US_Slave_Free_1789-1861 gif.gif Sectional Divides:

At this critical point in American history, the country was becoming increasingly divided over the issue of slavery. Tensions in Congress were high and representatives from the two major parties at the time, the pro-slavery southern Democrats and the anti-slavery northern Whigs, were adamantly opposed to any legislation introduced by the opposite party. This led to political deadlock and fierce debates as opposed to solutions to the issues at hand. This was mainly due to the differences that existed in the constituencies that each party represented. The North, being primarily antislavery, was opposed to any measures that supported the spread of slavery or the preservation of slavery as an American institution while the South was against anything that threatened their beloved slavery. Sectional divides intensified after the Mexican War. The Wilmot Proviso (see Wilmot Proviso wiki for additional info) provided for a measure that would prohibit slavery in the territory gained from Mexico. This issue was fiercely debated in Congress without a resolution, however these debates only furthered sectional divides. The California Gold Rush of 1849 triggered an enormous flow of people into the territory, and with its now substantial population, it was reasonable for California to apply for statehood. California petitioned to join as a free state, which would upset the 15-15 balance of free to slave states that had been established in the Missouri Compromise. This put pressure on Congress to address the California issue, as well as debate the fate of other existing territories that existed in the American West and the future of slavery in those areas as well. The South was fearful of this proposition, as they already were a minority in the House and if California was added as a free state and the issue of slavery was left up to other western territories, then they risked becoming a minority in the Senate. Other debates concerning slavery were present in Congress at this time as well: there was an antislavery effort to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and personal liberty laws were gaining prevalence in the North, barring law officials from helping to return runaway slaves to their owners. This infuriated southerners (as they felt they were being wrongfully deprived of their property), and they pushed for a more stringent law that would force northern states to return fugitive slaves. These sectional conflicts began to boil over in Congress, and differences between the regions of the United States were quickly becoming irreconcilable. In a desperate measure to settle the various disputes and calm tensions, Henry Clay spearheaded the effort to form a compromise mend a divided nation.


Henry Clay of Kentucky, a veteran of the Senate, took several legislative measures which had been proposed separately and combined them into one single piece of legislature. Clay brought this omnibus bill to the Senate floor on January 29, 1850. The provisions of the bill were as follows: Texas (which had been involved in an intense debate over its boundaries, maintained that it extended all the way to Santa Fe) would relinquish the disputed land and would be given 10 million dollars to settle debts, the formation of territorial governments in the lands acquired from Mexico (with no slavery restrictions at the moment, decision would be left to popular sovereignty), the permission of slavery in the District of Columbia but the abolition of the slave trade (in the District of Columbia), the admission of California as a free state, and the passage of a more effective fugitive slave law. Clay felt that his bill contained provisions that were attractive to both parties/sections of the country. After months of congressional debate, Clay's proposal was rejected. However the topic of compromise was spurred once again after the death of President Zachary Taylor, who had been opposed to compromise. The new president, Millard Fillmore, was pro-compromise, and used his influence to convince Northern Whigs that compromise was the best option. Stephen A. Douglass, a representative from Illinois, suggested breaking up Clay's omnibus bill into individual bills to be voted on separately. All bills passed and by mid September 1850, the president had signed all components of the compromise.


The Compromise of 1850 created an uneasy peace in the Union. The Compromise was not a widespread agreement founded upon common ideals, it was merely a victory of self interest. Each section had gotten their way while begrudgingly making concessions to their opposition. Neither section was fully satisfied by the Compromise, and each felt that they could have gotten more out of it. The passage of a stronger fugitive slave law had been considered a victory for southern lawmakers. What they did not anticipate however, was the North's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the law. After the Compromise had been passed, slave owners from the south occasionally appeared in northern states, pursuing people they claimed to be slaves. Since slaves could not bring a case to court, they could not protest being recaptured by southern plantation owners, regardless if they actually belonged to them or not as it was their word against a white man's. Northerners began to resist the enforcement of this law, forming mobs and refusing to return fugitive slaves, hiding them in their homes or transporting them farther North to freedom. This infuriated Southern plantation owners and lawmakers as the North blatantly defied part of the Compromise which had been one of the primary reasons they had agreed to it in the first place. Without the fugitive slave law, the Compromise was clearly a political victory for the Northern states, and this enraged southerners, causing sectional divides to once again intensify and the uneasy peace between the section to deteriorate. Whatever trust had existed between the two regions completely collapsed and they once again became pitted against one another. It would now take more than words/legislation to fix the Union, it would take war.