In 1820, however, the land acquired from from France in the Louisiana purchase precipitated a crisis. The subject of slavery in that territory came to a head over the issue of the admission of the state of Missouri. The Missouri Compromise allowed the extension of slavery into certain areas and prevented it in others, which resolved the issue temporarily. The act merely postponed the crisis, however, as Jefferson and many others recognized at the time.
Although a powerful abolitionist movement began around 1830, it is doubtful that the abolitionist cause ever reached majority proportions throughout the northern states. (Neither, of course, was pro-slavery feeling in the South anywhere near unanimous.) When, as a result of the Mexican-American War, the United States added some 500,000 square miles of new territory in 1848 (over 1,000,000 counting Texas), the nation once again had to decide whether slavery was to be allowed in the new territories of the United States. Both opponents and supporters of slavery recognized that the battle over slavery was to be fought in the territories, where the results would affect the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives. Indeed, that was where it was fought.
The reemergence of the issue in the 1848 election foreshadowed the crisis which evolved and grew in the 1850s. During that election campaign the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” appeared, the idea that people in each territory ought to have the liberty to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free territory. The problem with that idea was that absent laws (such as the Northwest Ordinance) prohibiting slavery, nothing prevented slave owners from taking their “property” into the new territories. Thus, when the population became large enough for the territory to begin thinking of statehood, slavery had to be considered when the people in the territories wrote their constitutions and applied to Congress for admission.
Since approval of those state constitutions was an essential step on the road to statehood, Congress had some control over the process. So the issue became a national one and not one of states’ (or territorial) rights. The issue might have been resolved by extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific to cover the new territory; however, since the movement to prohibit slavery in the territories was much stronger in 1850 than it had been in 1820, politicians were not able to deal with it as readily as before.
The idea of popular sovereignty, introduced during the 1848 election, seemed a reasonable solution. After all, it was basically democratic: Why not let the people in each new territory decide for themselves whether or not they want slavery? (Of course participation in that decision was never extended to the slave population.) Second, it seemed acceptable to Americans for whom “states’ rights” was the basis for their attitude toward the federal government. The two major problems with the doctrine were, first, that slaves and free blacks were excluded from the decision-making process, and second, that it ignored the concerns of Americans who hoped, as Abraham Lincoln and others did, that slavery was on its way out. If slavery was allowed to go into the territories, then the life of slavery would surely be extended.
In the end, whether it was a wise idea or not, popular sovereignty only made things worse. Some believed that you could allow slavery into the territories but prevent it "de facto" by failing to pass the legislation necessary to support it. In fact, what happened was great turmoil in places like Kansas, where the local population actually got into a civil war over slavery. But that came later. In 1850, when California was ready for admission, slavery was a federal issue. For a short time, it seemed to have been handled reasonably, when after months of debate, the 1850 Compromise was passed.
As he had so often done in the past, Henry Clay rose to offer a compromise bill. He submitted a resolution proposing that California be admitted as a free state and that the remainder of the Mexican Cession territory to be organized without mention of slavery. The issue of the Texas-New Mexico boundary, which had created a controversy, would be settled in New Mexico’s favor, but Texas would be compensated with a federal assumption of its state debt. The slave trade (but not slavery) would be abolished in Washington, D.C., and a more stringent fugitive slave law replacing the 1793 fugitive slave act would be enacted and vigorously enforced. Other minor related issues were also included.
In the weeks of Senatorial debate which preceded the enactment of the Compromise of 1850, a range of attitudes was expressed. Clay took the lead early in speaking for the resolutions he had introduced. The Great Compromiser advised the North against insisting on the terms of the Wilmot Proviso and the South against thinking seriously of disunion. South Carolina’s John Calhoun, who was dying, asked Senator James M. Mason of Virginia to read his gloomy speech for him. After explaining why the bonds of sentiment between North and South had been progressively weakened, Calhoun went on, in the section printed below, to say how he thought the Union could be saved. Three days later, he was followed by Daniel Webster, who agreed with Clay that there could be no peaceable secession. Webster’s attempt to restrain Northern extremists brought him abuse from anti-slavery men in his own section, where formerly he had been so admired. Extreme views were expressed on both sides, but the passage of the compromise measures showed that the moderate spirit of Clay and Webster was still dominant.
Here are excerpts from the 1850 Compromise debates. As much as any political debates in the nation’s history, they define the positions held by various parties to the conflict:
HENRY CLAY, February 5 and 6.
