John Brown

Photo above: John Brown. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Engraving of U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort led by Robert E. Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Harper's Ferry

U.S. Timeline - The 1850s

Expansion and the Looming Divide

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1850

    January 29, 1850 - Debate on the future of slavery in the territories escalates when Henry Clay introduces the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. Congress. On March 7, Senator Daniel Webster endorses the bill as a measure to avert a possible civil war.

    Compromise of 1850

    By the year 1850, the debates and possible solutions within the divide over slavery had been brewing for decades. They had been pushed, however, within the two years since the end of the Mexican-American War as the United States decided what to do with the territories acquired by the treaty that ended that conflict. Now, the United States Congress was searching for solutions. But those solutions, for most, were not about eradication of slavery as a practice, but about expansion within borders of new territory and how to maintain a balance in the power of the national legislature that did not favor either slave or free states. When California petitioned the United States Congress in 1849 to enter the Union as a free state, it pushed the debate to further heights. Its admission had the potential to upset the balance of power between states of freedom and those of slavery. It was excacerbated further by the rush of pioneers to California for the Gold Rush, the settling of Utah by the Mormons, and New Mexico's territorial desire to push back Texas from part of its land.

    Proponents were beginning to line up around a series of five resolutions by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky that he drafted to avert a crisis. He termed it the Compromise of 1850. The proposals would create that free state of California, amend the Fugitive Slave Act, end the slave trade (but not slavery) in Washington, D.C., which at the time held the largest slave market in the nation, a territorial government would be established in Utah, and the boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico would be settled.

    Allies included the Democratic Senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, from the free north, who would stake his seat on an attempt to support Clay and that Compromise. In his speech of three and one half hours on March 7, 1850, Webster spoke of being an American, not a northernor, but also realized that slavery where it existed was not going away anytime soon, so that a compromise should be agreed upon. Webster sent out two hundred thousand copies of the speech to rally support for the Compromise of 1850 legistation. His base in New England did not agree, causing him to resign from his seat, one he had held for twenty years.

    Timeline of the Debate

    January 29, 1850 - Senator Henry Clay introduces the resolutions of the Compromise of 1850.

    February 5-6, 1850 - Clay defends his ideas within the Compromise in a Senate speech that lasted two days.

    March 4, 1850 - Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina states his opposition to the Compromise of 1850.

    March 7, 1850 - Northern Senator Daniel Webster agrees with Clay and the Compromise of 1850 in a three and one half hour speech to the Senate.

    March 31, 1850 - Opposition Senator John Calhoun passes. He had begun to organize a convention in Nashville to discuss possible secession.

    April 17, 1850 - Committee of Thirteen agrees on the border of Texas.

    June 3-11, 1850 - Nashville Convention held with representatives, including Jefferson Davis, of nine slave states to decide a course of action if slavery were banned in the new territories. Decided, in the end, to support perpetuating the Union, although voted against Clay's compromises, and agreed that the dividing line between slave and free should be the line within the Missouri Compromise of 1820, extended to the Pacific coast.

    July 9, 1850 - President Zachary Taylor, a slave holder but advocate for banning slavery in the American southwest, passes, opening an avenue to allowing the new territories of Utah and New Mexico to choose slave or free by themselves. New President Millard Fillmore throws his support behind the Compromise within the month.

    July 31, 1850 - Omnibus bill for the entire Compromise of 1850 fails to pass the Senate, opposed by Southern Democrats and Northern Whigs.

    August-September 1850 - Senator Stephen A. Douglas separates the Omnibus Bill into five separate resolutions and attempts to pass each.

    September 9, 1850 - The first of the five resolutions passes the Senate, with President Fillmore signing each into law between September 9-21, 1850.

    Excerpts, The Seventh of March Speech, Daniel Webster

    Hear me for my Cause.

    Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. It is fortunate that there is a Senate of the United States; a body not yet moved from its propriety, not lost to a just sense of its own dignity, and its own high responsibilities, and a body to which the country looks with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels. It is not to be denied that we live in the midst of strong agitations, and are surrounded by very considerable dangers to our institutions of government., The imprisoned winds are let loose. The East, the West, the North, and the stormy South, all combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, to toss its billows to the skies, and to disclose its profoundest depths. I do not affect to regard myself, Mr. President, as holding, or as fit to hold, the helm in this combat with the political elements; but I have a duty to perform, and I mean to perform it with fidelity - not without a sense of surrounding dangers, but not without hope. I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of the whole; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear, or shall not appear, for many days. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause." I speak today, out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all. These are the topics that I propose to myself to discuss; these are the motives, and the sole motives, that influence me in the wish to communicate my opinions to the Senate and the country; and if I can do anything, however little, for the promotion of these ends, I shall have accomplished all that I desire. .....

    Complaint has been made against certain resolutions that emanate from legislatures at the North, and are sent here to us, not only on the subject of slavery in this District, but sometimes recommending Congress to consider the means of abolishing slavery in the states. I should be sorry to be called upon to present any resolutions here which could not be referable to any committee or any power in Congress, and, therefore, I should be unwilling to receive from the legislature of Massachusetts any instructions to present resolutions expressive of any opinion whatever on the subject of slavery, as it exists at the present moment in the states, for two reasons; because - first, I do not consider that the legislature of Massachusetts has anything to do with it; and next, I do not consider that I, as her representative here, have anything to do with it. Sir, it has become, in my opinion, quite too common; and if the legislatures of the states do not like that opinion, they have a great deal more power to put it down, than I have to uphold it. It has become, in my opinion, quite too common a practice for the state legislatures to present resolutions here on all subjects, and to instruct us here on all subjects. There is no public man that requires instruction more than I do, or who requires information more than I do, or desires it more heartily; but I do not like to have it come in too imperative a shape. I took notice, with pleasure, of some remarks upon this subject made the other day, in the senate of Massachusetts, by a young man of talent and character, of whom the best hopes may be entertained. I mean Mr. Hilliard. He told the senate of Massachusetts that he would vote for no instructions whatever to be forwarded to members of Congress, nor for any resolutions to be offered, expressive of the sense of Massachusetts, as to what their members of Congress ought to do. He said that he saw no propriety in one set of public servants giving instructions and reading lectures to another set of public servants. To their own master, all of them must stand or fall, and that master is their constituents. I wish these sentiments could become more common - a great deal more common. I have never entered into the question, and never shall, about the binding force of instructions. I will, however, simply say this: if there be any matter of interest pending in this body, while I am a member of it, in which Massachusetts has an interest of her own not adverse to the general interest of the country, I shall pursue her instructions with gladness of heart, and with all the efficiency which I can bring to the occasion. But if the question be one which affects her interest, and at the same time affects the interests of all other states, I shall no more regard her political wishes or instructions, than I would regard the wishes of a man who might appoint me an arbitrator or referee, to decide some question of important private right, and who might instruct me to decide in his favor. If ever there was a government upon earth, it is this government; if ever there was a body upon earth, it is this body, which should consider itself as composed by agreement of all, appointed by some, but organized by the general consent of all, sitting here, under the solemn obligations of oath and conscience, to do that which they think is best for the good of the whole. .....

    Mr. President, I should much prefer to have heard, from every member on this floor, declarations of opinion that this Union could never be dissolved, than the declaration of opinion that in any case, under the pressure of any circumstances, such a dissolution was possible. I hear with pain and anguish, and distress, the word secession, especially when it falls from the lips of those who are eminently patriotic, and known to the country, and known all over the world, for their political services. Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffling the surface! Who is so foolish - I beg everybody's pardon - as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live here - covering this whole country - is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun - disappear almost unobserved, and die off? No, sir! no, sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of 'the states; but, sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven - I see that disruption must produce such a war as I will not describe, in its twofold character. .....

    Image above: Engraving of the United States Senate in 1850 as Senator Henry Clay speaks on the topic of the Compromise of 1850. Seated around him are Daniel Webster, Thomas H. Benton, Lewis Cass, S. William H. Seward, Millard Fillmore, William L. Dayton, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, and Salmon P. Chase, 1855, Robert Whitechurch, Peter Frederick Rothermel, printed by J.M. Butler. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Daniel Webster addressing Senate during the March 7 debate on the Compromise of 1850, 1860, James M. Edney, Jones and Clark. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source:; Library of Congress;;; Wikipedia Commons.

    Daniel Webster and the Compromise of 1850

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