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In 1850, Henry Clay one of the most influential political leaders in American history introduced a set of resolutions, which aimed to please both North and South America. The five proposals were rolled into a single ‘omnibus’ bill, which offered a solution to the growing sectional conflict over slavery and westward expansion, which arose from the 1846 Mexican War. The 1850 Compromise, which Senator Douglas stripped down and effectively helped pass, failed for a number of reasons, the greatest of which was that it was unable to please both anti-slave and pro-slave groups.
In fact it merely ‘papered over the crack’, and did not prove, as Daniel Webster a Clay supporter had hoped, ‘a finality that would give peace to a country long distracted by the quarrel over slavery’. Why did the Compromise ultimately fail, and lead to polarization, featuring a party, which had begun to establish itself in the 1820s.
The conflict between the North and South stemmed back to 1846, when the U.
S. A won a huge area of Mexican territory as the result of what became known as the Mexican War. The land acquired revived controversy over the extension of slavery, as many Northerners wanted the new territory to become a free state with no slavery, and many Southerners wanted slavery to expand. Numerous compromises were conceded, to try to resolve the sectional conflict, for example the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 attempted to exclude slavery from any territory gained as a result of the war.
The Calhoun Doctrine issued in 1847, and known as ‘The Platform of the South’, asserted that the territories were common property of all the states.
However the argument of whether slavery should be allowed to expand, still continued and even threatened to tear the union apart, therefore a compromise of some sort seemed essential. To resolve the sectional strife throughout America, Henry Clay offered a set of resolutions, which collectively was known as the ‘omnibus’ bill, and was designed to gratify both pro-slave and anti-slave groups.
This compromise said that California was to be admitted into the union as a free state; that New Mexico and Utah were to be organised into territories, allowing popular sovereignty; and as a sop to win over both sides, the Fugitive Slave Act which already existed was to be made more stringent, and slave-trading but not slavery was to end in the District of Columbia. Clay made the mistake of trying to past all five bills at once, this consequently caused in every call for compromise, some Northerners or Southerners to rise and in A. Farmer, a historians words ‘Inflame passions’.
In July 1850 Clay’s ‘omnibus’ bill was defeated, due to countless Northern senators voting against it, on account of the benefits it brought for the opposition. It was only in September of the same year, when Senator Douglas of Illinois replaced Clay as the leader of the negotiation, and having separated out the conciliation into a five-part compromise was able to pass it. This as A. Farmer believed was an ‘ingenious strategy’, that merely played on what the Northern and Southern people wanted, considering that Southerners voted for those proposals they liked; and vice versa for Northerners, the supporters of the Compromise simply swung the balance, so many of the proposals only passed by very small majorities.
The dispute over popular sovereignty was one of several problems, which lead to the failure of the 1850 Compromise. A part of the resolution said that the territories of Utah and New Mexico, would allow popular sovereignty, which meant that the settlers of the territory would decide if to allow slaves.
Popular sovereignty was fully supported by Democrats such as Senator Cass of Michigan and Senator Douglas of Illinois, and seemed to offer something for both the North and South. It met the South’s wish for federal non-intervention and held out the prospect that slavery might be extended into some of the Mexican territories. Also popular sovereignty appeared to the North as an exclusion scheme because it was unlikely that most of the settlers in the new territories would actually vote for the introduction of slavery. Nevertheless there were quite a few problems with popular sovereignty.
Firstly it went against previous practise, seeing that in the past Congress had decided on what should happen in the territories. However there was also the practical difficulty of when exactly a territory should decide on the question of slavery. Many Northerners including Cass and Douglas envisaged that the decision should be taken early, in fact as soon as the first territorial assembly met. On the contrary, Southerners keen to allow enough time for slavery to develop in the territories, saw the decision being made late – near the end of the territorial stage, when the territory was about to become a state, seeking admission to the union.
Popular sovereignty was defended in different ways by Northerners and Southerners, and supported by Democrats. This method, which allowed the settlers to decide, was opposed by Southerners (like Calhoun), who believed they had a right to take their ‘property’ wherever they wished, and Northerners who believed that slavery should not be allowed to expand under any circumstances, not even if the majority of white settlers wished it to expand.
Stephen Douglas one of the main architects of the 1850 Compromise continued to support popular sovereignty as a resolution for the slavery issue, even though it proved to be a failure for the New Mexico and Utah territories. In 1854 Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill; eventually leading to serious friction between two governments of Kansas, which resulted in an event known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ in 1856, which proved that popular sovereignty didn’t work.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the North territory into two; Kansas and Nebraska, and allowed the two territories to decide their own fate – this Douglas believed had succeeded in winning over the South, but his Kansas-Nebraska bill created the ‘hell of a storm’. Many Northerners believed that the slave power conspiracy was still at work, influencing decisions of Senator Douglas and Congress. Which resulted in a great struggle in Congress and the eventual collapse of the Whig party, that a large amount of Southerners supported as well as the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act was one of a number of reasons why the Compromise of 1850 failed. The law, which was originally enacted in 1793, and authorised slave owners to recapture escaped slaves beyond the state lines, appalled Northern abolitionists. However also Southerners complained that the laws were circumvented, due to legal deficiencies, and the growing popular hostility towards enforcement. State personal liberty laws over-ruled the Fugitive Slave Act. During the 1850s, nine new Northern State laws were passed to with the intent to make it difficult to enforce federal law.
In the 1850s only 532 fugitive slaves were ever returned to the South from the free states, this wasn’t due to the Northern resistance, but because relatively few escaped slaves managed to reach the North, and also the cost of reclaiming a slave was often greater than the slave’s value. In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe began publishing a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which undoubtedly aroused Northern sympathy for slavery. The novel presented a fierce attack on slavery, though the writer had little knowledge of the peculiar institution; Stowe based her description of slavery’s brutalities on abolitionist literature.
Therefore it is possible that propaganda was used to exaggerate slavery, and as a result pushed some Northerners toward a more aggressively anti-slavery stance. When in 1863 President Lincoln met Stowe, he reportedly said ‘So you’re the little women who wrote the book that made this Great War’. Even though the 1850 Compromise did eventually fail, there were many reasons why it should not of, but as these weren’t influential enough, failure was inevitable. In some ways the resolution measures of 1850 were successful.
For one the Compromise did prevent war for a decade, but certainly its possible it was partly to blame for the Civil War. The Northern economy was based on the trade industry, which came from Southern slave-run cotton plantations. Thus even though many Northerners opposed slavery and the expansion of the South’s peculiar institution, maybe in some ways they were afraid to be totally against it, in fear of the affects to their economy. However many Northerners who did resist slavery probably had a free labour ideology; that Northern farmers could grown cotton to fuel the trade industries of the North, as a replacement for slave labour.
The events that had occurred before and after 1846 had shown that expansion of America created major sectional conflict and jealousies, due principally to the question of slavery. The resolutions had actually managed to delay the immediate danger of sectional split. However as the apparent fairness of the Compromise was false, like all other attempts at compromise it failed. Slavery was a moral issue, which proved that more than a compromise was needed to resolve it. The Compromise of 1850 ultimately resulted with a large number of Southerners seceding from the union, furthermore political polarization of the Democrats.
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