… Sir, I must take occasion here to say that in my opinion there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union. War and dissolution of the Union are identical and inevitable, in my opinion. There can be a dissolution of the Union only by consent or by war. Consent no one can anticipate, from any existing state of things, is likely to be given; and war is the only alternative by which a dissolution could be accomplished. If consent were given—if it were possible that we were to be separated by one great line—in less than sixty days after such consent was given war would break out between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding portions of this Union—between the two independent parts into which it would be erected in virtue of the act of separation. In less than sixty days, I believe, our slaves from Kentucky, flocking over in numbers to the other side of the river, would be pursued by their owners. Our hot and ardent spirits would be restrained by no sense of the right which appertains to the independence of the other side of the river, should that be the line of separation. They would pursue their slaves into the adjacent free States; they would be repelled; and the consequence would be that, in less than sixty days, war would, be blazing in every part of this now happy and peaceful land.
And, sir, how are you going to separate the states of this confederacy? In my humble opinion, Mr. President, we should begin with at least three separate confederacies. There would be a confederacy of the North, a confederacy of the Southern Atlantic slaveholding States, and a confederacy of the valley of the Mississippi. … Such, I believe, would be the consequences of a dissolution of the Union, immediately ensuing; but other confederacies would spring up from time to time, as dissatisfaction and discontent were disseminated throughout the country—the confederacy of the lakes, perhaps the confederacy of New England, or of the middle States. Ah, sir, the veil which covers these sad and disastrous events that lie beyond it, is too thick to be penetrated or lifted by any mortal eye or hand. ….
Mr. President, I have said, what I solemnly believe, that dissolution of the Union and war are identical and inevitable; and they are convertible terms; and such a war as it would be, following a dissolution of the Union! Sir, we may search the pages of history, and none so ferocious, so bloody, so implacable, so exterminating—not even the wars of Greece, including those of the Commoners of England and the revolutions of France—none, none of them all would rage with such violence, or be characterized with such bloodshed and enormities as would the war which must succeed, if that ever happens, the dissolution of the Union.
John C. Calhoun, March 4.
The first question is: What is it that has endangered the Union? . . .
One of the causes is, undoubtedly, to be traced to the long continued agitation of the slave question on the part of the North and the many aggressions which they have made on the rights of the South . . .
There is another lying back of it, with which this is intimately connected, that may be regarded as the great and primary cause. That is to be found in the fact that the equilibrium between the two sections in the government, as it stood when the Constitution was ratified and the government put into action, has been destroyed. … I propose … that it is owing to the action of this government that the equilibrium between the two sections has been destroyed and the whole powers of the system centered in a sectional majority.
The next [cause] is the system of revenue and disbursements which his been adopted by the government. It is well known that the government has derived its revenue mainly from duties on imports. I shall not undertake to show that such duties must necessarily fall mainly on the exporting states, and that the South, as the great exporting portion of the Union, has in reality paid vastly more than her due proportion of the revenue because . . . the subject has on so many occasions been fully discussed. …
It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. …Disunion must be the work of time. It is only through a long process, and successively, that the cords can be snapped, until the whole fabric falls asunder. Already the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important and has greatly weakened all the others. . . .
Having now, senators, explained what it is that endangers the Union, and traced it to its cause, and explained its nature and character, the question again recurs: How can the Union be saved? To this I answer there is but one way by which it can be; and that is by adopting such measures as will satisfy the states belonging to the Southern section that they can remain in the Union consistently with their honor and their safety. … But, before I undertake to answer this question, I propose to show by what the Union cannot be saved.
It cannot, then be saved by eulogies on the Union, however splendid or numerous. The cry of "Union, union, the glorious Union!" can no more prevent disunion than the cry of "Health, health, glorious health!" on the part of the physician can save a patient lying dangerously ill. So long as the Union, instead of being regarded as a protector, is regarded in the opposite character, by not much more than a majority of the States, it will be in vain to attempt to conciliate them by pronouncing eulogies upon it.
The plan of the administration cannot save the Union, because it can have no effect whatever toward satisfying the states composing the Southern section of the Union that they can, consistently with safety and honor, remain in the Union. …
Having now shown what cannot save the Union, I return to the question with which I commenced: How can the Union be saved? There is but one way by which it can with any certainty, and that is by a full and final settlement on the principle of justice of all the questions at issue between the two sections. The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take. She has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make. She has already surrendered so much that she has little left to surrender. Such a settlement would go to the root of the evil and remove all cause of discontent by satisfying the South that she could remain honorably and safely in the Union; and thereby restore the harmony and fraternal feelings between the sections which existed anterior to the Missouri agitation. Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and forever settle the questions at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union.
Daniel Webster, March 7.
MR. PRESIDENT, I WISH TO SPEAK TODAY, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause." I speak today out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all. . . .
I put it to all the sober and sound minds at the North as a question of morals and a question of conscience: What right have they, in all their legislative capacity, or any other, to endeavor to get round this Constitution, to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution, to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all—none at all. Neither in the forum of conscience nor before the face of the Constitution are they justified in any opinion. Of course, it is a matter for their consideration. They probably, in the turmoil of the times, have not stopped to consider of this; they have followed what seemed to be the current of thought and of motives as the occasion arose, and neglected to investigate fully the real question, and to consider their constitutional obligations, as I am sure, if they did consider, they would fulfill them with alacrity.
