What was the 1850 Compromise and Why did it Fail?

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Laura Curnock


What was the 1850 Compromise and Why did it Fail?

In 1850, Henry Clay one of the most influential political leaders in American history introduced a set of resolutions, which aimed to please both North and South America.  The five proposals were rolled into a single ‘omnibus’ bill, which offered a solution to the growing sectional conflict over slavery and westward expansion, which arose from the 1846 Mexican War.  The 1850 Compromise, which Senator Douglas stripped down and effectively helped pass, failed for a number of reasons, the greatest of which was that it was unable to please both anti-slave and pro-slave groups.  In fact it merely ‘papered over the crack’, and did not prove, as Daniel Webster a Clay supporter had hoped, ‘a finality that would give peace to a country long distracted by the quarrel over slavery’.  Why did the Compromise ultimately fail, and lead to polarization, featuring a party, which had begun to establish itself in the 1820s.

The conflict between the North and South stemmed back to 1846, when the U.S.A won a huge area of Mexican territory as the result of what became known as the Mexican War.  The land acquired revived controversy over the extension of slavery, as many Northerners wanted the new territory to become a free state with no slavery, and many Southerners wanted slavery to expand.  Numerous compromises were conceded, to try to resolve the sectional conflict, for example the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 attempted to exclude slavery from any territory gained as a result of the war.  The Calhoun Doctrine issued in 1847, and known as ‘The Platform of the South’, asserted that the territories were common property of all the states.  However the argument of whether slavery should be allowed to expand, still continued and even threatened to tear the union apart, therefore a compromise of some sort seemed essential.

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To resolve the sectional strife throughout America, Henry Clay offered a set of resolutions, which collectively was known as the ‘omnibus’ bill, and was designed to gratify both pro-slave and anti-slave groups.  This compromise said that California was to be admitted into the union as a free state; that New Mexico and Utah were to be organised into territories, allowing popular sovereignty; and as a sop to win over both sides, the Fugitive Slave Act which already existed was to be made more stringent, and slave-trading but not slavery was to end in the District of Columbia.  

        Clay made ...

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