Compromise of 1850


According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, the Compromise of 1850 comprised a related series of statutes enacted by Congress in an attempt to settle sectional disputes related to slavery that had flared since 1846, with the outbreak of the Mexican War and the introduction of the wilmot proviso.

Serie of Bills

The Compromise was actually a series of bills passed mainly to address issues related to slavery. The bills provided for slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty in the admission of new states, prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia, settled a Texas boundary dispute, and established a stricter fugitive slave act. This featured document is Henry Clay’s handwritten draft.

By 1850 sectional disagreements centering on slavery were straining the bonds of union between the North and South. These tensions became especially acute when Congress began to consider whether western lands acquired after the Mexican War would permit slavery. In 1849 California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state. Adding more free state senators to Congress would destroy the balance between slave and free states that had existed since the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Because everyone looked to the Senate to defuse the growing crisis, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed a series of resolutions designed to “Adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy . . . arising out of the institution of slavery.” Clay attempted to frame his compromise so that nationally minded senators would vote for legislation in the interest of the Union.

In one of the most famous congressional debates in American history, the Senate discussed Clay’s solution for 7 months. It initially voted down his legislative package, but Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois stepped forward with substitute bills, which passed both Houses. With the Compromise of 1850, Congress had addressed the immediate crisis created by territorial expansion. But one aspect of the compromise-a strengthened fugitive slave act-soon began to tear at sectional peace.

The Compromise of 1850 is composed of five statues enacted in September of 1850. The acts called for the admission of California as a “free state,” provided for a territorial government for Utah and New Mexico, established a boundary between Texas and the United States, called for the abolition of slave trade in Washington, DC, and amended the Fugitive Slave Act.

The document presented here is Henry Clay’s handwritten copy of the original Resolutions, which were not passed. The transcription includes Clay’s Resolution and the five statutes approved by Congress. (1)

For more information, visit the National Archives’ Treasures of Congress Online Exhibit.

Compromise of 1850 (1850) is one of the 100 Most U.S. Influential Documents

Remedy in the United States

An increasingly popular “quick-fix” remedy to solving the issue of slavery was being discussed as 1850 began. The idea was to create new states from the territories acquired in 1846 and 1848 as soon as possible. States hoped to rely upon the U.S.Constitution X Amendment, which allowed the state the right to decide for themselves any issue not expressly prohibited by the federal government. Slavery was not mentioned in the Constitution at all.

Another “loop-hole” pro-slavery advocates hoped to have in their favor was the proviso of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which stated that all land above latitude 36o; 30′ N was to be forever free territory. Federal Courts were in the process of evaluating that provision; they eventually would decide that proviso only applied to the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. That meant that slavery could legally exist north of the 36 o;30′ line the Oregon and Mexican Cession Territories.

Many leading politicians of the day, including President Zachary Taylor, firmly believed the soon-to-be-created states should decide for themselves whether to be free or slave states. He publicly supported the move to add the new State of California as a free state in December 1849, based on his correspondence with the territorial governor. Southern leaders in Congress had to respond quickly.

On January 29, 1850, seventy-three year old Henry Clay presented to the U.S. Senate his proposal. Clay had cleverly combined many separate issues and pending bills into one major piece of legislation designed to help the south while letting the north feel as though they were getting something in return. Clay’s compromise proposed:

  1. Admitting California as a free state.
  2. Organizing the Mexican Cession Territory without any restriction as to slavery (the Utah and New Mexico territories).
  3. Denying the Texas claim to extend its boundary to where the Rio Grande River begins.
  4. Compensating Texas for #3 (above) by having the federal government assume the $10 million Texas state debt.
  5. Ending the practice of requiring all traded/sold slaves to pass through the District of Columbia but,
  6. Keeping slavery legal in D.C. even though it is not a state.
  7. Rewriting the Fugitive Slave Act, placing it under the jurisdiction of Federal U.S. Marshals.
  8. Denying Congress any future authority to regulate slavery (no more Missouri Compromise-type 36o; 30′ provisions).

The North supported the first four points; the south was in favor of the last four. Yet each side thought the other side was gaining too much. By April 1850, this Omnibus Bill was in the hands of a select Senate Committee. They cleaned it up enough to have both northern and southern approval and expected to send it to President Taylor for the July 4th Holiday. Taylor suddenly fell ill and died on July 9th without signing the Bill into law.

Taylor’s successor, Milliard Fillmore, did not like the Bill and threatened to veto it. Clay was too ill to continue working and his rival, J.C. Calhoun, had died that spring. New and younger members of Congress whittled Clay’s 8 points down to 5 points they felt Fillmore would support.

Here is what they wrote: The Compromise of 1850:

  1. Admitted California as a free state.
  2. Created New Mexico & Utah Territories; they could decide for themselves to be free or slave states.
  3. Revoked the Texas border claim to the source of the Rio Grande River.
  4. Added Texas’ $10 million debt to the Federal debt.
  5. Gave U.S. Marshals authority to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anywhere in the U.S. and ended the D.C. detour when selling/trading slaves.

Both northern abolitionists and anti-slavery opponents alike were upset by the final point. They felt that it gave the impression that the U.S. federal government endorsed the issue of slavery . But if they had rejected this point, they might possibly have lost California and its free state status. They could always ignore the Fugitive Slave Act; ignoring the admission of California as a slave state would have been more difficult to do. (2)

Introduction to COMPROMISE OF 1850: (1850)

In the context of the legal history: With Texas joining the Union and new territory added by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican War the issue over slavery rose again. The antislavery people favored the Wilmot Proviso, this, of course was rejected by the southern states. Other concerns involved the 1849 California petition to be added as a free state and the Fugitive Slave Law. Some feared that these troubles might even precipitate secession by some southern states. It was suggested that California be added as a free state, New Mexico and Utah be organized as territories with no mention of slavery, but to be determined later by the territories themselves, the government would pay $10 million to cover the debt of Texas, the slave trade would be prohibited in the District of Columbia, and there was to be a stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.


In the context of the legal history:

See Also

  • International Treaties
  • Multilateral Treaties



  1. Source: The People’s Vote, National Archives of the United States.
  2. Source: Stephen R. Demkin

Further Reading

  • Blum, John M., The National Experience: Part I, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, Seventh Edition, 1989.
  • Tindall, George B., America: A Narrative History (Volume I), New York, W.W. Norton and Company, Second Edition, 1988.

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