Accessibility links

Breaking News

1850 Compromise on Slavery Aims to Save Union

Henry Clay proposed a compromise over the issue of slavery in the United States in 1850
Henry Clay proposed a compromise over the issue of slavery in the United States in 1850
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:14:02 0:00
Direct link

From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English. I’m Steve Ember.

The United States faced a deep national crisis in 1850. That crisis threatened to split the nation in two.

It began over the issue of slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Many northerners wanted to ban slavery in the new territories. But southern states believed the federal government did not have the right to decide where slavery could or could not go.

President Zachary Taylor had no clear policy on the issue. He attempted to be neutral. He hoped the problem would solve itself. But he did not get his wish.

Split Over Slavery Widens

In fact, the split between North and South grew wider. Many southerners said the South should declare its independence from the rest of the country. Then, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky stepped forward with a plan to save the Union.

Clay had left the Senate in 1842, but returned in 1849. He was surprised to find how bitter the North and South had grown toward each other in his seven years out of the Senate. Clay urged his friends in the “border states” -- those between the northern and southern states -- to work to build public support for the Union. He believed their support 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. 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 in 1850, 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 Proposes Compromises to Save Union

Clay proposed to the Senate that California join the Union as a slave-free state. He said territorial governments should be formed in other parts of the western territories, with no immediate decision on whether slavery would be permitted.

Clay proposed the western border of Texas be changed to give New Mexico most of the land disputed by them. In exchange, 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 he also said 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.

And, he proposed that Congress declare 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 southern states would accept nothing less than extending the Missouri Compromise line west to the Pacific Ocean. Extending the line meant that land to the south 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 Urges Careful Study, Not Debate

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."

Senator 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 -- it would still be a very large state after losing the area it and New Mexico each claimed. 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 country did not do so only for themselves, but for all future Americans.

Clay warned that if the South seceded, there would be war within 60 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.

These events, 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. His two-day speech gave new hope to many that the Union could be saved. But extremists on both sides opposed his plan. The continuing dispute will be our story next week.

I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.

1850 Compromise on Slavery Aims to Save Union

1850 Compromise on Slavery Aims to Save Union

Start the Quiz to find out