Douglas and Clay Draft the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills aimed at resolving the territorial and slavery controversies arising from the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). There were five laws which balanced the interests of the slave states of the South and the free states to the north.

The first three laws of the Compromise of 1850 were enacted on September 9, 1850. The first of these concerned the State of Texas and organization of the Territory of New Mexico; the second concerned organization of the Territory of Utah; the third concerned admission of California to the Union. The fourth law, enacted September 18, 1850, was the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. The fifth law, enacted September 20, 1850, banned the slave trade from the District of Columbia.

The measures, a compromise designed by Whig Senator Henry Clay (KY), who failed to get them through himself, were shepherded to passage by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas (IL) and Whig Senator Daniel Webster (MA). The measures were opposed by Senator and former Vice-President John C. Calhoun (D-SC). The Compromise was possible after the death of President Zachary Taylor, who was in opposition. Succeeding him was a strong supporter of the compromise: Millard Fillmore. It temporarily defused sectional tensions in the United States, postponing the secession crisis and the American Civil War. The Compromise dropped the Wilmot Proviso, which never became law but would have banned slavery in territory acquired from Mexico. Instead the Compromise further endorsed the doctrine of "Popular Sovereignty" for the Territory of New Mexico and the Territory of Utah. The various compromises lessened political contention for four years, until the relative lull was shattered by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Background and earlier proposals

Three major types of issues were addressed by the Compromise of 1850, to wit: 1) a variety of boundary issues; status of territory issues; and the issue of slavery. While capable of analytical distinction, the boundary and territory issues were actually implicated in the overarching issue of slavery. Pro- and anti-slavery interests were each concerned with both the amount of land on which slavery was permitted and with the number of States which respectively would be in the Slave or Free camps. Since Texas was a Slave State, not only the residents of that State, but the pro- and anti-slavery camps on a national scale had an interest in the size of the State of Texas. The general solution that was adopted by the Compromise of 1850 was to transfer a considerable part of the territory claimed by the State of Texas to the federal government, to formally organize two new Territories, Territory of New Mexico and Territory of Utah, which expressly would be allowed to locally determine whether they would become Slave or Free Territories, to add another Free State to the Union (California), adopt a severe measure to recover slaves who had escaped to a Free State or Free Territory (the Fugitive Slave Law), and to abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia.


The Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836 at the Convention of 1836. The Battle of San Jacinto (April 21, 1836) resulted in the defeat of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna was captured the next day (April 22, 1836). On May 14, 1836 Santa Ana and interim President of Republic of Texas David G. Burnet signed the Treaties of Velasco. The Treaties of Velasco recognized the Rio Grande River as the western boundary of the Republic of Texas. The Treaties of Velasco were repudiated by the government of Mexico on the ground that Santa Anna was not formally the President at the time he signed them. To the extent that there was a de facto recognition Mexico treated the Nueces River as the western boundary of the Republic of Texas. A huge area lay between the two rivers.

However, neither Mexico nor the Republic of Texas had the military strength to effectively assert its territorial claim. On December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas simultaneously was annexed to the United States and became admitted to the Union as the 28th state. Texas was staunchly committed to slavery, with its constitution making illegal the unauthorized emancipation of slaves by their owners. With this annexation the United States inherited the territorial claims of the former Republic of Texas against Mexico. These territorial claims and Mexican resistance to them led to the Mexican-American War. On February 2, 1848 that war was concluded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Among the provisos of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the recognition by Mexico of the territorial claims of the former Republic of Texas, which now meant acquiescence by Mexico in the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande River being a part of the United States.

The State of Texas was heavily burdened with debt which had arisen during its struggles as the Republic of Texas. The federal government agreed to pay $10,000,000.00 in "stock" in trade for the transfer of a large portion of the area of the State of Texas to the territory of the federal government and for the relinquishment of various claims which Texas had upon the federal government. (This "stock" bore interest at the rate of 5 %, which interest was collectible every six months, and the principal was redeemable at the end of fourteen years.)

The Constitution does not permit Congress to unilaterally reduce the territory of any State. Article IV, Section 3, of the United States Constitution provides in pertinent part that "no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State ..., without the Consent of the Legislature[ ] of the State[ ] concerned as well as of the Congress." Accordingly, the first statute of the Compromise of 1850 had to take the form of an offer to the Texas State Legislature, rather than a unilateral enactment. The Texas State Legislature did ratify the bargain and in due course the transfer of a large swath of land from the State of Texas to the federal government was accomplished.

Texas was allowed to keep the following portions of the erstwhile disputed land: that which is east of the Rio Grande River and south of the 33rd parallel; that which is north of the 33rd parallel and west of the 100th meridian; and that which is east of the 100th meridian and west of the Red River. The rest of the land which had been disputed between Mexico and the Republic of Texas was transferred to federal government.

