The Compromise of 1850 – what did it do and its importance?

Overview of the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 was passed in response to the growing debate over slavery’s expansion into territories acquired during the Mexican-American War, the admission of California into the Union, and a new Fugitive Slave Law.

To solve this crisis, Henry Clay created the Compromise of 1850 bill that Stephen A. Douglas championed and got passed.

This bill accomplished several goals, the most important of which was admitting California to the Union as a free state, allowing the rest of the territories to use popular sovereignty to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave, abolishing the slave trade in Washington D.C., and creating a new Fugitive Slave Act.

However, these efforts to reunite the nation and solve the crisis over slavery ultimately resulted in Civil War as tensions between free and slave states ultimately reached the tipping point in 1861.

Background on the Compromise of 1850

The Mexican-American War and the Expansion of Slavery

Before the Civil War began, slavery entered national politics for good. This would be an issue until the war ended and would even continue after the war. 

Slavery entered national politics in the mid to late 1840s and lasted through the 1850s. People asked the question of whether or not slavery should be allowed to spread into new territories.

The Mexican-American War and Land Acquisition

In 1845, the U.S. annexed Texas. This led to the Mexican-American War which led to the acquisition of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Colorado, etc.

During the war, one-third of Mexico was invaded, conquered, and annexed. This separated families and communities and had lasting effects on both nations and peoples.

However, this made the question of what the status of slavery would be in these territories the main question on America’s mind.

The Wilmot Proviso

In 1846, David Wilmot, a Pennsylvania congressman, introduced the Wilmot Proviso in the House. This was meant to answer the question of slavery’s extension into these new territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.

This proviso said that slavery would not be allowed in any territory acquired from Mexico.

This shattered the political system along with political parties.

A Sectional Divide (Free and Slave States)

All the Northerners were in support of this proviso and all the Southerners were united against this bill.

Mexico had already abolished slavery in the 1820s, so there was no legal slavery there when the U.S. acquired this territory.

So, the U.S. needed to decide to keep this ban or to allow slavery there.

Many in the South believed that the federal government had no power over slavery and Congress could do nothing about it.

The North believed that Congress could regulate it since they had control of territories.

Congress did have a history of passing legislation to govern the territories.

In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the old northwest. However, it allowed it in the southern territory.

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri as a state. However, in the area north of Missouri, slavery was prohibited but was allowed south of Missouri.

So, up until the 1840s, these bills showed that Congress had the power to regulate slavery.

Then, two other positions emerged.

Popular Sovereignty

One was put forth by John C. Calhoun who said the territories were the common property of all the states, therefor the people of all the states must have an equal right to bring themselves and their property into that land.

If Calhoun’s position held, that meant that Congress had no right to bar people from bringing their property into a state or territory.

They believed Congress cannot bar slavery, but instead they had a duty to protect it.

Those who held to this position argued states could bar it, but Congress had to protect it in the territories.

The other position was popular sovereignty, which comes into being in the late 1840s.

This stance stated that Congress should do nothing on this issue and should, instead, let the territory decide for itself what to do. They believed that the territories were like mini-states.

This had a tremendous appeal, and it took slavery out of national politics.

The Political Crisis of 1850

Then, in 1849, President Taylor took office. Taylor turned out to be much more pro-Northern than expected.

Taylor had been a sugar planter. However, sugar planters had a different set of economic interests than cotton, tobacco, or rice planters. They relied on a high, national, federal tariff and were a small group competing with sugar from Cuba where it was cheaper. They were frightened by the competition of imported sugar, so they were in favor of a strong national government to protect them.

President Taylor was also a general and a military man. He was tough-minded and when 1849 rolled around and the question of succession came up once again, he said he would do what Jackson did during the Nullification Crisis. Jackson had threatened to send troops into North Carolina during the Nullification crisis.

Taylor also relied on William Seward for political advice who was also anti-slavery. To Taylor, the only issue was admitting California (an issue that would be answered with the Compromise of 1850).

The Admission of California

California had elected a convention, drafted a constitution, barred slavery, and asked for admission to the Union. Taylor wanted California admitted but Southerners did not want to admit the territory as a free state because of the fear that it would tip the balance of power in favor of the North.

Southerners were also worried about the status of slavery in other territories acquired during the Mexican-American War. In addition, Southerners also demanded a new Fugitive Slave Law.

A New Fugitive Slave Law

Previously, in 1842, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania had been the first case dealing with the Fugitive Slave Law. The courts said any slave owner could go into a Northern state and take a fugitive and bring them back. They claimed it was their property and they could go get it without having to go to court. That is the common law of recapture. You could go and get your property if it leaves or is taken away.

In response, Northern states passed personal liberty laws and stated that they were not going to help recapture fugitive slaves.

Southerners then wanted federal law to override these state laws. This caused major tension between North and South as Southerners proclaimed the right to invade Northern states when they believed their “property” had gone there.

