Compromise of 1850

Henry Clay's handwritten draft of one of the bills that formed the Compromise of 1850
Henry Clay's handwritten draft of one of the bills that formed the Compromise of 1850

Historical Context

The American Civil War devastated much of the country between 1861 and 1865, but the conflict could have actually happened much sooner. In 1850, a major dispute between slave states and free states arose regarding the status of lands acquired after the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Many Southern states wanted to expand slavery into these new territories, which was opposed by the Northerners. These disputes, and others relating to the territorial expansion of the state of Texas. In early 1850, senator Henry Clay drafted a compromise that included the admission of California as a free state, the cession by Texas of some of its northern and western territorial claims in return for debt relief, the establishment of New Mexico and Utah territories, a ban on the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia for sale, and a more stringent fugitive slave law.

The compromise initially failed to gain wide support, but after President Zachary Taylor died, his successor Millard Fillmore and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas took the lead in passing Clay's compromise through the Congress as a series of five bills. The tensions were diffused, and the risk of conflict in the immediate term ended, but the debate over slavery did not end. Many years of controversy and debate eventually led to the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War in 1861.

Document Info


Author(s): Henry Clay
Location signed: USA

Source: National Archives

Related Events

  • 1850-01-29 Senator Henry Clay drafts the Compromise of 1850 to defuse tensions between slave states and free states over territories won during the Mexican–American War
  • 1850-03-07 Daniel Webster endorses Compromise of 1850
  • 1850-09-18 US Congress passes Fugitive Slave Law as part of Compromise of 1850

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