Lecture Notes - The Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act Revisited - Abolition Riots in the Nor

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1 The Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act Revisited / Abolition Riots in the North Overview Two basic misconceptions have marred understanding of the congressional bargain known as the Compromise of 1850. The first stems from the familiar story of how the surviving disinterested wise men of the Senate, led by the Great Compromiser Henry Clay, stepped in one last time to broker national peace over slavery. In fact, the older heads, far from disinterested, stirred enormous conflict and left much of the difficult backroom work to younger men, whose motives were partisan as well as patriotic. Second, the very idea that the bargain was a compromise is misleading. A genuine compromise involves each side conceding something in order to reach an accord. What occurred in 1850 was very different: the passage of a series of separate laws, some of them purposefully evasive on crucial issues, with the majority of congressmen from one section voting in each case against the majority of congressmen from the other. The phrase “Compromise of 1850” – like the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820-21, which in many ways the deal resembled – has been so routinely repeated by generations of historians and schoolteachers that it is unlikely ever to be replaced. But the bargain was actually more of a balancing act, a truce that delayed, but could not prevent, even greater crises over slavery. The “Compromise” of 1850 President Zachary Taylor presented his territorial plan for the lands of the Mexican Cession in a special message to Congress in January 1850, calling for California’s admission to the Union as a free state at once, and New Mexico’s admission as soon as it was ready. Having once blamed Yankee abolitionists and Free Soilers as the instigators of sectional divisions, as President, Taylor became persuaded that the greatest fault lay with “intolerant and revolutionary southerners,” led by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Taylor’s anger fueled the southerners’ own, and some northern congressmen began to fear that southern talk of secession was taking on an uncomfortable earnestness. It was at precisely this moment that Henry Clay stepped into the debate, in one last effort to placate the South. As always, Clay had complicated motives. His desire to save the Union was sincere. Equally sincere was his desire to save the Whig Party by shoving aside the stubborn president and establishing his own dominance. On January 29, he presented his alternative to Taylor’s plan in the form of eight resolutions, six of them paired as compromises between the North and South. In the first pair, Clay called for the admission of California as a free state and the organization of the remainder of the Mexican Cession, including Brigham Young’s Deseret (soon to be called Utah), without “any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.” The second set resolved an existing boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico in favor of the latter – a pro- northern position that would reduce the chance of a new slave state being carved out of Texas – while also assuming outstanding debts contracted by the Republic of Texas.

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