The Compromise of 1850 and Banning Washington D.C.’s Slave Trade

By 1849, Congress was paralyzed over the issue of slavery’s expansion, the admission of California, and a new Fugitive Slave Act. Then Henry Clay stepped in once again.

Clay had been in office for 50 years. He started his Congressional career in 1799. He was beloved by people and by Lincoln. His nickname was the “Great Compromiser.” He had been the architect of the Missouri Compromise and the compromise that ended the Nullification Crisis.

The Compromise of 1850 that he drafted had several goals.

The first was that California would be admitted as a free state. California had taken a statewide vote to be a free state.

Popular sovereignty would be used for the rest of the territory acquired from Mexico.

There was some legislation about Texas that primarily focused on assuming the state debt. Texas owed a lot of money to various people, so they wanted the federal government to pay the money.

The Compromise of 1850 also abolished the slave trade in Washington D.C. However, the compromise did not outlaw slavery itself in Washington D.C.

Finally, there was also a new Fugitive Slave Law more powerful than before.

These were the components of the Compromise of 1850.

A Heated Debate in Congress

The Senate debate of February-March, 1850, was one of the great political debates in American history.

Senator Mason of Virginia read John C. Calhoun’s last speech for him because he was dying and was too weak to give the speech himself. Calhoun was wheeled in because he was too weak to walk.

He was opposed to compromise and said slavery must be allowed and protected.

A few weeks later he died, leaving behind a fragmentary draft of an amendment creating two presidents, one for the North and one for the South.

Daniel Webster from Massachusetts then gave his famous March 7th speech in response to Calhoun’s speech.

He supported compromise and even gave up his antislavery stance to garner support.

He stated that he spoke for the preservation of the Union.

Four days later, William Seward of New York gave his speech which became infamous for his declaration that there was a higher law than the Constitution. That higher law was morality.

Seward said there cannot be an equilibrium between the Northern free state and the Southern slave state. The North was growing and thriving and he believed the South must yield eventually.

Then, tragically and unexpectedly, at the beginning of July, President Zachary Taylor died.

It is believed he contracted cholera either from the milk and cherries he had or the water he received at the White House.

The deceased president was succeeded by the Vice President from New York: Millard Filmore.

Fillmore was much more pro-compromise than Zachary Taylor had been. With the support of President Filmore, the compromise passed through the Senate, but it was not the version that Clay created.

The bill had been picked up by Stephen A. Douglas and was passed as a series of measures instead of just one bill.

This was the only way to pass the bill because there was not a majority to support the bill in its entirety, but there was a majority for each part individually.

The Fugitive Slave Act Question

The Fugitive Slave Act portion of the bill soon became a volatile issue. This issue showed that the South did not believe in states’ rights as they claimed. This was the strongest violation of states’ rights before the Civil War.

This new Fugitive Slave Act put the capture of slaves in the hands of federal commissioners who would oversee the law.

The former slaves had no rights and could not testify on their behalf. All that had to happen was they be identified. This act also imposed heavy fines on anyone who helped a fugitive slave and punished anyone who resisted helping to capture a fugitive slave.

If the commissioner sent the fugitive back to slavery, he received a $10 fee, but if he sent the wrong man back, he only got a $5 fee. This was a danger to formerly free slaves and free African Americans. People who were born free could be captured and sent back because there was no consequence for doing so or way of proving their freedom.

This was a slave law that reached into the North. Therefore, Canada became central to escaping African Americans.

In 1851 in Massachusetts, a slave was seized, and a mob led by free African Americans stormed the courthouse and freed him. This happened several times in response to the law and the egregious atrocities committed in in its name.

This was one of the most divisive aspects of the Compromise of 1850.

What was the Significance of the Compromise of 1850

This was a very important piece of legislation passed before the American Civil War.

The main reason this bill was significant is that it highlighted the growing sectional divide between North and South in America during this time. The divide continued to grow and resulted in a divide that would lead to 750,000 American lives being lost. This compromise, in addition to the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, tried to make a compromise that could save the Union. However, these compromises all failed.

This showed that this sectional disparity was one that could not be solved with compromise or legislation. While today, it is easy to look back and say that the war was avoidable, these bills show that conflict was quite the opposite.

However, the Compromise of 1850, like the Missouri Compromise, did bring some temporary relief to the question of slaveries expansion. Ultimately, the Compromise of 1850 failed to create lasting peace because tensions had become too strong.

Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, John Calhoun, or even Abraham Lincoln could not save the Union from division. However, one of those leaders could and would save the Union once it had already fractured and split apart.

That leader was, none other than Abraham Lincoln.


Foner, E. (n.d.). The Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850-1861: A House Divided. edX. Retrieved April 16, 2022, from

Youngdahl, Richard. (Creator). (2013, January 6) #08 Election of 1848 & Compromise of 1850 [Audio Podcast].

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