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What is the Compromise of 1850?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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The Compromise of 1850 was legislation passed by the United States Congress that established the parameters to facilitate and limit the expansion of slavery to newly-acquired territories. Passed on 4 September 1850, the laws came in the form of five different bills signed by President Millard Fillmore. The Compromise of 1850 was central to the debate between representatives of Southern slave states and Northern free states. When the US expanded in the late 1840s with the annexation of Texas and the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War, the federal government found itself entrenched in a national debate over where slavery would exist.

Although the concept of slavery had traditionally been left out of the national dialogue in Congress, various legislative actions addressed expansionism of the practice earlier in the century. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel in the Louisiana Territory with the exception of Missouri, which was allowed the practice. Just prior to the passage of the Compromise of 1850, another piece of legislation, the Wilmot Proviso, attempted to ban slavery from territory west of Missouri. This bill failed numerous attempts at passage in the Senate.

According to the details in the Compromise of 1850, territorial lines were drawn for the new lands and the decision over slavery in the West was established. Texas was split up, creating the New Mexico territory, but in return, it received federal debt relief and lands in the Texas Panhandle and El Paso. California would remain free, while New Mexico and Utah could vote to allow slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, a law that allowed the recovery of escaped slaves in the North, was emboldened, making it a crime to not arrest fugitive slaves. In addition, slavery was retained in the nation's capitol, although the slave trade was banned.

The Compromise of 1850 was central to stabilizing relations between the North and South. Many historians believe the American Civil War may have started a decade earlier had an agreement not been reached. This legislation kept the peace for the next four years until the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, which contemporaries viewed as further concession to slave states. While the Compromise of 1850 staved off conflict for a few years, the laws failed to address the root problems with slavery, in that it was viewed by many in the North as unconstitutional and morally wrong.

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