to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
United States faced a deep national crisis in eighteen fifty. That crisis
threatened to split the nation in two. It began over the issue of slavery in
the new territories of California and Mexico. President Zachary Taylor had no
clear policy on the issue. He tried to be neutral. He hoped the problem would
solve itself. But he did not get his wish.
split between the North and South only got wider. There was a real danger that
the South would declare its independence. Then, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky
stepped forward to save the Union.
This week in our series, Stuart Spencer and
Jack Moyles begin the story of the Compromise of Eighteen Fifty.
After being away from the Senate for almost
eight years, Clay was surprised to find how bitter the two sections of the
United States -- north and south -- had grown toward each other. Clay urged his
friends in the border states between North and South to try to build public
support for the Union. He felt this would help prevent the South from seceding.
Clay also began to think about a compromise
that might settle the differences between the two sections of the country.
Clay was a firm believer in the idea of
compromise. He once said: "I go for honorable compromise whenever it can
be made. Life itself is but a compromise between death and life. The struggle
continues through our whole existence until the great destroyer finally wins.
All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of
mutual concession, politeness, and courtesy. Upon these, everything is
Clay was sure that a compromise between North
and South was possible. Near the end of January, Clay completed work on his
plan. Most parts of it already had been proposed as separate bills. Clay put
them together in a way that both sides could accept.
Clay offered his plan in a Senate speech on
January twenty-ninth, eighteen fifty. Clay proposed that California join the Union
as a free state. He said territorial governments should be formed in the other parts
of the western territories, with no immediate decision on whether slavery would
Clay proposed that the western border of
Texas be changed to give New Mexico most of the land disputed by them. In
exchange for this, he said, the national government should agree to pay the
public debts that Texas had when it became a state.
He proposed that no more slaves be sold in
the District of Columbia for use outside the federal district, but also
proposed that slavery should not be ended in the district unless its citizens
and those of Maryland approved. Clay said a better law was needed for the
return of fugitive slaves to their owners.
He also proposed that Congress declare that
it had no power to interfere with the slave trade between states. Senator Clay
believed these eight steps would satisfy the interests of both the North and
Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi
declared that Clay's compromises did not offer anything of value to the South.
He said the South would accept nothing less than extending the Missouri
compromise line west to the Pacific Ocean. This meant that land south of the
line would be open to slavery.
Clay answered that no power on earth could
force him to vote to establish slavery where it did not exist. He said
Americans had blamed Britain for forcing African slavery on the colonists. He
said he would not have the future citizens of California and New Mexico blaming
Henry Clay for slavery there.
Clay said he did not want to debate, but
wished that the senators would think carefully about his proposals. He said he
hoped they would decide on them only after careful study. He asked them to see
the proposals as a system of compromise, not as separate bills. Clay expected
extremists on both sides to denounce the compromise. But he believed the more
reasonable leaders of the North and South would accept it.
One week after Clay first proposed the
compromise, he rose in the Senate to speak in its defense. The Senate hall was
crowded. People had come from as far away as Boston and New York to hear Clay
speak. Some senators said there had not been such a crowd in the capitol
building since the day Clay said goodbye to the Senate eight years earlier.
Clay had to rest several times as he climbed
the steps of the capitol. He told a friend that he felt very tired and weak.
His friend advised Clay to rest and make his speech later. "No," Clay
said. "My country is in danger. If I can be the one to save it from that
danger, then my health and life are not important."
Clay began his speech by talking of the
serious crisis that faced the nation. He said that never before had he spoken
to a group as troubled and worried as the one he spoke to now. Clay listed his
eight resolutions. Then he said: "No man on earth is more ready than I am
to surrender anything which I have proposed and to accept in its place anything
that is better. But I ask the honorable senators whether their duty will be
done by simply limiting themselves to opposing any one or all of the
resolutions I have offered."
"If my plan of peace and unity is not
right, give us your plan. Let us see how all the questions that have arisen out
of this unhappy subject of slavery can be better settled more fairly and justly
than the plan I have offered. Present me with such a plan, and I will praise it
with pleasure and accept it without the slightest feeling of regret."
Clay said the major differences separating
the country could be settled by facing facts. He said the first great fact was
that laws were not necessary to keep slavery out of California and New Mexico.
He said the people of California already had approved an anti-slavery state
constitution. And he said the nature of land in New Mexico was such that slaves
could not be used.
Clay said there was justice in the borders
he proposed for Texas, that it would still be a very large state after losing
the area it disputed with New Mexico. And he said it was right for the United
States to pay the debts of Texas, because that state no longer could collect
taxes on trade as an independent country.
Clay said there was equal justice in his
resolutions ending the slave trade in the District of Columbia and
strengthening laws on the return of runaway slaves. He said the South, perhaps,
would be helped more than the North by his proposals. But the North, he said,
was richer and had more money and power.
To the North, slavery was a matter of
feeling. But to the South, Clay said, it was a hard social and economic fact.
He said the North could look on in safety while the actions of some of its
people were producing flames of bitterness throughout the southern states.
Then Clay attacked the South's claim that
it had the right to leave the Union. He said the Union of states was permanent
-- that the men who built the Union did not do so only for themselves, but for
all future Americans.
Clay warned that if the South seceded,
there would be war within sixty days. He said the slaves of the South would
escape by the thousands to freedom in the North. Their owners would follow them
and try to return them to slavery by force. This, he said, would lead to war
between the slave-holding and free states. He said this would not be a war of
only two or three years. History had shown, he said, that such wars lasted many
years and often destroyed both sides.
Even if the south could secede without war,
he said, it still would not get any of the things it demanded. Secession would
not open the territories to slavery. It would not continue the slave trade in
the District of Columbia. And it would not lead to the return of slaves who
escaped to the North.
So, said Clay, the South would not help
itself by leaving the Union. Clay's two-day speech gave new hope to many that
the Union could be saved.
Senator Henry Clay's compromise seemed to
be a way to settle the dispute. But extremists on both sides opposed it. That
will be our story next week.
Our program was
written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Stuart Spencer and Jack Moyles. Transcripts,
MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be found, along with historical images,
at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION --
an American history series in VOA Special English.
is program #76 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION