Causes of War Seminar-Lesson 2
Moderated by:

James Epperson

The Crisis of 1850

The Crisis of 1850 was a direct consequence of the Mexican War, and a direct precursor to the Civil War. In fact, secession almost occurred in 1850, something that is little known among casual students of sectional politics. The crisis was solved and the nation held together, if only briefly, by a wide-ranging compromise put together by Henry Clay of Kentucky and steered through Congress by Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

(This lecture is based heavily on the material in Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, pp. 219-412, and James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 66-77.)

The basic issue was very simple: What do we do about all the territory obtained from Mexico? There were a number of nagging problems associated with it:

The question of California's statehood was the vexing one, however. Ever since the Missouri Compromise, Congress had admitted states roughly in pairs, one free and one slave. (For example, Maine in 1820 and Missouri in 1821; Arkansas in 1836 and Michigan in 1837; Florida in 1845 and Iowa in 1846; Texas in 1845, and Wisconsin in 1848.) This way, the balance of power was maintained in the Senate, or so went the claim. (In fact, the slave states maintained an advantage because there were always a few Northern Senators willing to vote with Southern interests, whereas Southern Senators almost never voted with Northern interests.) But there were no slave territories ready for statehood, and none even on the foreseeable horizon. The admission of California as a free state would thus break the balance, and with the potential for many new states coming out of the Great Plains -- Minnesota had just been organized into a territory -- it was a balance that would likely never be restored without more expansion.

To a certain extent, the heat of the crisis was partly the result of a peculiar quirk of the American political calendar. A new President -- the Whig Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War -- had been elected in November, 1848, and sworn in to office the following March. But the Senators and Congressmen elected at the same time would not meet until December, 1849, a full nine months after Taylor took office. Meanwhile, political rhetoric did not take a holiday. California was filling to the brim with settlers looking for gold, and the region was crying out for some kind of government to administer law and create order. Everyone knew that the overwhelming majority of these new Californians were from the free states, and slavery did not stand much chance of being politically established there. Yet the thought of giving up California was so much gall and wormwood to the emerging Southern extremists, the fire-eaters. An attempt to bring in California, as a free state, was defeated in early 1849. At the same time, other vexing sectional questions continued to press upon the national polity, among them the question of slavery and the slave trade in the nation's capital.

A group of anti-slavery congressmen shared living arrangements in Washington at the boarding house of a Mrs. Sprigg. One of them, who would represent his Illinois district for only a single term, which was soon to end, spoke to the House on January 10, 1849, proposing a plebiscite in the District on slavery, in which every free white male citizen could vote. If a majority approved, slavery in the District would be gradually abolished, with compensation for those who would free their slaves immediately. Federal officials would be permitted to retain personal servants. The author had even consulted with the conservative mayor of Washington and obtained his approval of the idea. But, once made public, all support for the measure vanished; like all moderate measures, it was attacked from the flanks: it was galling to the abolitionists to even consider paying compensation, and it was galling to the fire-eaters that the idea had even been brought up. Not for the last time in his political career would Abraham Lincoln find himself attacked for proposing a workable if not ideological solution to a problem.

Partly in response to Lincoln's proposal, as well as other anti-slavery proposals put forth in early 1849, John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina champion of slavery and Southern rights, set in motion a series of events that came close to causing secession a full decade sooner than actually happened.

First, Calhoun attempted to get the Southern delegations in Congress (both Houses) to form a solid front in support of a manifesto to the nation. Although he was unable to get many Southern Whigs to sign the paper, the resulting "Southern Address" was applauded throughout the region, and led in part to the calling -- possibly at Calhoun's direct instigation -- of a Mississippi Slaveholders Convention in the fall of 1849. This body passed a manifesto (a free California was tolerable, but any one of the Wilmot Proviso, abolition of slavery in the Federal District, or prohibition of the domestic slave trade, would be grounds for secession) of its own, and called for a regional convention of the slaveholding states at Nashville, during June of 1850.

(At this juncture it is worth noting the extent to which party politics, in addition to sectional politics, drove the events. The Southern Whigs were reluctant to trust Calhoun because he was most allied with the Democratic Party and opposed Whiggish ideas like internal improvements. Northern anti-slavery Democrats would be reluctant to back the Whig Henry Clay in the coming compromise debates because they feared it might lead to Clay's election as President in 1852.)

Such a call would clearly put pressure on Congress, and no doubt such was the intent. When the new Congress assembled in December, 1849, one of the most important issues was the election of the Speaker of the House. No one party held the necessary 116 seats, and the two largest parties -- the Democrats, with 112, and the Whigs, with 105 -- were badly split along the slavery question. Howell Cobb of Georgia, a Democrat, was the leading candidate, but not enough of the Southern Whigs could overlook party and vote for a fellow slaveholder to make up for the number of Northern Democrats who could not overlook the fact that he was a slaveholder. The deadlock was finally broken on the sixty-third ballot when the House over-rode the rules to allow election of a speaker by simple plurality, instead of absolute majority.

