From Ohio History Central
Senator Henry Clay Takes the Floor
The Compromise of 1850 was one of several attempts by both the North and the South to settle differences over slavery's expansion.
As a result of the Mexican War, the United States acquired most of the present-day American Southwest. The acquisition of this land immediately increased tensions between the North and the South, as the two regions debated whether or not to extend slavery into the area. In 1849, California applied for statehood as a free state. Many Southerners realized that they would lose the tie in free and slave states in the United States Senate that had been maintained since the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. For this reason, they refused to support California's admission to the Union.
To settle the differences arising over California's request for statehood, Henry Clay proposed eight resolutions to the Senate. He grouped six of the eight resolutions as pairs known as omnibus bills. He included in each pair one resolution that the South could support and one resolution that the North might support. Clay hoped that the two sides would compromise and pass the resolutions. The first pair of resolutions called for California to become a free state, while the people residing in the New Mexico Territory would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. The second set of resolutions settled a dispute between Texas and the New Mexico Territory over the location of the boundary between the two areas. New Mexico acquired significant territory as a result of this resolution. The second part of this resolution instructed the federal government to assume Texas' debts and place the young state on solid financial footing. The third pair of resolutions outlawed the slave trade in the nation's capital but still permitted people to own slaves in Washington, DC. The final two resolutions called for a stronger fugitive slave law and prohibited Congress from interfering in the interstate slave trade.
While many people welcomed some of Clay's proposals, they found some of the other resolutions infuriating. Seven months of debate took place before Northerners and Southerners in the United States Senate finally agreed to a compromise. After some initial debate, the Senate formed a special committee with Henry Clay as chairman. The committee submitted a series of measures to the Senate based on Clay's original proposals. California would become a free state; the people residing in the New Mexico and Utah Territories would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery; and New Mexico would receive significant land from Texas. The State of Texas would receive ten million dollars from the federal government in compensation.
A group of Northern Democratic and Southern Whig Senators supported the committee's recommendations, but these men only comprised one-third of the Senate. This was not nearly enough to implement the proposals. President Zachary Taylor also objected to the proposals, fearing that they were too pro-South. While the Senate continued to debate during the summer of 1850, President Taylor died. Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency. President Fillmore was much more supportive of the compromise measure. Despite his support, the United States Senate rejected the compromise in a vote on July 31.
When Clay became ill, Stephen Douglas, a Senator from Illinois, became the leading proponent of the Compromise of 1850. He provided the means to get the compromise enacted. Instead of proposing the various measures as a single bill, he chose to introduce them as individual bills. He labored to create a coalition of Southerners and Northerners for each bill. Northern Whigs, Northern Democrats, and some Upper-South Whigs supported California entering the United States as a free state, the ending of the slave trade in the nation's capital, and the ten million dollar payment to Texas. Northern Democrats and Southerners of all parties supported a stronger fugitive slave law and permitting the people of the New Mexico and Utah territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Thanks to Douglas, each proposal passed and became the Compromise of 1850.
When the Compromise of 1850 went into effect, many Ohioans vehemently opposed it. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, requiring the federal government to assist Southern slaveholders in recapturing their runaway slaves, resulted in the most anger from Ohio abolitionists. Ohioans who assisted in the Underground Railroad redoubled their efforts to assist runaway slaves find freedom in Canada. They also tried to protect the runaways who remained in the North. Other Ohioans favored the Compromise of 1850 and the admission of California as a free state. Thousands of Ohioans moved to California hoping to find a new life and new opportunities.
- Fess, Simeon D., ed. Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Company, 1937
- Holt, Michael. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York, NY: Wiley, 1978.
- Stegmaier, Mark J. Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996