By Allen Guelzo, Princeton University
On January 29, 1850, Henry Clay laid before the Senate a comprehensive scheme of eight resolutions that offered to settle the territorial dispute in the Mexican Cession in practical little pieces, rather than by sweeping formulas like “common property” or “popular sovereignty”.
The Case of California
What Clay proposed was: Congress would proceed to admit California as a free state. And why not? The California Constitutional Convention had already adopted free state provisions for its Constitution, and there was nothing to be gained by recalcitrant southerners trying to force the Californians to change their minds.
In order to show that free-state California established no precedent for the other territories to be carved out of the Mexican Cession, New Mexico and a separate Mexican Cession territory of Deseret—or, as we know it today, Utah—would be allowed to organize themselves as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty.
Now that, of course, left open the possibility that these territories might become slave state, or they might become free, but the possibility was always there, depending on what the people in those territories wanted.
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New Fugitive Slave Law
To sweeten the loss of the common property principle for southerners, Clay added to this a provision for a new Fugitive Slave Law. Originally, Congress had adopted a Fugitive Slave Law back in the 1790s, but now Clay was proposing an updated and improved version of the Fugitive Slave Law that would give slaveholders new powers to stop up the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states.
Then, he offered a resolution that denied that Congress had any authority to regulate or to interfere in the interstate slave trade.
Failure of Clay’s Proposal
Clay’s two-day presentation of this compromise package was a rhetorical masterpiece, but he fell considerably short of winning the votes he needed for it. The partisans of slavery in the Senate regarded the concession of California as a free state as tantamount to accepting the principle, if not the fact, of the Wilmot Proviso, while northern free-soilers regarded the popular sovereignty allowance for New Mexico and Utah as little more than surrendering these territories outright to slavery.
Clay also committed a major tactical error by insisting that all of the resolutions in this compromise package be voted upon together as one omnibus bill, without recognizing that, while all of the senators would like some of the resolutions, only some of the senators would like all of the resolutions, and some was not enough to carry the day.
John C. Calhoun’s Severe Attack
In particular, Clay’s comprehensive scheme for compromise did not satisfy John C. Calhoun.
On March 4, 1850, because his own health was in a terrible state, Calhoun had another senator, John Mason of Virginia, read a lengthy and shrewd attack on Clay’s plan, calling again for an equal right in the acquired territory, to cease the agitation of the slave question and to provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution by an amendment that would restore to the South—in substance—the power she possessed of protecting herself before the equilibrium between the sections was destroyed by the action of this government.
For Calhoun, New Mexico, Utah, and any other parts of the Mexican Cession required not just the opportunity to become slave states, but the obligation to become slave states if southerners decided to take their slave property into those states. Southerners could not be barred from doing so without being made to feel like second-class citizens. “If the Senate refused to hear this plea,” threatened Calhoun, “then the southern states cannot remain as things now are consistently with safety and honor in the Union.”
Daniel Webster’s Support
Three days later, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts took the floor of the Senate to deliver what many anticipated would be an equally scathing critique of Clay’s omnibus, this time from a New England antislavery position.
To the amazement of the packed Senate galleries, however, and to the howls of indignation from antislavery northerners, Webster rose “to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a northern man, but an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.”
From there, Webster’s great oratory rolled on for three hours, denouncing disunion, and calling for the adoption of Clay’s compromise as the only way of saving the Union. Webster paid dearly in Massachusetts for befriending Clay, with muttered hints that Webster was a traitor and, perhaps even more so, mad. However, Clay and Webster were acting to save a Union that they could easily see was headed for the breakers, a Union that John Calhoun was only too ready to see them hit.
When the Senate Committee on Territories finally reported out Clay’s compromise resolutions as a single bill, its component pieces were hacked out by amendments and counter-proposals.
On July 31, 1850, all but the provisions for the territorial organization of Utah had crashed to defeat. An enfeebled Henry Clay left the Senate, his political career effectively over, and sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him in less than two years. Daniel Webster returned to Massachusetts to be vilified by the antislavery press as a fallen angel, and he would follow Clay to the grave by four months.
Common Questions about Henry Clay and the Compromise of 1850
Henry Clay proposed an updated and improved version of the Fugitive Slave Law that would give slaveholders new powers to stop up the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states.
Henry Clay committed a major tactical error by insisting that all of the resolutions in this compromise package be voted upon together as one omnibus bill, without recognizing that, while all of the senators would like some of the resolutions, only some of the senators would like all of the resolutions
Daniel Webster joined Clay in denouncing disunion, and calling for the adoption of Clay’s compromise as the only way of saving the Union.