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American History Series: Plan in 1850 on Slavery Aims to Save Union

''Life itself is but a compromise between death and life,'' said Henry Clay, the Kentucky senator who offered a way to keep the states together. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to the MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

The 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.

The 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 based."

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 be permitted.

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 the South.



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 Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #76 of THE MAKING OF A NATION