Compromise of 1850

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The Compromise of 1850 was an intricate package of five bills, passed in September 1850, defusing a four-year confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North that arose following the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The compromise, drafted by Whig Henry Clay and brokered by Democrat Stephen Douglas avoided secession or civil war at the time and quieted sectional conflict for four years.

The Compromise was greeted with relief, although each side disliked specific provisions. Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico but received debt relief and the Texas Panhandle, and retained the control over El Paso that it had established earlier in 1850. The South avoided the humiliating Wilmot Proviso but did not receive desired Pacific territory in Southern California or a guarantee of slavery south of a territorial compromise line like the Missouri Compromise Line or the 35th parallel north. As compensation, the South received the possibility of slave states by popular sovereignty in the new New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory, which, however, were unsuited to plantation agriculture and populated by non-Southerners; a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, which in practice outraged Northern public opinion; and preservation of slavery in the national capital, although the slave trade was banned there except in the portion of the District of Columbia that rejoined Virginia.

The Compromise became possible after the sudden death of President Zachary Taylor, who, although a slaveowner himself, tried to implement the Northern policy of excluding slavery from the Southwest. Whig leader Henry Clay designed a compromise, which failed to pass in early 1850. In the next session of Congress, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas (Illinois) narrowly passed a slightly modified package over opposition by extremists on both sides, including Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.


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