Compromise of 1850

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The Compromise of 1850 in United States history was a series of legislative acts that were intended to resolve conflicts between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions but only further broke down political stability leading to the demise of the Second Party System. It is one of the steps leading to the U.S. Civil War.

A political crisis began with a petition for the admission of California as a free state. Following the California Gold Rush, California had enough people for (and the political and social situation was so chaotic that it required) the formation of a government. But after the Missouri Compromise, it had been the practice of Congress to admit states in slave-free pairs so as to maintain the balance of free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. As there was no slave territory anywhere close to being ready or able to organize as a state, the admission of California as a free state would undo the compromise and grant a free-state majority in the Senate.

In order, then, to placate the pro-slavery faction in Congress over this loss of power, Henry Clay set about to engineer another compromise that would resolve this and other outstanding issues. These included the legitimacy of slavery and the slave trade in Washington, D.C., the organization of other territory acquired from Mexico after the Mexican-American War, and the weakness of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Clay proposed a compromise in which each faction would have to give up a little of their agenda in order to get the law passed. Clay's bill admitted California as a free state, banned the sale of slaves in Washington, D.C., organized New Mexico territory according to popular sovereignty, and strengthen the fugitive slave law.

The most rabid of partisans in both factions denounced Clay's compromise as unacceptable. John C. Calhoun delivered the last of his speeches from his death bed. Calhoun was so near death that he could not speak, and while a bed was set up for him in the Senate antechamber, his speech was read by another. Daniel Webster also delivered the last of his great orations, this one in favor of union, seeing the compromise as the last great hope for preservation of the Union.

In June of 1850, the Senate voted down the compromise. Clay, broken by this defeat, resigned and went back to Kentucky where he died shortly later. Calhoun died earlier in March of 1850. Webster accepted his nomination to be Secretary of State and also left the senate.

With then the leading politicians of the day, Calhoun, Clay, and Webster gone from the Senate a new cadre of political leaders rose to take their places. The first among these was Stephen A. Douglas.

Douglas sought resurrect the compromise. His contribution here was to break Clay's bill into separate pieces of legislation and attempt the passage of each one individually. This was done throughout the summer of 1850. However, the passage of these laws came about as the result of a shifting middle and moderate group of politicians; the pro-slavery/anti-slavery partisans yielded nothing. And so while this collection of laws is called the "compromise of 1850" there was little if any compromise made by any politician.

The compromise was also the beginning of the end of the Second Party System. The great Whig leaders Clay and Webster had left the leadership of the party to others, mostly Conscience Whigs who by 1854 would leave a dead and decaying Whig Party to form the Republican Party. In the south, Whigs were increasingly tormented by their opposition to the Democratic Party and its brand of Southern nationalism; Southern Whigs were denounced as traitors to their nation and their race. This also started the division of the Democratic Party into northern and southern branches, but a sectional break of the Democratic Party did not fully occur until 1860.