Therefore, I repeat, sir, that here is a ground of complaint against the North, well founded, which ought to be removed;…
… Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish—I beg everybody's pardon—as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common center, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres and jostle against each other in the realms of space without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.
Is the great Constitution under which we live here—covering this whole country—is it to be thawed and melted away by secession as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun—disappear almost unobserved and die off? No, sir! No, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the states; but, sir, I see it as plainly as I see the sun in heaven—I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold characters.
Peaceable secession! Peaceable secession! The concurrent agreement of all the members of this great republic to separate! A voluntary separation, with alimony on one side and on the other. Why, what would be the result? Where is the line to be drawn? What states are to secede? What is to remain American? What am I to be? An American no longer? Where is the flag of the republic to remain? Where is the eagle still to tower? Or is he to cower, and shrink, and fall to the ground? Why, sit, our ancestors—our fathers, and our grandfathers, those of them that are yet living among us with prolonged lives—would rebuke and reproach us; and our children and our grandchildren would cry out, Shame upon us! if we of this generation should dishonor these ensigns of the power of the government and the harmony of the Union, which is every day felt among us with so much joy and gratitude. … And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in these caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of liberty and union…
William H. Seward: A Higher Law than the Constitution. March 11.
Senator William H. Seward of New York represented the more radical anti-slavery position that made him the favorite of abolitionists. Although his views would help prevent him from gaining the Republican nomination for president in 1860, he did become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, a position he held through the administration of Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination. (William Seward is perhaps best known for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, known at the time as “Seward’s folly.”) Seward argued:
…It is insisted that the admission of California shall be attended by a compromise of questions which have arisen out of slavery. I AM OPPOSED TO ANY SUCH COMPROMISE, IN ANY AND ALL THE FORMS IN WHICH IT HAS BEEN PROPOSED, because, while admitting the purity and the patriotism of all from whom it is my misfortune to differ, I think all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious. They involve the surrender of the exercise of judgment and conscience on distinct and separate questions, at distinct, and separate times, with the indispensable advantages it affords for ascertaining truth. They involve a relinquishment of the right to reconsider in future the decisions of the present on questions prematurely anticipated; and they are a usurpation as to future questions of the province of future legislators. …
… There is another aspect of the principle of compromise which deserves consideration. It assumes that slavery, if not the only institution in a slave state, is at least a ruling institution, and that this characteristic is recognized by the Constitution. But slavery is only one of many institutions there - freedom is equally an institution there. Slavery is only a temporary, accidental, partial, and incongruous one; freedom, on the contrary, is a perpetual, organic, universal one, in harmony with the Constitution of the United States. The slaveholder himself stands under the protection of the latter, in common with all the free citizens of the state; but it is, moreover, an indispensable institution. You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist.
But there is yet another aspect in which this principle must be examined. It regards the domain only as a possession, to be enjoyed either in common or by partition by the citizens of the old states. It is true, in. deed, that the national domain is ours; it is true, it was acquired by the valor and with the wealth of the whole nation; but we hold, nevertheless, no arbitrary power over it. We hold no arbitrary authority over anything, whether acquired lawfully or seized by usurpation. The Constitution regulates our stewardship; the Constitution devotes the domain to union, to justice, to defense, to welfare, and to liberty.
But there is a higher law than the Constitution which regulates our authority over the domain and devotes it to the same noble purposes. The territory is a part—no inconsiderable part—of the common heritage of mankind, bestowed upon them by the Creator of the universe. We are His stewards and must so discharge our trust as to secure, in the highest attainable degree, their happiness. . . .
… And now the simple, bold, and even awful question which presents itself to us is this: Shall we, who are founding institutions, social and political, for countless millions—shall we, who know by experience the wise and the just, and are free to choose them, and to reject the erroneous and unjust shall we establish human bondage, or permit it, by our sufferance, to be established? Sir, our forefathers would not have hesitated an hour. They found slavery existing here, and they left it only because they could not remove it. There is not only no free state which would now establish it but there is no slave state which, if it had had the free alternative as we now have, would have founded slavery. … I confess that the most alarming evidence of our degeneracy which has yet been given is found in the fact that we even debate such a question.