The battle over the Speakership was but a symbol of the growing sectional animosity over the slavery issue. Almost every state legislature had sent memorials to Congress, calling for action on slavery, with a predictable split in sentiment. Nearly every Northern legislature had called for a Congressional ban on the expansion of slavery, and some had gone so far as to propose the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

The South was supposed to be pacified through all this by the presence of one of their own in the White House -- Taylor, after all, was a slaveholder himself, like all but three or four of his predecessors -- but it developed that Taylor -- who of course had spent his entire life in the national service as an army officer -- had a Whig's national view of things and had surrounded himself with advisors and Cabinet secretaries who were of a free-soil bent. (One member of Taylor's Cabinet was Tom Ewing, the foster father and future father-in-law of William Tecumseh Sherman.) If the slaveholding states could not be satisfied by the time of the Nashville Convention, the Union might well be in danger. What was needed was the chimera of the 1850's, a far-reaching and long-lasting settlement of the slavery question in all its aspects.

The set of measures that evolved into the Compromise of 1850 was first presented to the Senate by Henry Clay of Kentucky, on January 29, 1850. Clay's omnibus bill provided for: the admission of California as a free state; organization of Utah and New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) as territories without regard to the slavery question; resolution of the Texas boundary dispute in favor of New Mexico; assumption of the Texas pre-annexation debt by the United States; abolition of slave marketing in the District of Columbia; a resolution that slavery in the District would never be abolished without the consent of both the District and Maryland; a more effective fugitive slave law; and a resolution that Congress had no power to interfere with the interstate slave trade. The specific measures had for the most part already been introduced to Congress as separate bills; Clay's contribution was to lump them together and put his influence behind them all. The bill faced an uncertain future; many in Congress, at both ends of the spectrum, could not in good conscience vote for some of the measures, and the President, from Clay's own party, opposed it.

In early February Clay rose in the Senate to defend his proposal in a speech that lasted for two days. On the second day, he addressed the threats of secession that were in the wind, saying that the Constitution was "permanent and perpetual," and pointing out with tragic accuracy that secession would mean war, "furious, bloody, implacable, exterminating." In response and opposition, Jefferson Davis, then a new Senator from Mississippi spoke on Feb. 13th, and John C. Calhoun (it was his last speech in the Senate, and had to be read by a colleague) on March 4th. But the tide of popular and moderate opinion was clearly with the compromise, so much so that the Nashville Convention was looking more and more like a farce, with some Southern states not even appointing delegations. On March 7th, Daniel Webster, stalwart Whig from Massachusetts, spoke in favor of the compromise ("I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause") , thus bringing down on his head the disapprobation of the abolitionists, and clearly demonstrating that it was only the extremists of both stripes who opposed Clay's bill. (According to Nevins, this speech by Webster marked the turning point in crisis.)

Well, not quite. Although hardly an extremist of any sort, President Zachary Taylor still opposed the compromise. Partly this was due to the influence of New York's William Seward -- who delivered his (in)famous "Higher Law" speech on March 11th, in opposition to the Compromise -- and partly it was due to wounded pride at being superceded by Clay. Still, even if he would not support the measure and in fact made alternate proposals, Taylor did bolster moderate opinion by making plain that he would take a very Jacksonesque view of any attempts at disunion, telling Toombs and Stephens that he would personally lead an army in opposition to secession and would hang every traitor he caught.

With so much popular feeling in support of Clay's proposals, how is it that there was so much difficulty in getting them passed? The answer lies in politics. Southern extremists were obviously in opposition to the plan, and so were Northern extremists, although these were fewer in number. Many Democrats were unwilling to vote in favor of the plan so long as it was associated so strongly with Henry Clay's name, out of fear that this success would propel him and the Whig Party into the White House in 1852. So, even with all the outpouring of public support it was by no means a done deal. Formal debate began in the Senate on May 13, 1850, and carried on throughout the summer. Supporters of the bill received an unexpected though tragic boost when President Taylor died in July; his successor, Millard Fillmore, was in favor of the compromise. But only about a third of either House of Congress could be brought to support the entire measure, and so it was killed in the Senate, on July 31st, 1850.

This was not a defeat, only a setback, and a temporary one at that. The individual measures were re-introduced by the energetic Stephen Douglas of Illinois as separate bills and rammed through the Senate with brutal efficiency, all passing by large majorities, the opposition being the same strange combination of Seward, Chase, et al on the one hand, together with Davis, Mason et al on the other. As soon as the Senate was finished with the work the House undertook its share, so that the final passage of the final piece of the puzzle occurred on September 8th, 1850.

