The Compromise of 1850

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Millard Fillmore presides over the Old Senate Chamber as Henry Clay introduces the Compromise of 1850. Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun look on from the sidelines.

Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Following the Mexican-American War, controversies over slavery created such strong sectional tensions between the North and South that the survival of the Union seemed to be in jeopardy. The balance between slave states and free states created by the Missouri Compromise was threatened by California’s petition to Congress to enter the Union as a free state, and by the controversy over whether the new territory acquired from the war with Mexico should permit slavery, prohibit slavery, or allow the territory’s inhabitants to decide.

On January 29, 1850, Henry Clay, the U.S. senator from Kentucky known as “The Great Compromiser”, lived up to his nickname and presented a compromise that would hopefully ease these troubling sectional tensions. Members of Congress such as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Clay himself debated this compromise for the next eight months, and, finally, with the assistance of Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois, the Compromise of 1850, consisting of five laws, was guided to passage.

The Compromise of 1850 established that 1) California would be admitted to the Union as a free state, 2) Texas would surrender the land west of the Rio Grande, but, for this, would receive financial compensation (10 million dollars), 3) the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah would be organized without addressing the issue of slavery, for that matter would later be decided by popular sovereignty, 4) the slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, and 5) all U.S. citizens would be required to assist in the retrieval of runaway slaves, due to the Fugitive Slave Act.

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Shown in this picture are many of the men who debated and revised the Compromise of 1850, including Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Stephen A. Douglas.

This video is a reenactment of Lincoln speaking on the Compromise of 1850, and how it led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Historian Lois Horton discusses the Fugitive Slave Act, the most controversial of the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850.

The Northern Perspective
Though the Compromise of 1850 succeeded in reducing tensions between the North and South, many Northern Whigs were against it. This was because the new Fugitive Slave Act required ordinary citizens to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves. This law was appalling to the abolitionists of the North. In addition, the North thought that since New Mexico was dry, dusty, and barren, its inhabitants would have no use for slavery there. They believed this territory should be admitted to the Union as a free state.


A warning put out to the black citizens of Boston after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Southern Perspective

Before the Compromise of 1850, the South was threatening secession in response to the prospect of
California entering the Union as a free state. However, the Compromise presented the South with a deal that pacified their resentment: the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona would be organized with the intention of allowing popular sovereignty to determine whether or not slavery would be allowed in them, and a Fugitive Slave Act would be passed. The South, in favor of states’ rights, strongly approved of the concept of popular sovereignty. Also, because the South was largely populated by slaveholders, the Fugitive Slave Act proved to be their greatest benefit in the Compromise. In short, due to the use of popular sovereignty and the creation of the Fugitive Slave Act, the South was generally satisfied with the Compromise.

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Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser."

It is believed by many that the Compromise of 1850 managed to put off the American Civil War for ten more years. However, it also succeeded in further alienating the North and South from each other. In particular, many Northerners detested the Fugitive Slave Act; the law created tensions between the abolitionists in the North who loathed having to obey it, and the pro-slavery citizens of the South who were determined to enforce it. Moreover, the decade delay of warfare allowed the North to further industrialize and increase its population, its number of factories, and its production of steel. This would later prove advantageous for the North during the Civil War. For these reasons, the Compromise of 1850 would, on a scale from 1-5 regarding how significant an event it was in bringing about the Civil War, rank a 4.


"Compromise of 1850." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 May 2009.

"Compromise of 1850."
Ohio History Central. 1 July 2005. 18 May 2009.

"The Compromise of 1850." US History. 2008. Independence Hall Association. 18 May 2009.

Kion, Mary. "The Compromise of 1850." 25 Febuary 2007. American History. 18 May 2009. <>