The Compromise of 1850
Conflict over slavery in the territories began in the1840s, and by the end of the decade, had risen to a crisis point. Compromise was still possible, however, because the second party system was built on nationally-based parties with a vested interest in maintaining peace. Additionally, though sectionalism existed, the North and South were not as divided as they would become.
The Problem of Slavery in the Mexican Cession
The Constitution gave the federal government the right to abolish the international slave trade, but no power to regulate or destroy the institution of slavery where it already existed. Additionally, the Constitution said nothing about the status of slavery in future states. Because Congress controlled the process of admittance, it could regulate the extension of slavery before a territory became a state and had done so in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. So long as both the free North and the slave South had some opportunities for expansion, compromise was possible.
The Wilmot Proviso Launches the Free-Soil Movement
The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was proposed to ban African Americans, whether slave or free, from any territory acquired from the Mexican War. This blend of racist and antislavery sentiment appealed to many Northerners anxious to preserve new lands for free Whites. Although the House initially approved the Proviso, the Senate defeated it. In these Congressional votes, politicians broke down along sectional rather than party lines. This sectional divide was mirrored in state and local reactions to the Proviso as well, providing an ominous foreshadowing of the conflict to come.
Squatter Sovereignty and the Election of 1848
By the time of the election in 1848, the status of slavery in the Mexican cession was still unresolved. There were four positions on the issue. The two extremes were represented by the Wilmot Proviso and absolute federal protection of slavery in the territories. The two middle-ground positions were a proposal to extend the Missouri Compromise line, and a new approach—popular sovereignty—that would leave the question of slavery in a territory to the actual settlers. In the election, Whig Zachary Taylor, avoiding a stand on the issue but promising no executive interference with congressional legislation, defeated two challengers: Democrat Lewis Cass who urged “popular sovereignty,” and Free-Soiler Martin Van Buren who favored the Wilmot Proviso.
Taylor Takes Charge
Taking immediate action, President Taylor proposed admitting California and New Mexico directly as states, bypassing territorial status and the arguments over slavery in Congress. The possibility that only free states would emerge from the Mexican cession provoked intense southern resistance and talk of secession.
Forging a Compromise
Although Taylor resisted compromise until his death, his successor, Millard Fillmore, supported a series of resolutions known as the Compromise of 1850. After heated debate, members of Congress, who voted on the measures separately, agreed to admit California as a free state, organize the territories of New Mexico and Utah on the basis of popular sovereignty, retract the borders of Texas in return for assumption of the state’s debt, and abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The most controversial provision created a strong Fugitive Slave Law, denying suspected runaways any rights of self-defense, and requiring northerners to enforce slavery. As it had over the Wilmot Proviso, Congress at first broke down along sectional rather than party lines. By 1852, both parties endorsed the compromise, rendering them indistinct on the slavery issue.
Political Upheaval 1852-1856
The Compromise of 1850 may…