Popular Sovereignty

With the acquisition of a large amount of new territory in the Mexican-American war, the sectional debate intensified. Heated debate sprung up as to whether or not slavery should be allowed in the territories. While some felt that the best solution to this issue was an extension of the Missouri Compromise line, a new idea gained significant support during the late 1840's. This idea, which became known as popular sovereignty, stated that the best solution to the slavery question was to allow the citizens of each territory to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slaves there. The idea of popular sovereignty would play an important role in the upcoming effort to achieve compromise.

The Need for Compromise

As sectional tensions increased, it became apparent that some action needed to be taken. President Zachary Taylor felt that the best solution for the territories was for them to become states, which would allow their state governments to handle the slavery question. In 1849, California applied for statehood as a free state. When the matter was taken to Congress, it set off a series of fervent sectional debates, many of which had nothing to do with California at all. Southerners did not want the addition of a new free state, which would upset the balance and give the North an advantage in Congress. Many Southern Congressmen were so disgruntled that they began to talk of secession.

Moderates in Congress saw that a new compromise was now necessary to prevent disunion. An effort headed by Henry Clay worked to combine several of the issues being debated into a single compromise, which they hoped would end the sectional dispute. The Compromise of 1850 was presented to Congress in January of 1850, but there would be a long debate before it was actually passed.

The Terms of the Compromise

  • California was to be admitted as a free state.
    This map shows the country at the time of the compromise.
    This map shows the country at the time of the compromise.
  • The rest of the Mexican Cession would be divided into territories, which would be able to determine the status of slavery through popular sovereignty.
  • The slave trade in Washington D.C. would be abolished, but not slavery itself.
  • A more effective Fugitive Slave Law was to be enacted.

The latter two provisions were added to settle some of the sectional controversies which had been plaguing Congress for the past several years. There had been a push by antislavery supporters to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. It was decided that an acceptable compromise would be to keep slavery intact, but abolish the slave trade there. While this might not seem very significant, Washington D.C. at the time had one of the largest slave markets in the country. For this reason, Southerners saw this provision as a serious drawback of the compromise.

In order to appease the South for this, as well as the addition of a new free state, it was included that a new Fugitive Slave Law should be enacted. This was in response to the creation of several personal liberty laws in the North, which prevented local authorities from assisting in the capture of runaway slaves. The new law would require Northern states to assist in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. Once the compromise was passed, this provision would meet with much opposition in the North, and result in renewed conflict between North and South.

The Debate

Henry Clay introduces the Compromise of 1850 to the Senate.
Henry Clay introduces the Compromise of 1850 to the Senate.

The debate over whether or not to pass the compromise lasted for several months. At first it was dominated by older Congressmen such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. They appealed to broad, nationalistic ideals in discussing the compromise, but this proved to not be very effective. After six months of debate no progress had been made, and Congress defeated the proposal.

The issue was then passed on to a series of younger Congressmen who were much different from the men who had been controlling the debate before. These new figures included William Seward and Jefferson Davis, but the most prominent leader was Stephen Douglas of Illinois. These men were all very self-serving, each trying to promote his own section and advance his own career, but they were also able to accomplish more. Douglas realized that the bill as a whole would never get passed, and thus came up with the idea to split it up into several different measures that could be voted on individually. The result was that each section supported the parts of the bill that appealed to them. Douglas's efforts resulted in all parts of the compromise being passed by the end of 1850.


The Compromise of 1850 was not a result of mutual agreement between the sections, but rather a product of each section acting to serve its own interests. Like the Missouri Compromise before it, it was only a temporary solution to the sectional problem facing the nation. At the time, it appeared to be a great success, but in reality it only managed to delay the crisis a few years until tensions again began to rise. By this point, the sectional conflict had become so serious that it might have been quite impossible to solve all of the nation's problems with any single compromise. Whether or not this was the case, the Compromise of 1850 was certainly not enough to solve the conflict, and was unable to avert the upcoming Civil War.

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