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The Compromise of 1850

The situation didn't come to fighting yet. Most Northerners in 1850 were willing to let slavery remain in the South, as long as it didn't spread to other states. The old peacemakers of the Congress, Henry Clay (73), Daniel Webster (68), and Southerner John Calhoun (also 68), cobbled together the Compromise of 1850. They'd been working tirelessly to hold the nation together for 40 years, but now they were running out of time, both in their own lives and in the lifespan of compromise. Some highlights of the Compromise of 1850:

- The North got California as a free state, finally tipping the balance toward free-state votes in the Senate.

- The slave trade, but not slavery itself, was outlawed in Washington, D.C.

- New Mexico and Arizona could join the Union under popular sovereignty by deciding to be slave states if they wanted to.

The big Southern win in the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed slaves who had escaped to the North to be grabbed by federal marshals and hauled back South in chains. When a Boston runaway slave was dragged off in 1854, the shocking scene made previously peaceful compromisers into instant abolitionists.


Question: What was the most common Northern position on slavery in 1850?

Answer: For most Northerners in 1850, slavery could remain in the South as long as it didn't spread.


Question: What was the most pro-slavery part of the Compromise of 1850?

Answer: The Fugitive Slave Law required captured escaped slaves in the North to be returned to the South.

The Fugitive Slave Law was a public-relations disaster for the South, delivered in spite of the few slaves returned. The South became even more angry when Northern states refused to enforce the law.

Democrat Franklin Pierce won the presidency in 1852 and pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. This election was the end of the road for the Whigs; they had too many abolitionists to do well in the South and not enough antislavery zeal to win the North.

The South looked desperately for new slave-state territory, even sending private military expeditions to Central America and Cuba; these expeditions were easily beaten back, to the embarrassment of the United States. The United States tossed another $10 million Mexico's way for a chunk of desert containing Tucson — the Gadsden Purchase — which made for a good southern route for a railroad west, which the South preferred.

Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Stephen Douglas, senator from Illinois, wanted the western railroad to go from the North (specifically, from his state's big city, Chicago). To do this, the United States would have to organize the Nebraska Territory such that a railroad could be run across it. The South wasn't going to settle for any more free states, but the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had said that slavery was banned from Nebraska.

Douglas, a Northerner from Abe Lincoln's home state, proposed that the compromise be disregarded and the Nebraska territory opened to popular sovereignty. That could mean that Kansas, due west of slaveholding Missouri, could become a new slave state. Over angry opposition from the North, Douglas rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) through Congress, doing away with the Missouri Compromise.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a self-defeating victory for the South. The North felt betrayed: The Missouri Compromise clearly said that there would be no slavery in the Nebraska territory, but now Southerners were flooding into Kansas to claim it for the South. The North hadn't liked the Compromise of 1850 in the first place; from now on, they would openly ignore it.

A new political party sprang up spontaneously in 1854 in the Midwest to fight against slavery. Within two years, the Republican Party would have enough strength to elect the speaker of the House of Representatives. The compromises were over.

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