Following the Mexican-American war, while Americans still wondered at their country’s dramatic expansion, the question of whether to allow slavery in the newly acquired land polarized opinion in both North and South. Pro-slavery ideologues, writes historian Fergus M. Bordewich, “pretty much considered anyone who supported constraints on slavery to be a traitor.”
For most Northerners, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which excluded slavery north of a compromise line, was still the law of the land. But by 1850, there were advocates of “popular sovereignty,” led by Stephen A. Douglas, who undercut the Missouri Compromise by urging that citizens of each new territory vote on whether to permit slavery. The situation was made more volatile by extremists on both sides, who in the North urged the abolition of slavery everywhere and in the South insisted that all of Texas should be open to slavery.
The leader in the search for compromise was Kentucky’s venerable Henry Clay, who was the country’s most respected statesman despite having been defeated in all three of his campaigns for the presidency. A superb orator, Clay was fearless in expressing his convictions. On Jan. 29, 1850, Clay introduced into the Senate a series of resolutions that promised “an amicable arrangement of all questions between the free and slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery.” Privately, Clay was pessimistic about prospects for compromise: “Here is our country upon the very verge of a civil war, which everyone pretends to be anxious to avoid, yet everyone wants his own way.”
The historic debates of 1850 would take place in the country’s still-unfinished Capitol. In Mr. Bordewich’s words, “Although a fence surrounded the building, it was there to keep out cows, not people.” Curious citizens had the run of the premises. They wandered onto the floors of the two houses, where they felt free to chat with their elected representatives.
As a group, the 62 senators who made up the 31st Congress were a motley crew. Unlike the Founding Fathers, they were largely self-taught. “In 1850,” Mr. Bordewich writes, “senators and congressmen who more often than not lacked college educations spoke from the barest of notes (or none at all) for hours on end in speeches that were peppered with allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, American history, British common law, and classical literature. The poll-tested, spin-doctored, shoddily argued, and grammatically challenged ‘messaging’ that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison.”
As winter turned into spring, the Senate rejected Clay’s proposal for a single bill embodying his proposals in favor of a series of bills. Hope remained for a compromise that would establish new boundaries for Texas, create new territories based on popular sovereignty for New Mexico and Utah, admit California as a free state, abolish the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and significantly strengthen a fugitive slave law that required Northerners to assist in tracking down escaped slaves.
The fate of those bills remained in doubt, however, because of uncertainty regarding the White House’s position. President Zachary Taylor, though himself a slaveholder, opposed any extension of slavery into the new territories. Taylor died in office in July 1850, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, favored the compromise measures.
The five bills that made up the great compromise were passed in September and signed into law by President Fillmore. But was the compromise a major political achievement? On one hand, it papered over the threat of secession and, in so doing, delayed the Civil War by more than a decade. On the other hand, the fugitive slave law infuriated the North, and the slavery issue continued to inflame opinion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Talk of secession was only slightly muted.
The debate both made and destroyed careers. New York’s William Seward, who spoke of a “higher law” than the Constitution, became an acknowledged leader of the anti-slavery forces. By supporting the compromise, Fillmore damaged his chances for election in his own right. The most conspicuous casualty was Daniel Webster, whose support for the compromise brought a storm of abuse from the New England intelligentsia.
The men of the 31st Congress were hardly saints. They drank, fought and spit tobacco juice on the Capitol carpets. But they were statesmanlike enough to modify strongly held opinions in order to preserve the Union.
Mr. Bordewich has provided an insightful, well-researched study of an important period in American history.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).