Sir, there is no Christian nation, thus free to choose as we are, which would establish slavery. I speak on due consideration, because Britain, France, and Mexico have abolished slavery, and all other European states are preparing to abolish it as speedily as they can. We cannot establish slavery, because there are certain elements of the security, welfare, and greatness of nations, which we all admit, or ought to admit, and recognize as essential; and these are the security of natural rights, the diffusion of knowledge, and the freedom of industry. Slavery is incompatible with all of these, and just in proportion to the extent that it prevails and controls in any republican state, just to that extent it subverts the principle of democracy and converts the state into an aristocracy or a despotism. …
The debate in Congress was long and tortured, and for a time the cause seemed hopeless. Those 1850 debates were the last great Calhoun, Clay and Webster show, though all three were past their prime and not far from death. John C. Calhoun died in March, 1850. Upon President Taylor’s death, Daniel Webster was called by President Fillmore to return to the post of Secretary of State. Henry Clay and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois sought to break the impasse. They divided the compromise into separate bills, which allowed members to vote for what they liked and against what they did not like. By so doing, Clay and Douglas brought the seven-month-long debate to a successful conclusion. Congress adopted each of Clay's major proposals as separate measures with only minor alterations.
The Compromise admitted California as a free state, organized the territories of New Mexico and Utah on the basis of popular sovereignty, and retracted the Texas border with New Mexico in return for federal assumption of the Texas debt. It also abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The most controversial provision created a strong Fugitive Slave Law to replace the 1793 act. The act denied suspected runaways the right of self-defense, and required Northerners, in effect, to help enforce slavery. The South accepted the Compromise of 1850 as conclusive and backed away from threats of secession. In the North, the Democratic Party gained popularity by taking credit for the compromise, and the Whigs found it necessary to cease their criticism of it.
For the moment, the Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union, and passage of the compromise led to euphoric celebrations of fireworks and bell-ringing throughout the North, but the victory did not last long. Instead of being a “final solution”—to all except northern radical abolitionists—the so-called compromise was never fully accepted by either party; people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line opposed at least part of it.
Trouble with the compromise centered on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which struck fear in the hearts of northern blacks and encouraged more Southerners to try to recover escaped slaves. Northern abolitionists often interfered with the enforcement of the law, and such efforts exacerbated sectional feelings. The sight of blacks being carried off to slavery outraged Northerners, and Southerners resented the Northerners’ refusal to obey the law. Ironically, the traditional position of states’ rights attributed to Southerners now cut the other way, as it was Northern states that sought to nullify a federal statute. Some states passed personal liberty laws to protect free blacks, but the Fugitive Slave Law forced many Northerners to experience the heartlessness of slavery first hand. In a number of instances, resistance to the law led to violence.
Christiana, Pennsylvania, lies about 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. In September, 1851, Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slave owner, obtained warrants under the new law to search for four escaped slaves who had run away to Pennsylvania. They were being sheltered by William Parker, a free black farmer who lived in Christiana and belonged to a group known for protecting runaway slaves. When Gorsuch and his search party arrived at the Parker farm, they met with resistance. Arguments broke out and shots were fired. Gorsuch was killed and others were wounded. News of the event, which became known as the Christiana riot, spread far and wide, and Christiana became known as the place where the Civil War began. (See Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North, New York, 1991.)
The Rise of Stephen Douglas. On the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield stand three statues: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Everett Dirksen. Abraham Lincoln needs no further introduction—after all, his likeness is on Mount Rushmore as well. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen served in the House and Senate from 1932 until his death in 1969. A Republican, he was nevertheless a strong supporter of Democrat Lyndon Johnson and worked for civil rights legislation.
Stephen Arnold Douglas, less well known today, was the dominant political figure of the 1850s. Known throughout his life as Judge Douglas because of a service on the Illinois Supreme Court, he was a powerful leader in United States Senate from 1847 to 1861. As noted above, he became prominent in 1850 for engineering passage of the 1850 Compromise. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster and William Seward had debated the issues for months, but the compromise bills were not passed until Douglas took over management of the legislation.
As chairman of the powerful Senate transportation committee, Douglas worked hard to settle territorial issues so that the first transcontinental road could be built. Hoping to have the eastern terminus in his home state of Illinois, he engineered the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which turned out to be an extremely controversial piece of legislation. Douglas had a strong ambition to become president of the United States. In what he saw a as a step in that direction, he defeated Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois Senate in 1858. The contest included the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the most famous political debates in American history. He was also the Democratic nominee for president in 1860.
Significance of the 1850 Compromise. The compromise marked the transition from the second generation of great political leaders to those who would guide the nation as the Civil War approached. Henry Clay, back in the Senate, helped negotiate the settlement. The dying John Calhoun foresaw the eventual breakup of the Union, as did Daniel Webster. John Mason of Virginia, who delivered Calhoun’s speech, was the grandson of George Mason. The slavery issue became focused on its extension into new territories. Senator William Seward represents the abolitionist view of a “higher law” than that Constitutin, which bound him to oppose slavery’s expansion. Senator Douglas’s division of the issue into five separate bills allowed everybody to vote against part of it. Each part passes, including the Fugitive Slave Act that compelled Northerners to cooperate in the identification, capture, and return of runaway slaves. The Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union once more, but practically as soon as the ink was dry, the troubles began again.