Compromise Of 1850 Summary Essay

The Compromise of 1850

An increasingly popular "quick-fix" remedy to solving the issue of slavery was being discussed as 1850 began. The idea was to create new states from the territories acquired in 1846 and 1848 as soon as possible. States hoped to rely upon the U.S.Constitution X Amendment, which allowed the state the right to decide for themselves any issue not expressly prohibited by the federal government. Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution at all.
Another "loop-hole" pro-slavery advocates hoped to have in their favor was the proviso of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which stated that all land above latitude 36; 30' N was to be forever free territory. Federal Courts were in the process of evaluating that provision; they eventually would decide that proviso only applied to the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. That meant that slavery could legally exist north of the 36 ;30' line the Oregon and Mexican Cession Territories.

Many leading politicians of the day, including President Zachary Taylor, firmly believed the soon-to-be-created states should decide for themselves whether to be free or slave states. He publicly supported the move to add the new State of California as a free state in December 1849, based on his correspondence with the territorial governor. Southern leaders in Congress had to respond quickly.

On January 29, 1850, seventy-three year old Henry Clay presented to the U.S. Senate his proposal. Clay had cleverly combined many separate issues and pending bills into one major piece of legislation designed to help the south while letting the north feel as though they were getting something in return. Clay's compromise proposed:

  1. Admitting California as a free state.
  2. Organizing the Mexican Cession Territory without any restriction as to slavery (the Utah and New Mexico territories).
  3. Denying the Texas claim to extend its boundary to where the Rio Grande River begins.
  4. Compensating Texas for #3 (above) by having the federal government assume the $10 million Texas state debt.
  5. Ending the practice of requiring all traded/sold slaves to pass through the District of Columbia but,
  6. Keeping slavery legal in D.C. even though it is not a state.
  7. Rewriting the Fugitive Slave Act, placing it under the jurisdiction of Federal U.S. Marshals.
  8. Denying Congress any future authority to regulate slavery (no more Missouri Compromise-type 36; 30' provisions).
The North supported the first four points; the south was in favor of the last four. Yet each side thought the other side was gaining too much. By April 1850, this Omnibus Bill was in the hands of a select Senate Committee. They cleaned it up enough to have both northern and southern approval and expected to send it to President Taylor for the July 4th Holiday. Taylor suddenly fell ill and died on July 9th without signing the Bill into law.

Taylor's successor, Milliard Fillmore, did not like the Bill and threatened to veto it. Clay was too ill to continue working and his rival, J.C. Calhoun, had died that spring. New and younger members of Congress whittled Clay's 8 points down to 5 points they felt Fillmore would support.
Here is what they wrote: The Compromise of 1850:

  1. Admitted California as a free state.
  2. Created New Mexico & Utah Territories; they could decide for themselves to be free or slave states.
  3. Revoked the Texas border claim to the source of the Rio Grande River.
  4. Added Texas' $10 million debt to the Federal debt.
  5. Gave U.S. Marshals authority to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anywhere in the U.S. and ended the D.C. detour when selling/trading slaves.
Both northern abolitionists and anti-slavery opponents alike were upset by the final point. They felt that it gave the impression that the U.S. federal government endorsed the issue of slavery . But if they had rejected this point, they might possibly have lost California and its free state status. They could always ignore the Fugitive Slave Act; ignoring the admission of California as a slave state would have been more difficult to do.

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The Compromise of 1850 aimed to ease the tensions between free and slave states. After the Mexican War, a heated debate regarding the status of slavery in the newly acquired southwestern territories gripped the nation. Compromise of 1850 APUSH questions might cover any one of the five laws passed in this packaged legislation, so it is important to study each individually.

What is the Compromise of 1850?

The Compromise of 1850 is a group of five laws passed in September of 1850. These laws made concessions to both free and slave states in an attempt to placate both sides of the slavery debate and preserve the union.

1. The Texas Provision

Texas, a slave state, had claimed lands all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as lands north of the Missouri Compromise line. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, Texas relinquished these disputed territories in exchange for $10 million to help pay off its debts to Mexico.

2. The California Provision

In 1849, California had requested to enter the union as a free state. The South contested this, as it would upset the balance between free and slave states. As a part of the 1850 compromise, California was allowed to enter as a free state.

3. The New Mexico and Utah Provision

In exchange for California’s free status, the federal government agreed to place no restrictions on slavery in the New Mexico and Utah territories. Instead, the territories would be ruled by popular sovereignty, allowing the residents of each territory to decide the issue when they applied for statehood.

4. The District of Columbia Provision

Washington, D.C. claimed the largest slave market in North America. To appease abolitionists, the slave trade was outlawed in the district. To appease slave owners, the practice of slavery would continue to be permitted.

5. The Fugitive Slave Law

The most contentious provision was the Fugitive Slave Act. This law required citizens nationwide to aid in the recovery and return of fugitive slaves.

Important years to note for the Compromise of 1850:

  • 1848: The Treaty of Hidalgo ends the Mexican War.
  • 1849: California requests admission to the union as a free state.
  • 1850: The five provisions of the compromise are passed into law.

Why is the Compromise of 1850 so important?

After the Mexican War, tensions between the North and South reached a fever pitch. Civil war seemed inevitable. Both sides felt betrayed by the federal government, and the issue of slavery was no longer just an issue of economics, but one of states’ rights and morality. Something had to be done to preserve the union. Although it left both sides unsatisfied, the Compromise of 1850 succeeded, for a time, in keeping the nation intact and staving off a civil war for another ten years.

What are some historical people and events related to the Compromise of 1850?

  • Mexican War- War in which the U.S. won vast southwestern territories, including the Utah and New Mexico territories
  • Henry Clay- Kentucky Senator who drafted the compromise
  • Stephen A. Douglas- Illinois Senator who brokered the compromise after its initial defeat

What example question about the Compromise of 1850 might come up on the APUSH exam?

“If you remain silent, you will compel us to infer by your acts what you intend. In that case, California will become the test question. If you admit her, under all the difficulties that oppose her admission, you compel us to infer that you intend to exclude us from the whole of the acquired territories, with the intention of destroying irretrievably the equilibrium between the two sections.”
– John C. Calhoun, 1850 (Source)

California was at the center of debate in the Compromise of 1850 because
A) a federal ban on slavery in the newly admitted state went against the wishes of its residents.
B) its admission as a free state would tip the balance of power toward northern interests.
C) the state should have been admitted as a slave state according to the Missouri Compromise.
D) without its admission as a free state, Congress would be overwhelmingly pro-slavery.


The correct answer is (B). The residents of California requested admission to the union as a free state in 1849. Southern Democrats were concerned that such an admission would upset the balance of power between free and slave states, which the government had been working to maintain throughout the century. Legislators such as Calhoun felt that by accepting California’s request, the federal government would reveal that it no longer had any interest in maintaining that balance, and that its goal was to overpower Southern and pro-slavery interests.

About Sarah Bradstreet

Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

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