In 1850, the United States was on the verge of exploding into Civil War
. Passions were ignited, with Southern fire-eater
s jumping at the bit to secede from the Union that they loathed as much as Hell
itself, and Northerners equally adamant to preserve the Union at all costs. The issues were complex and difficult. Political balance in the Senate
was poised on a knife-edge between North and South. This satisfied and infuriated members of both sides in equal measure. When California
came banging at the door for exit from territory into free-soil
statehood, Southerners went raging at the mouth. It was a Northern plot to turn the Senate against them! Next they would be passing laws to abolish slavery!
More than merely this aggravated the Southerners. The Underground Railroad had stepped up operations in the years preceding 1850. Slaves were increasingly making it across the freedom line, and there was very little Southern masters could do about it. This inability to take action was galling. After all, these slaves were not persons, they were stolen property. The Southerners' rights to slave ownership were enshrined in the Constitution, the highest law of the land, and yet they were not offered the protections of ownership afforded all other property. Once it had crossed the magic line, somehow it was "no longer theirs" to take back. Rubbish! Southerners wanted to re-establish the rule of law, and if Northerners weren't going to respect their rights like decent citizens, then they had better be forced to.
It would take superhuman abilities to resolve the conflict. And that's exactly what the country got. The "immortal trio" of the Old Guard, unchallenged masters of rhetoric and fountains of wisdom still kicking in their old age stepped into the ring. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. Congressmen took respectful silence. Balconies were overflowing with eager observers coming to watch history in action. These were relics of the old age, and it would take every resource they had to bring the two sides together.
First it was Henry Clay's turn. Seventy-three years old, from the border state of Kentucky, his job on the team was to lay the groundworks for the compromise and impress upon both sides that there was a way to work things out. His eloquent speech held audiences captivated as he proposed a series of gives and takes for both sides, then constructed a proper, hardened apologia for each. Through concession, the conciliatory old man reasoned, all could be satisfied.
Tag in Calhoun. The Southerner from South Carolina was far too weakened from tuberculosis to deliver his own speech, sadly, so a younger colleague was forced to read a written version of his final formal address to the Congress. But he was present, nevertheless, huddled in a blanket and staring frostily across all in attendance, daring them to reject his words. He had written a passionate plea for the respect of Southern rights. The concessions of Henry Clay were not enough for Calhoun, he wanted the law as the law was written, protections for a threatened minority (a minority of whites, of course, blacks were not people, they were chattel to the old racist), and nothing more than that. He mostly served as a foil for the final cinching of our third member in the trio, but his words rang true to Southern ears, who honored his memory long after his death that same year.
Daniel Webster took the gelling agreement and gave it form. The sixty-eight year-old representative of New Hampshire spent three-hours weaving the words of his Seventh of March speech. He used a variety of logical conculsions, from geography to religious appeals to economics to legalism, to insist that the Union was the highest priority above all else. He reinforced the compromises Clay had proposed, assuring that anything less would lead to collapse. His speech was so effecting that country-wide demand for copies of the text could not nearly be met. Bankers excused debts of his running in the thousands of dollars. Entire swaths of hostile Northern opinion were assuged simply by his rhetoric. It was a truly amazing feat.
The New Guard, young representatives who had never grown up with anything less than total, constant conflict between the North and South, got a few words in before the end. They advocated a no compromises approach, many among their ranks being abolitionists. The scourge of human slavery was too awful for any politcal maneuvers or esoteric legal wrangling, they asserted. This was a matter of a whole people in chains for nothing more than their birth. Unfortunately, the firebrand resistors got caught up in their own passion, driving opinions further towards compromise with disturbing propositions such as a "higher law" than the Constitution. Also helpful (in a morbid way), was the death of the resistant-to-compromise president at the time, Zachary Taylor. His vice-president, Millard Fillmore, was far more receptive toward maintaining the Union, and helped to inch the final compromise into law, delaying the bloodshed that would wrack the nation a decade later.
So what was the Compromise? In strictly regional terms, it can be quickly summarized.
For the South:
+ The New Mexico and Utah territories would be open to slavery, decided by popular sovereignty upon application for statehood.
+ Texas receieved $10 million dollars in federal money for what it considered lost territory.
+ A Fugitive Slave Law with sharp teeth was passed to ensure escaped slaves would be pursued and returned to their owners.
For the North:
+ California was admitted as a free state
+ Disputed territory between Texas and New Mexico went to New Mexico, preventing even more land going to the already-slave state.
+ Slave trade abolished in District of Columbia (which was surrounded by the slave state Maryland).
Had the Compromise of 1850 not passed, the nation would have erupted in civil war, and the likelihood of a Northern victory would have been much less. It is probable that we would not have a United States of America today if it wasn't for the efforts of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster crafting and passing the Compromise of 1850.