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Regional Conflict and Compromise

Slavery and the Constitution
The Missouri Compromise
Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Dred Scott Decision

Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act


While the agreement incorporated in The Missouri Compromise of 1820 maintained the balance of slave and pro-slave states in the territories added to the Union in The Louisiana Purchase, the issue over slavery's extension into new territories came up again following the Mexican War. In December 1845, the U.S. Congress voted to annex the Texas Republic, and troops led by General Zachary Taylor were sent to the

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor, Commander in Mexican War, 1845-1846, later President of the United States. Image Source: Library of Congress
Rio Grande to protect the Texas border with Mexico. After clashes broke out between Mexican troops and Taylor's soldiers, Congress approved on May 13, 1846 the request of President James K. Polk for a declaration of war against Mexico. Two years of fighting culminated with the U.S. capture of Mexico City in 1847. The War was formally concluded with the signing of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, in which Mexico surrendered over half its territory, comprising present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah in exchange for fifteen million dollars to pay for war-related damage to Mexican property.  


Prior to the signing of the Treaty, the issue of whether the new territory obtained from Mexico would be slave or free was raised by the Wilmot Proviso, an amendment introduced by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot to an appropriations bill that provided funds to negotiate a settlement to end the War. The amendment stipulated that slavery would be barred from all lands acquired from Mexico as a result of the war. The Wilmot Proviso split both Whigs and Democrats in the Congress along sectional lines. Over the four years from 1846 to 1850, Wilmot would introduce versions of his original proviso that often passed the House, where Northerners were in the majority, but would fail in the Senate, where the North and South still had an equal number of seats. By 1850, 14 of 15 northern state legislatures had instructed their state Congressional delegations to support the Proviso, while growing numbers of Southerners asserted that their states would secede if it ever was enacted.

Mexico City capture
Bulletin dated September 26, 1847 announcing news of capture of Mexico City. Image Source: Library of Congress

The discovery of gold in California also precipitated a confrontation when the rapid increase in population led to California petitioning for admission to the Union as a free state in 1849. President Zachary Taylor supported admission of California as a free state, and also believed that the New Mexico territory, when it applied, should also enter as a free state. In the Senate, William H. Seward of New York led the abolitionist cause; the South was most prominently represented by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who had long advanced the position that the states had the right to nullify federal laws, and Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, later to become president of the Confederacy. The Southern congressmen argued that the South should be given guarantees of equal position in the territories and of stricter enforcement of fugitive slave laws, which had been frequently ignored by both public officials and citizens in free states.

Henry Clay, who had resigned from the Senate in 1842, returned in 1849 at the age of 72, and again was the key source for compromise that averted the dissolution of the Union. His package of measures, later known as The Compromise of 1850, proposed the admission of California as a free state; the organization of New Mexico and Utah territories without mention of slavery, with their status to be later decided by the territories themselves when they were ready to seek admission as states; the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia; and the strengthening of penalties on those violating the fugitive slave laws. The deferral of the decision on the status of New Mexico and Utah, later to be labeled as "popular sovereignty", was initiated by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who hoped that the package would maintain not only the Union, but also the fragile coalition of Northern and Southern Democrats which he sought to keep together for his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1852.

  Henry Clay Daniel Webster John Calhoun
  Photographs taken by Matthew Brady of (from left) Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.

Images Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The debate over the Clay legislative package inspired some of the most famous speeches in the history of the Congress. John C. Calhoun, who was too weak to deliver his 42-page speech and would die at the end of the month, sat as Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia read to the Senate the printed version Calhoun had prepared. Calhoun's speech argued against further conciliation and compromise, suggesting that if the North refused to recognize the South's concerns over the preservation of slavery, it was time to allow the Union to divide peacefully into two separate nations.Three days later, Daniel Webster rose to support Clay in a ringing defense of the Union.

Mr. President, - I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. It is fortunate that there is a Senate of the United States; a body not yet moved from its propriety, not lost to a just sense of its own dignity and its own high responsibilities, and a body to which the country looks, with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels. It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions and government. The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and disclose its profoundest depths. I do not affect to regard myself, Mr. President, as holding, or as fit to hold, the helm in this combat with the political elements; but I have a duty to perform, and I mean to perform it with fidelity, not without a sense of existing dangers, but not without hope. I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of all; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear, or shall not appear for many days. I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause." I speak to-day, out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich, and so dear to us all. These are the topics that I propose to myself to discuss; these are the motives, and the sole motives, that influence me in the wish to communicate my opinions to the Senate and the country; and if I can do any thing, however little, for the promotion of these ends, I shall have accomplished all that I expect...

Excerpts from Senate Speech of Daniel Webster, March 7, 1850

Source: Department of History, Furman University

Clay's endorsement of the compromise helped gain the votes of Northern senators, several of whom had opposed the provisions of Clay's package calling for more rigorous enforcement of the fugitive slave law. After further long debates and an initial failure to pass the compromise incorporated in a single bill, Congress approved the measures as separate bills in September 1850.

