President Fillmore and the Compromise of 1850

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  • 0:06 The Mexican Cession:…
  • 0:59 Politicians Divide
  • 2:12 More Problems Over Slavery
  • 3:35 The Compromise of 1850
  • 5:14 The Fugitive Slave Act
  • 6:10 Peace At Last?
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Following President Zachary Taylor's death, Millard Fillmore took office. He supported the Compromise of 1850 that added new states from the Mexican cession and attempted to resolve long-standing controversies over slavery.

The Mexican Cession: Slave or Free?

President Millard Fillmore
President Millard Fillmore

Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848, and though he was a slaveholder himself, he opposed the spread of slavery into new territories, causing a stalemate in Congress. Then, Taylor died, and it fell to President Millard Fillmore to figure out just how to deal with the land acquired from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, generally referred to as the Mexican cession.

In the past, Congress had successfully banned slavery in some new territories with laws like the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise, but by mid-century, the nation was different. Cotton had taken hold of the southern economy and lifestyle, while abolitionism was spreading throughout the north. With new land at stake in the west, the question of slavery threatened to tear the country apart, and some Americans began to question whether or not Congress really had the right to make these decisions at all.

Politicians Divide

Congress had actually been fighting over Mexican land long before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo even existed. At one side of the debate, David Wilmot proposed banning all slavery, all indentured servants, and basically, all black residents from the land. The Wilmot Proviso repeatedly passed the House of Representatives, since the northern states were more populated, but it could not pass the Senate with its careful balance of slave and free states. At the other end of the debate were southerners, like John C. Calhoun, who wanted to ensure that slavery, which he had famously defended in an 1832 speech as a 'positive good,' was guaranteed forever. After all, the territories belonged to every American. Shouldn't anyone be allowed to move there with all of his belongings - including his slaves? In the middle were the voices for popular sovereignty. Just let the people in the land decide for themselves. Isn't that what America's supposed to be about? Before his death, President Taylor suggested the new land fast-track through the territorial stage and just write the state constitutions. This famous political cartoon shows him in a very precarious position over the issue of slavery in California.

Map of the Mexican Cession
Mexican Cession Map

More Problems Over Slavery

All these ideas sounded good in theory, but the gold rush meant California was ready for statehood almost immediately, and no one wanted to lose control of the Senate to the other side. Unfortunately, California wasn't the only problem. Texas was claiming that its border extended west to Santa Fe. This would, of course, mean a bigger state and more representation for slave power in Congress. And then there was Washington, D.C. While almost all of the slave debate had previously focused on new territories, northern abolitionists desperately wanted to get rid of slavery in the nation's capital, including the largest slave market in North America. Congress had been working on this problem for nearly two years, yet each side just entrenched deeper.

Mid-Lesson Review

All of these facts and factors can be a bit overwhelming. So, before we go any further, let's take a moment to recall some key details:

  • A lot of new land had been won in the Mexican-American War. Should it be slave or free territory?
  • Throughout the middle part of the century, states had been added in pairs to maintain equal power in the Senate, but California was ready for statehood, without another state to balance it.
  • Different parties had come up with ways to push their own agendas, but none of them could address all of the problems over slavery in the country, including Washington D.C. and Texas.

The Compromise of 1850

Senator Henry Clay
Senator Henry Clay Closeup

Henry Clay, nicknamed the 'Great Compromiser' after his proposal in 1820, could see that the north and south were ready to split. Finally, in January 1850, the 70-year old Kentucky Senator presented Congress with a new compromise bill. Together with two other senior statesmen (Daniel Webster from Massachusetts and John Calhoun from South Carolina), Henry Clay convinced Congress that no matter their differences, the nation was stronger if they stuck together. A new, young leader, named Stephen Douglas, championed their cause when the elder Senators were too ill to attend. When Zachary Taylor died, President Millard Fillmore threw his support behind the compromise and helped secure its passage. It took eight months to hammer out the details, and in the end, it couldn't prevent a Civil War, but for the time being, the Compromise of 1850 held the nation together.

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