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US History : The Compromise of 1850

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The Compromise of 1850 temporarily postponed the American Civil War by calming sectional tensions and proposing an alternative to armed combat. Political tension was caused by several factors. California and New Mexico wished to enter the Union as free states, which would have disrupted the balance of slave versus free states in the senate1. The United States had won a large amount of land from Mexico in the Mexican-American War, and there was debate as to whether this land could be declared to be forever free by the federal government. In addition, Texas claimed ownership of all land east of the Rio Grande River, in what is now New Mexico.

The Compromise comprised five different laws which at least partially resolved these issues and also offered each side of the slavery debate incentive to pass the Act. California was allowed to join the nation as a free state. In exchange for relinquishing the territory Texas had claimed (which was subsequently added to New Mexico), the state was given $10million dollars to pay off its debt to Mexico. The other lands gained from the war with Mexico (east of the Rio Grande to the Pacific) were organised into territories of the United States without reference to slavery. The inhabitants of the territories would be able to decide for themselves through what was later known as 'popular sovereignty' whether they wished to enter the United States as free or slave states when they applied for statehood. The country's largest slave market, in Washington DC, would be abolished, but slavery itself would still exist in the district. Finally, and most controversially, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.

Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 was an augmentation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This first Act nominally required the northern states to return runaway slaves to the south, but many northerners ignored the legislation. When suspected runaways were brought to trial, juries often set them free on principle. After the 1850 Act was passed, any state official who did not arrest an accused runaway slave could be fined $1000, and any northerner who assisted a slave's escape could be fined the same amount or jailed for six months. People who captured a runaway were entitled to a fee, so many 'slave hunters' were employed in northern cities. The suspected slaves were deprived of the right to testify in their own defense, and denied a trial by jury. All that was needed for a slave to be declared a fugitive and returned to the south was the sworn testimony of their owner. When a judge returned a person to slavery they were paid $10, but if they set them free they were only paid $5.

The passing of this act outraged northerners. Previously ambivalent northerners turned against slavery, and moderate abolitionists became more radical, because now they were directly helping to keep people enslaved. Many broke the law rather than betray their conscience. The pacifist ex-slave Frederick Douglass advocated killing slave hunters, comparing them with wolves attacking babies. Mobs often formed in the north to free captured blacks.


The Compromise removed political party lines and solidified loyalty on sectional grounds. The northern whigs and democrats were against slavery entirely, while the southern whigs and democrats were for it. The compromise allowed both regions to feel that they hadn't compromised their positions. The passing of the compromise allowed the President Millard Fillmore to announce that the issue of slavery in the south was 'final and irrevocable', optimistically assuming that America could maintain its current balance of slave and free states in perpetuity. The drawing of the new state lines shaped America as it is today, while the cessation of the slave trade in Washington DC allowed for emancipation in the state by 1862.

The 1850 Compromise kept the Union from falling into civil war, but only temporarily. The gap between the free north and the slave-holding south was becoming greater, and the attempts to bridge it were becoming more desperate. By this stage, armed conflict was inevitable.

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