Organization of Two New Territories

The first law of the Compromise of 1850 also organized the Territory of New Mexico. The second law, also enacted September 9, 1850, organized the Territory of Utah.

The land committed to each of these newly organized territories was drawn from two distinct sources.

One of these sources was the Mexican Cession of 1848. The Mexican Cession was a major provision of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty which concluded the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. The land transferred from Mexico to the United States by the Mexican Cession includes all of present-day California, Nevada and Utah, most of present-day Arizona, most of the western part of present-day New Mexico, present-day Colorado west of the crest of the Rocky Mountains, and a small portion of present-day Wyoming. (A strip of land along the southern border of present-day Arizona and New Mexico was not acquired from Mexico until 1853 with the Gadsen Purchase.)

The other of these sources was land which had been in dispute between Mexico and the Republic of Texas. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Mexico acquiesced to the claims of the Republic of Texas, thus abandoning all challenge to American claims to this land since the Republic of Texas had been annexed to the United States in 1845. However, prior to the Compromise of 1850 this erstwhile disputed land had been part of the State of Texas. This land included most of present-day Colorado, most of present-day eastern New Mexico, and a small part of present-day Wyoming.

As discussed in the previous section of this article, the land transferred from Texas to the federal government was in trade for a federal assumption of Texan debt. The portions of this particular land that became part of the Territory of New Mexico or the Territory of Utah, respectively, were only provisionally assigned to these newly organized territories. The final assignment of their respective portions of this erstwhile disputed land had to await ratification by the Texas State Legislature for constitutional reasons discussed in the previous section of this article. That ratification was achieved and these newly organized territories were thus able to incorporate these areas under their respective jurisdictions.

The land assigned to the Territory of New Mexico which was derived from the Mexican Cession of 1848 consisted of most of the present-day State of Arizona, most of the western part of the present-day State of New Mexico, and the southern tip of present-day Nevada, i.e., that which is south of the 37th parallel.

The land provisionally assigned to the Territory of New Mexico that had been transferred from Texas consisted of most of present-day eastern New Mexico, a portion of present-day Colorado, i.e., that which is east of the crest of the Rocky Mountains, west of the 103rd meridian, and south of the 38th parallel, and a small portion of present-day Wyoming.

The land assigned to the Territory of Utah which was derived from the Mexican Cession of 1848 consisted of present-day Utah, most of present-day Nevada, i.e., all that is north of the 37th parallel, a major part of present-day Colorado, i.e., that which is west of the crest of the Rocky Mountains, and a small part of present-day Wyoming.

The land provisionally assigned to the Territory of Utah that had been transferred from Texas consisted of most of present day eastern New Mexico, and some of present-day Colorado that is east of the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

A key provision of each of the laws respectively organizing the Territory of New Mexico and the Territory of Utah was that slavery would be either permitted or prohibited as a local option (Popular Sovereignty). This was an important repudiation of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have forbidden slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico.


In 1846, 33 settlers proclaimed a Republic of California independent from Mexico. The rebel government had little effect and gave way to US control in less than a month.

The California Gold Rush starting on January 24, 1848 quickly attracted a much larger and multiethnic population to California. Anglo-Americans were a majority, with more from the North than the South, especially in Northern California

The third statute of the Compromise of 1850 enacted on September 9, 1850 admitted California to the Union as the 31st State.

Geographically, the State of California was bounded in 1850 on the east by the Territory of New Mexico (south of the 37th parallel) and the Territory of Utah (north of the 37th parallel), and on the north by the Territory of Oregon. . California was expressly admitted as a State free of slavery.

Fugitive Slave Law

The fourth statute of the Compromise of 1850, enacted September 18, 1850, is informally known as the Fugitive Slave Law or the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (It bolstered the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.) The new version of the Fugitive Slave Law required federal judicial officials in all States and federal territories, including in those States and territories in which slavery was prohibited, to actively assist with the return of escaped slaves to their masters in the States and territories permitting slavery. In addition to federal officials, the ordinary citizens of free States could be summoned into a posse and be required to assist in the capture and/or custody and/or transportation of the alleged escaped slave. This particular law was so rigorously pro-slavery as to prohibit the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence at the judicial hearing to determine the status of the accused escaped slave. Thus, if a freedman were claimed to be an escaped slave under the Fugitive Slave Law he or she could not resist his or her return to slavery by truthfully telling his or her own actual history.