Despite the brief period of optimism following the enactment of the compromise, the issue of the status of slavery in the territories soon re-emerged when Congress came to consider in 1854 the long-deferred admission of the Kansas territory to the Union. Under the Missouri Compromise, the territory's location would provide for its admission as a free state, but this was vigorously opposed by Southerners. Stephen Douglas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories who had advanced the concept of "popular sovereignty" in the Compromise of 1850, drafted legislation that again contained the provision that the question of slavery should be left to the decision of the territorial settlers themselves, and also split the single Kansas territory into the two proposed states of Kansas and Nebraska. The assumption was that the Kansas settlers would choose to enter as a slave state and those in Nebraska as a free state. The measure repealed the provisions of the Missouri Compromise which would have prohibited slavery in both territories. After a three-month debate, the Congress approved the Douglas bill as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

The Act, however, led to the violent period that came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas" as pro and anti-slavery forces attempted to increase the number of settlers and potential voters within the territory sharing their respective positions. The New England Emigrant Aid Company, backed by prominent abolitionists, sought to raise capital to encourage 20,000 settlers to move to Kansas by securing reduced railway and steamboat fares and by organizing them into parties that would establish new communities. Pro-slavery proponents, many who crossed the border from Missouri to cast illegal ballots in Kansas, succeeded in electing a pro-slavery majority to the territorial legislature in 1855. Contending that the election was invalid, anti-slavery forces established their own competing legislature. The tensions between extremists on each side led to violent clashes. In May 1856, proslavery men entered the newly-established town of Lawrence, burned the Free State Hotel and damaged homes and stores. In retaliation, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of men, which included four of Brown's sons, that dragged five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death. Eventually, the clashes would result in the killing of some 55 people. In 1859, the violence had subsided, and Kansas adopted a constititution prohibiting slavery, but its admission to the Union as a free state was blocked by Southerners in the Congress. After the Southern states had left the Union, Kansas entered the Union in 1861.

The Dred Scott Decision

The confrontations over slavery illustrated by the violence in Kansas were exacerbated as a result of the Supreme Court's decision announced on March 6, 1857 in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, 19 How. 393. Scott was a slave who had been taken by his master from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and to Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, he sued, aided by abolitionist lawyers, for his freedom on the grounds that by residing in a free state and in a free territory he had been released from bondage.

Dred Scott

Photograph of Dred Scott Image Source: National Park Service

Delivering the opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney held that a slave's status was fixed by the laws of the state in which he lived, and that Scott, as a slave, could not be a citizen and therefore could not sue in the federal courts. The opinion went on, however, to state that since slaves were only property, their status could only be regulated by state law, and that it was beyond the Constitutional authority of the Congress to exclude them from any territory. Even though The Missouri Compromise already had been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Court continued to express the view that the Missouri Compromise was "not warranted by the Constitution, and [was] therefore void." This decision, which prohibited Congress from enforcing the regional compromises that had kept the fragile truce between North and South, greatly angered antislavery elements.

The decision was delivered just two days after the inauguration as president of James Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who had carefully attempted to satisfy both North and South in the composition of his Cabinet. The furore also frustrated his hopes that the Court's decision would be widely accepted as a final resolution of the question of slavery in the territories; in his Inaugural Address, he confidently asserted that the issue was "happily, a matter of but little practical importance" since the Supreme Court was about to decide it "speedily and finally" and that "[t]o their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be...".

The whole Territorial question being thus settled upon the principle of popular sovereignty--a principle as ancient as free government itself--everything of a practical nature has been decided. No other question remains for adjustment, because all agree that under the Constitution slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human power except that of the respective States themselves wherein it exists. May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end, and that the geographical parties to which it has given birth, so much dreaded by the Father of his Country, will speedily become extinct? Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance.

Excerpt from Inaugural Address of President James Buchanan, March 4, 1857

Source: The Avalon Project, Yale Law School

Following the decision, Buchanan requested that Congress admit Kansas as a slave state, but this provoked opposition from northern Democrats as well as from the new and growing Republican Party. When Republicans won a plurality in the House in 1858, every significant bill they passed was rejected as a result of the southern voting strength in the Senate or a Presidential veto. As the nation faced the critical election of 1860, the Congress essentially had reached a stalemate.


The African-American Mosaic, Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture >>Library of Congress

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection >>Library of Congress

The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition >> Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University

Africans in America >>

John Brown's Holy War >>

Slavery and Abolition, Social Movemnets and Culture, American Studies Program, Washington State University

The Dred Scott Case >>Washngton University Libraries

The Dred Scott Decision >>National Park Service

Educational Tools

Teacher's Guide: Africans in America >>

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo >> National Archives & Records Administration