The New International Encyclopædia/Compromise Measures of 1850

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COMPROMISE MEASURES OF 1850, or Omnibus Bill. A name popularly given to a series of measures passed by the United States Congress in 1850, directed to a general settlement of certain questions arising out of the struggle over slavery. The affirmance of American rights in the Oregon territory, by the Treaty of 1846 with England, and the acquisition of still larger territories from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (q.v), made urgent the problem of providing suitable governments for this territory, and at the same time made acute the controversy between North and South over the securing of acceptable provisions concerning slavery in the statutes organizing such governments. One phase of this controversy ended with President Polk's approval, August 14, 1848, of a bill providing for the erection of territorial government in Oregon with a prohibition against slavery. With reference to the territory acquired from Mexico, the problem was complicated by the fact that Mexico had abolished slavery in her dominions, by the question whether the line of the Missouri Compromise (q.v.) extended to the Pacific, and also by the question whether Congress might admit into the Union a State which had not passed through the Territorial stage of organization. The necessity of an early decision was emphasized by the sudden peopling of much of this territory, incident to the discovery of gold. Under such circumstances Henry Clay offered in the Senate, on January 29, 1850, a general scheme of adjustment, which provided: that California should be admitted as a State with no restriction as to slavery; that Territorial governments should be created in the other portions of the Mexican cession without reference to slavery; that trading within the District of Columbia in slaves brought there for purpose of sale should be forbidden; that there should be a more stringent fugitive-slave law; and that Texas should release all claims on New Mexico in return for the assumption by the National Government of the old Texan debt. These proposals were attacked both by the Southern friends of slavery and by the more extreme anti-slavery element at the North. After several weeks of heated debate, including the last speech of Mr. Calhoun (q.v.) and the famous Seventh of March speech of Mr. Webster (q.v.), the whole matter was referred to a committee of thirteen, from which committee, on May 8, Mr. Clay reported three bills. The first provided, in addition to details as to the debt and boundary of Texas, for the admission of California with its anti-slavery Constitution, and for the Territorial organization of Utah and New Mexico in such form that slavery should be allowed in those Territories. The second bill provided for a modified fugitive-slave law. The third bill provided for the abolition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia. Three months even then were occupied with animated and protracted discussions, with the result that the whole scheme of compromise seemed to have proved a failure. Mr. Fillmore, however, having succeeded to the Presidency upon the death in July of President Taylor, adopted a policy more favorable than had his predecessor to the measures proposed, with the result that practically the whole of Clay's plan eventually became law, although divided into several statutes. The Senate passed the bill for the organization of Utah on August 1, that concerning Texas on August 9, that for the admission of California on August 13, that concerning New Mexico on August 15, the new fugitive-slave law on August 26, and, finally, the law prohibiting the slave-trade in the District of Columbia on September 16. Before the end of September, all these bills had passed the House and had been signed by the President. The arrangement thus effected was accepted by both parties in the campaign of 1852, in the ‘finality’ planks of their platforms, and the slavery question was generally regarded as settled. The quiet was broken abruptly, however, and the whole controversy renewed with increased bitterness when Stephen A. Douglas (q.v.) introduced his bill for the organization, in 1854, of Kansas and Nebraska, and thus precipitated the battle anew both on the fields of Kansas and in the halls of Congress.

In the first volume of Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (new ed. New York, 1901), a careful review is given of all the circumstances connected with this famous compromise, including sketches of the chief participants in the debates. A shorter review of the situation is given in the fifth volume of Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution (Washington, 1889). The lives of statesmen of the period should also be consulted. See Slavery.