The Fugitive Slave Act was a result of the Mexican-American War passed to settle turmoil that arose from other decisions made concerning the issues that surfaced from the victory. As a consequence of the Mexican War, the balance in the country between slavery and antislavery territories was briefly upset. The decision to make newly-acquired California a free state, as well as the other provisions after the war that opposed slavery, caused this disturbance. After the United States won California in the Mexican War, a decision had to be made about whether it should become a slave or free state. After it was proclaimed free, pro-slavery Americans were angered by this shift in the balance of power towards free states and threatened secession. The Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened to prevent further turmoil. This act bolstered the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, aided slaveholders by mandating that all escaped slaves must be returned to their masters, and - more crucially for the impending war - that ordinary citizens were required to aid slave catchers. Many northern citizens deeply resented this pressure; but in serving their duties, they saw many scenes of such tragedy that former slavery fence-sitters landed squarely on the side of the abolitionists. This renewed act did help appease the Southern states and their contingent slave owners by assuring the return of the slaves they considered property. However, once the secession threat was quieted, resentment towards this act continued to heighten tensions between the North and South, being thoroughly despised by the former. This Fugitive Slave Act is seen as one of the key steps towards civil war. It was included partly because of the public reaction to the Pearl incident.

The result of the Fugitive Slave Act was that any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave was liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

Banning Slave Trade in District of Columbia

The fifth law, enacted on September 20, 1850 prohibited the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia. Significantly, before this particular measure could be passed, the extent of the District of Columbia was drastically reduced. The original District of Columbia was 10-miles square and consisted of the City of Washington, derived from the State of Maryland and the City of Alexandria, derived from the State of Virginia. Alexandria was a major center for the slave trade. Many freedmen settled in the District of Columbia. One of the major interim planks of the Abolitionist Movement was to abolish slavery, and especially the slave trade, in the national capital. A political compromise that made at least the abolition of the slave trade from the national capital was to accomplish the retrocession of the City of Alexandria from the federal District of Columbia back to the State of Virginia, thus diminishing the territorial extent of the District of Columbia and preserving the thriving slave market economy of Alexandria. Soon after the war started and long before negotiation of the US-Mexico border, the question of slavery in the territories to be acquired polarized the Northern and Southern United States in the most bitter sectional conflict up to this time, which lasted for a deadlock of four years during which the Second Party System broke up, Mormon pioneers settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled 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. Eventually the Compromise of 1850 preserved the Union, but only for another decade. Proposals included:

* The Wilmot Proviso banning slavery in any new territory to be acquired from Mexico, not including Texas which had been annexed the previous year. Passed by the United States House of Representatives in August 1846 and February 1847 but not the Senate. Later an effort to attach the proviso to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed.
* Failed amendments to the Wilmot Proviso by William W. Wick and then Stephen Douglas extending the Missouri Compromise line (36°30' parallel north) west to the Pacific (south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California), allowing slavery in most of present day New Mexico and Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Southern California, as well as any other territories that might be acquired from Mexico. The line was again proposed by the Nashville Convention of June 1850.
* Popular sovereignty, developed by Lewis Cass and Douglas as the eventual Democratic Party position, letting each territory decide whether to allow slavery.
* William L. Yancey's "Alabama Platform," endorsed by the Alabama and Georgia legislatures and by Democratic state conventions in Florida and Virginia, called for no restrictions on slavery in the territories either by the federal government or by territorial governments before statehood, opposition to any candidates supporting either the Wilmot Proviso or popular sovereignty, and federal legislation overruling Mexican anti-slavery laws.
* General Zachary Taylor, who became the Whig candidate in 1848 and then President from March 1849 to July 1850, proposed after becoming President that the entire area become two free states, called California and New Mexico but much larger than the eventual ones. None of the area would be left as an unorganized or organized territory, avoiding the question of slavery in the territories.
* The Mormons' proposal for a State of Deseret incorporating most of the area of the Mexican Cession but excluding the largest non-Mormon populations in Northern California and central New Mexico was considered unlikely to succeed in Congress, but nevertheless in 1849 President Taylor sent his agent John Wilson westward with a proposal to combine California and Deseret as a single state, decreasing the number of new free states and the erosion of Southern parity in the Senate.
* Senator Thomas Hart Benton in December 1849 or January 1850: Texas's western and northern boundaries would be the 102nd meridian west and 34th parallel north.
* Senator John Bell (with assent of Texas) in February 1850: New Mexico would get all Texas land north of the 34th parallel north (including today's Texas Panhandle), and the area to the south (including the southeastern part of today's New Mexico) would be divided at the Colorado River (Texas) into two Southern states, balancing the admission of California and New Mexico as free states.[2]
* First draft of the compromise of 1850: Texas's northwestern boundary would be a straight diagonal line from the Rio Grande 20 miles north of El Paso to the Red River (Mississippi watershed) at the 100th meridian west (the southwestern corner of today's Oklahoma).
* The Compromise of 1850, proposed by Henry Clay in January 1850, guided to passage by Douglas over Northern Whig and Southern Democrat opposition, and enacted September 1850,
o admitted California as a free state including Southern California
o organized Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory with slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty.
o Texas dropped its claim to land north of the 32nd parallel north and west of the 103rd meridian west in favor of New Mexico Territory, and north of the 36°30' parallel north and east of the 103rd meridian west which became unorganized territory. In return the US government assumed Texas's debts. El Paso where Texas had successfully established county government was left in Texas.
o Also, the slave trade was abolished in Washington, DC (but not slavery itself)
o and the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened.

