The Road to Civil War: The 1850 Compromise

By Jon Handy

After the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the union experienced another period of growth that shocked the world. The economic growth of the southern states brought much prestige to this brash new country, the United States of America. England still approved of slavery [1], and readily agreed with the Democrats in America that slavery meant ownership much like beasts of burden in the north. They were bought and paid for by the slave ship captains from the Africans who raided villages and sold the inhabitants to them as slaves.

The southern States were satisfied that equilibrium had been preserved and that the North had to live by the edicts of the 1820 Compromise. However the Abolitionists in the northern states, driven by their consciences, were becoming more vocal and active toward their cause by setting up a series of safe-houses, called the Underground Railroad, to provide safe passage for slaves escaping their southern masters and fleeing to the free northern states. The southern Democrats were so incensed that northerners were aiding the escape of their property that they brought their grievances to the U.S. Congress. To the southerners, the Underground Railroad was akin to a neighbor sneaking onto their property at night and opening the barn door to let their animals out. The differing opinions ultimately led to the most famous debate of Congress, the 1850 Compromise.

Many famous speeches by preeminent orators emerged from the debates in 1850:

1) John C. Calhoun asked the Senate to “honor the South’s Institutions and to protect her economic vitality against northern efforts to limit slavery and promote industrial over agricultural interests.” [2] In his speech to the Senate in 1833, Calhoun had said “A government of the absolute majority instead of government by the people is but the Government of the strongest interests and when not efficiently checked is the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised.”

2) Daniel Webster (in his notorious 7th of March speech) viewed slavery as a matter of historical reality, not moral principal. He urged northerners “to respect slavery in the South and assist in the return of slaves to their owners.” This position cost him his Senate seat in the next election.

 3) Rutherford B. Hayes said, “Disunion and war are at hand; and yet I fear disunion and war less than compromise. We can recover from them. The Free states alone, if we must go on alone, will make a glorious nation.  Twenty millions in the temperate zone, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, full of vigor, industry, inventive genius, educated and moral; increasing by immigration rapidly, and, above all, free – all free – will form a confederacy of 20 states scarcely inferior in real power to the unfortunate Union of 33 states which we had on the first of November.” [3]

4) Andrew Carnegie: “The ‘morality of compromise’ sounds contradictory. Compromise is usually a sign of weakness, or an admission of defeat. Strong men don’t compromise, it is said, and principles should never be compromised.” [4]

These political debates in 1850 (there were many – I urge you to read all of them) were won by the Democrats and Southern Whigs, and the compromise passed. [5] The result was that the northerners were forced to return slaves to their owners. But the Underground Railroad did not close even though the safe houses were subject to prosecution. They continued to fight slavery, and you can still visit many of these houses which were preserved as historical buildings.

Watch for my next post, The Road to Civil War, Part Four.  It will include the Dred Scott Decision.

[1] The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833 with passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, which took effect in August of 1834 and outlawed slavery throughout the empire (with the notable exception of territories administered by the East India Company.

[2] The speech was read to the Senate by James Mason on March 4, 1850. (Calhoun was too ill to deliver it himself.)

[3] Writing in his diary on January 4, 1861.

[4] Of course, Carnegie also said “I shall argue that strong men, conversely, know when to compromise and that all principles can be compromised to serve a greater principle.”

[5] The Compromise of 1850 was actually a combination of five laws. You can read their full texts and more about them on the Library of Congress site. See also, “Clay’s Last Compromise” from the U.S. Senate site.

See also:

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Sherwood, Marika. “Perfidious Albion: Britain, the USA, and Slavery in the 1840s and 1860s,” Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 13, Article 6. (1995.)

Slavery and Remembrance from UNESCO and Colonial Williamsburg

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