With the Compromise now enacted into law, the question still remained: How would the South react? The Nashville Convention had been poorly attended and weakly run, but the fact remained that a strong core of anti-compromise sentiment was present in the South, centered mostly in South Carolina and Mississippi. Moreover, the Nashville Convention had organized a second session, to meet in November. Would this sentiment acquiesce in the Compromise, or would it agitate against it? When the second session of the Nashville Convention was even more poorly attended than the first, it became clear that the voices of moderation had triumphed. This became even clearer when the "Georgia Convention," called by Governor Towns in the wake of California's admission as a free state, came out strongly in favor of acquiescence in the Compromise. But this acceptance was conditional -- a published declaration made clear that Georgia expected the threats to slavery to cease -- and the result of much manuevering by the Georgia triumverate of Howell Cobb, Robert Toombs, and Alexander Stephens.

Nonetheless, it was a close run thing. Both South Carolina and Mississippi came close to initiating secession on their own, but did not, and the state elections across the South in 1851 made it clear that moderation was in the ascendency, at least for now.

As a simple incident in American political history, the Crisis of 1850 marks the passing of an era. It was the last major scene in which Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster played a role. All three had been giants on the American political stage, and all three would be dead within two years: Calhoun died before formal debate on the compromise bill even began, and both Webster and Clay passed away in 1852. To a great extent the political battles of the 1850's would be fought by men anxious and ambitious to follow in the footsteps.

In the end, the Compromise of 1850 was something of a failure. It was offered to settle the festering disputes over slavery, which were driving the growing sectional conflict, and for a short time it did just that. But it also left everyone with a bad taste of having given in on crucial issues. Northerners would grow to despise the Fugitive Slave Act, which was patently rigged in favor of the slaveholder, and gave no rights to the alleged runaway, not even the right to prove he was a free man. Southerners would forever lament the loss of California, both in terms of political power and in terms of expanding Southern institutions. The fire-eaters of South Carolina vowed that in the next crisis, they would not wait for cooperative action, but would secede on their own, come what may. And the argument itself had revealed deep and serious cracks in both of the major political parties, especially the Whigs. One more sectional upheaval might destroy the Whig Party -- in fact, it would -- and the death of the Whigs would lead to the creation of theRepublican Party, founded on anti-slavery principles. Barely ten years after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, the Republicans would nominate that very same obscure Illinois Congressman who had dared to propose the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
(This small lecture is based heavily on the accounts in Nevins, Fruits of Manifest Destiny, p. 380ff, and McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 78ff.)

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Law. Originally offered by Sen. James Mason of Virginia, the law was written in response to an 1840's Supreme Court decision, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which had held that enforcement of the fugitive slave clause of the constitution was exclusively a Federal matter. The existing 1793 Federal law was too weak for Southern tastes, and so Mason proposed a stronger law.

Henry Clay included Mason's law as one element of the "Southern part" of his compromise, although evidence exists (see Nevins, Fruits of Manifest Destiny, p. 385) that the law ws written to be as provocative as possible to Northern sensibilities, in order to defeat the compromise. The inclusion of the bill did not receive a lot of attention from the general public during the debates on the compromise. It was only afterwards, when it went into operation, that the short-comings of the bill became clear.

No one seriously denied that the slave states had a right to the return of runaways. The problem with the 1850 law was that if offended almost every American notion of fairness then in existence. To claim a particular person as a runaway slave, the claimant simply had to swear out an affadavit to that effect before a special Federal commissioner, who was paid $5 to render a judgement in favor of the accused runaway, and $10 to render a judgement in favor of the claimant; the extra fee for the decision in favor of the claimant was explained as necessary to cover the costs of remanding the runaway back South. The accused runaway had no right to represenation and no right to present evidence to prove his freedom. Interference with the proceedings was a Federal offense, punishable by large fines and stiff prison sentences. It is doubtful if a more rigged pretence at "justice" ever graced the laws of the United States.

The extreme nature of the law was no doubt motivated by interference in some Northern states to attempts by Southerners to recover runaways. But the 1850 law went too far, and sparked a serious backlash. Northerners who previously had not cared much about the slavery issue now began to see some evidence of the insidious "slave power" that anti-slavery politicians and others had been speaking of. This led to the enactment of several "personal liberty laws" in Northern states. These were essentially attempts to invoke the idea of nullification to prevent the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the resulting Southern rhetoric against such exercise of states rights does make for interesting reading. Curiously, modern study of the time suggests that both the number of successful runaways and the number of free blacks sent south as slaves were very small, although to the people involved it was no small issue, either way. Even more curiously, the Border Slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, whose physical location exposed them to much more potential loss than the Deep South states, were not as concerned about the problem as the firebrands of South Carolina.

Regardless of any logical inconsistencies, the passage of the personal liberty laws lent credence to the claim by the Southern fire-eaters that Northerners could not be trusted to protect "Southern rights" and so the very controversy about the Fugitive Slave Law led to further erosion of the common ground between the sections. When the time came to write their state declarations, the interference with the return of fugitive slaves would loom large in the minds of the secessionists.

Future lectures:
(I will re-do the list of future lectures after each one, based on commentary and discussion to date.) James F. Epperson