No southern territory dominated by Southerners (like the later short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona) was created.

Clay and Douglas draft compromise

Congress convened on December 3, 1849. On January 29, 1850, Whig Senator Henry Clay gave a speech which called for compromise on the issues dividing the Union. However, Clay's specific proposals for achieving a compromise, including his idea for Texas' boundary, were not adopted, although Clay later claimed credit for drafting the entire compromise. Rather, it was Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, who largely guided the Compromise to passage. The Compromise 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 auctions in the District of Columbia, and enacting a harsh new fugitive slave law.

View of Seward and Northern Whigs

Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward who delivered his famous "Higher Law" speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise as well because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the Democratic new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols; this provision was inserted by Democratic Virginia Senator James M. Mason to coerce border-state Whigs, who faced the greatest danger of losing slaves as fugitives but who were lukewarm on general sectional issues related to the South into supporting Texas's land claims.

Whig President Zachary Taylor attempted to sidestep the entire controversy by pushing to admit California and New Mexico as free states immediately, avoiding the entire territorial process and thus the Wilmot Proviso question. Taylor's stand was unpopular among Southerners.

Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs did support the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported the stronger fugitive slave law.

Debate and results

On April 17, a "Committee of Thirteen" agreed on the border of Texas as part of Clay's plan. The dimensions were later changed. That same day, during debates on the measures in the Senate, Vice President Millard Fillmore and Senator Benton verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was "out of order". During the heated debates, Compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drew a pistol on Senator Benton.

In early June, nine slave holding Southern states sent delegates to the Nashville Convention to determine their course of action should the compromise take hold. While some delegates preached secession, eventually the moderates ruled, 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 various bills were initially combined into one "omnibus" bill, which failed to pass the Senate because only a minority supported all the provisions. The situation was changed by the death of President Taylor and the accession of Fillmore on July 9, 1850. The influence of the new administration was now thrown in favor of the compromise. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and his supporters in the House assembled different majorities for each of five separate bills. The Northern Democrats held together and supported each of the bills and gained Whigs or Southern Democrats to pass each one. All passed and were signed by President Fillmore between September 9 and September 20, 1850.

1. California was admitted as a free state. It passed 150-56. (Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict. University of Kentucky Press, copyright 1965. P. 160)
2. The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
3. The Territory of New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) and the Territory of Utah were organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed 97-85.
4. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves. It passed 109-76.
5. Texas gave up much of the western land which it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.


The Compromise in general proved widely popular politically, as both parties committed themselves in their platforms to the finality of the Compromise on sectional issues. The strongest opposition in the South occurred in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, but unionists soon prevailed, spearheaded by Georgians Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, and Howell Cobb and the creation of the Georgia Platform. This peace was broken only by the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 introduced by Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and led directly to the formation of the Republican Party, whose capture of the national government in 1860 led directly to the secession crisis of 1860-61.

Many historians argue that the Compromise played a major role in postponing the American Civil War for a decade, during which time the Northwest was growing more wealthy and more populous, and was being brought into closer relations with the Northeast. During that decade, the Whig Party had completely broken down, being replaced with the new Republican Party dominant in the North and the Democrats in the South. But others argue that the Compromise only made more obvious pre-existing sectional divisions and laid the groundwork for future conflict. In this view, the Fugitive Slave Law helped polarize North and South, as shown in the enormous reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law aroused feelings of bitterness in the North. Furthermore, the Compromise of 1850 led to a breakdown in the spirit of compromise in the United States in the antebellum period, directly before the Civil War. The Compromise exemplifies this spirit, but the deaths of influential senators who worked on the compromise, primarily Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, contributed to this feeling of increasing disparity between the North and South.

The delay of hostilities for ten years allowed the free economy of the northern states to continue to industrialize. The southern states, to a large degree based on slave labor and cash crop production, lacked the ability to heavily industrialize. By 1860, the northern states had added many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population to the advantage it possessed in 1850. The North was better able to supply, equip, and man its armed forces, an advantage that would prove decisive in the later stages of the war.

Henry Clay, U.S. senator from Kentucky, was determined to find a solution. In 1820 he had resolved a fiery debate over the spread of slavery with his Missouri Compromise. Now, thirty years later, the matter surfaced again within the walls of the Capitol. But this time the stakes were higher -- nothing less than keeping the Union together.