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What started the Civil War? Historians debate whether the Missouri Controversy, the Nullification Crisis, the Annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act sparked the Civil War.
Many agree that The Compromise of 1850 is the primary event that led to the war. This event was a set of laws, passed in the middle of fierce wrangling between groups who either favored slavery or those who opposed it, that attempted to give something to both sides. These laws led to division among the North and South and ultimately kicked off the Civil War.
“The Compromise of 1850 marked the start of a decade of contention and controversy.” (Schaffer). When California wanted to be emitted into the Union as a free state this disrupted the balance of slave states and free states in the Senate. To fix this unbalance in the Union, slavery was not regulated in the remainder of the Mexican cession strengthening a law that compelled Northerners to seize and return slaves that had escaped from the South back to the South, this is known as the Fugitive Slave Act.
While the agreement succeeded in postponing outright hostilities between the North and South, it did little to address the structural disparity that divided the United States. Racial, gender, spatial, and the economy are just a few structural disparities that divided the United States at the time, but the racial disparity was the one that hit home with both the North and the South. The Compromise of 1850 was weak and destined for a short life.
The first law of the compromise was that California was to be admitted into the Union as a free state. “Can you expect, if there is a dissolution of the Union that you can carry slavery into California and New Mexico? You cannot dream of such a purpose.” (Clay). This is the first of many problems with the Compromise of 1850. The Missouri Compromise stated that there had to be an equal number of slave states and free states, but with California joining as a free state there would be more free states than slave states. This caused unbalance in the Senate and unrest in the states. With this statement, people knew there was no way for California to become a slave state or to be split into two states so that there would be an equal number of slave and free states.
The second law of the Compromise of 1850 was that the remainder of the Mexican cession was divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah. “The president’s eventual support for the prohibition of slavery in California and New Mexico enraged southerners, who organized state and sectional conventions and, in some quarters, began openly advocating secession.” (Bell). The people of each territory would decide whether or not slavery would be permitted, this is known as Popular Sovereignty. New Mexico and Utah decreed slave codes, technically opening the territories to slavery even though popular sovereignty was supposed to be in play. Popular sovereignty interferes with what the Missouri Compromise says because now the state can be both a free and a slave state and not one or the other. “Some southerners might agree to California’s admission if all the other territorial issues could be resolved to their satisfaction.” (Bordewich).
Another law of the Compromise of 1850 was that congress would dissolve the sale of slaves, but not slavery, in D.C. This restricted the slave trade in D.C., but slave ownership would still be allowed in the South. This was not enough for abolitionists who wanted slavery banned in every state in the United States. Southerners would not accept a Union’s capital where slavery was illegal because then they thought their economy would go down. They also believed that the slaves were the only ones to be able to grow their crops because the slaves were the lesser race. They had to reach a compromise and it was in the middle, by banning the trade of slaves. “Are you safer in the recovery of your fugitive slaves, in a state of dissolution or of severance of the Union, than you are in the Union itself?” (Clay). Even though this law was created to settle disagreements, it just created more problems for everyone.
The fourth law of the Compromise of 1850 was that Texas would give up much of the western land which it claimed and would then receive reimbursement of ten million dollars to pay off its national debt. The western boundary of Texas was highly disputed by many. The Republic of Texas, which had removed itself from Mexico during the Mexican War, had been admitted to the United States and claimed the territory that was comprised of today’s New Mexico. Texas also had ten million dollars in state debts it could not pay off easily. The compromise was for the United States to pay off the debts, while Texas allowed New Mexico to become a state.
The final law of the Compromise of 1850 was that a Fugitive Slave Act would order all citizens of the United States to assist in the return of enslaved people who had escaped from their owners. “As it now stands, the business of seeing that these fugitives are delivered up resides in the power of Congress and the national judicature.” (Webster). It would also deny a jury trial to slaves that had escaped their master’s hold on them. The Fugitive Slave Act made any federal marshal or other officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a major fine of one thousand dollars or more depending on the situation. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months imprisonment and a one thousand dollar fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.
With each of these laws as a part of the Compromise of 1850, they still left the overall issue of slavery unanswered. The Fugitive Slave Act was one of many reasons why the Compromise of 1850 did not succeed in solving whether slavery was to be abolished or not. The law, which was originally put into play in 1793, and authorized slave owners to recapture slaves that escaped beyond the state lines, appalled Northern abolitionists. However, Southerners complained that the laws were bypassed, due to legal deficiencies, and the growing popular hostility towards enforcement. Personal state laws over-ruled the Fugitive Slave Act. During the 1850s, several new Northern State laws were passed with the intent to make it more difficult to enforce federal laws in each of the states. Even with this act, no one knew whether slavery was abolished or not.
Although the Compromise did prevent the war for a decade, it is probable it was mostly to blame for the Civil War. The North’s economy was based on the trade industry, which came from Southern cotton plantations that were run by slaves. Thus, even though many Northerners did not like slavery and the growth of the South’s interesting institution, most likely in some ways they were afraid to be completely against slavery, in fear of the effects on the economy. However, many Northerners who did resist slavery probably had a free labor ideology; that Northern farmers could grow cotton to help fuel the trade industries of the North, as a replacement to the South’s slave-run cotton plantations. Even though it did hold back the war for a decade, the war was inevitable, and the Compromise of 1850 was just adding more fuel to the already huge fire.
The Compromise of 1850 is the primary event that kicked off the Civil War. Each of the five acts that make up the Compromise of 1850 did not address whether slavery was to be abolished in all states or not. That really caused unrest within the states. The Compromise of 1850 was like a band-aid in the way that it would fix it temporarily, but in the long run, it could not stop the Civil War from happening. Historians will continue to debate whether the Missouri Controversy, the Nullification Crisis, the Annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act sparked the Civil War, but many still agree that the Compromise of 1850 was the primary event that set off the Civil War.
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