Slavery Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Law, and Free and Slave States

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The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law: A History

Slavery Compromise of 1850
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Compromise of 1850 Map

Compromise of 1850

Slavery Compromise Act and Fugitive Slave Law Map
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Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act. Map of Free and Slave States and Abolition of Slavery

(About) Map shows the growth of the United States and the expansion of slavery. One of the most divisive and hotly debated subjects in both houses of Congress in the United States for several decades was whether to contain, abolish, or expand slavery in newly acquired territory. The Compromise of 1850 was the result of the United States gaining lands and expanding its borders over sixty percent in just four years.

Compromise of 1850 and Popular Sovereignty Map
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Compromise of 1850 and Expansion of Slavery Map. PBS.

Definition of the Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 consisted of five bills addressing issues related to slavery. The five bills passed into law during September of 1850, and provided for slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty in the admission of new states, prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia, settled a Texas boundary dispute, and established a stricter fugitive slave act.
Free and Slave States and the Compromise of 1850
Following the American victory in the Mexican War (1846-1848), the question of whether to allow or prohibit slavery in the new territories threatened to split the Union. Slavery’s expansion into new states could grant the slaveholding South a majority in the Senate, but its prohibition would easily tilt political power in favor of the North. In the Compromise of 1850, Congress admitted California as a free state; settled boundaries of Texas and New Mexico; created a territorial government for Utah; upheld the rights of slaveholders over escaped slaves; and banned slave trading in the nation’s capital.
Instead of addressing the continuation of the institution of slavery in the United States, the question of whether or not the newly acquired territory would embrace or reject slavery was the question posed for nearly a century. But with the United States expanding its territory more than 60% in only four years, it resulted in passionate debates and the final passage of the Compromise of 1850, which was a compromise aimed at retaining a balance between the number of free and slave states, as well as a few other slavery provisions. The Compromise of 1850 would fail because while four free states were admitted into the Union from 1850 to 1861, not a single slave state was added, causing an imbalance of political, social, and economic power, known as sectionalism, between the North and South.
One of the five bills that would become law under the Compromise of 1850 was the uncompromising Fugitive Slave Act, causing many abolitionists to view the Compromise itself as a spurious agreement. As a result of the Compromise's failure to maintain an equitable balance between the sections of the nation, the American Civil War would commence in 1861.

US Territorial Expansion caused Slavery Compromise
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Causes of Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act Map

Compromise of 1850 Caused Sectionalism
As the United States continued its westward expansion by procuring vast amounts of territory, the Compromise of 1850, as with all slavery compromises, failed to address the core issue of slavery itself. Politicians turned to compromises and endeavored to satisfy those who supported or rejected the spread of slavery into new territory. Will the newly acquired territory embrace or decline slavery, was the question posed for nearly a century.
A house divided against itself can not stand, was often heard on the floors of Congress, and a nation that is half free and half slave must finally decide if it will be for or against slavery. But for decades neither side would make any major concessions on the subject of slavery, so to appease both sides of the aisle, compromises were continually drafted with the objective of maintaining an equal number of free and slave states, thus obtaining a balance of power. The lands obtained by the United States in less than one decade would tilt the balance of power and lead to the American Civil War.
To purchase any quantity of territory by the United States was already a subject of much debate in Congress, but with the annexation and statehood of Texas in 1845, followed by the Mexican Cession in 1848 (officially the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), the nation had not only expanded its borders by more than sixty percent, but it finally obtained the dream of a country that stretched from sea to shining sea. But it came at a high cost and led to many contentious arguments on another subject, the expansion of slavery into the new land.
While both houses in Washington continued to debate the expansion of slavery, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would pass, followed by the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise because it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, also called the Mexican Cession, was signed by the United States and Mexico on February 2, 1848, ending the Mexican War and extending the boundaries of the United States by over 525,000 square miles. In addition to establishing the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries, the territory acquired by the U.S. included the present-day of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. In exchange Mexico received fifteen million dollars in compensation for the territory and the U.S. agreed to assume claims from private citizens of these areas against the Mexican government.

Compromise of 1850 and Expansion of Slavery Map
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Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 Map

(About) The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and it was superseded by the Kanas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which also succeeded the recently passed Compromise of 1850. Comprises, however, continued to address the containment of slavery, but not the institution of slavery itself. The compromises would prove to be inequitable solutions, resulting in a divisive nation reconciling its sectional differences on the battlefields of the American Civil War. What the halls of Congress could not resolve on its floors, would be remedied in the shed blood of more than 600,000 men.

Map of What Caused the Compromise of 1850?
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Rapid growth in the United States resulted in the Compromise of 1850

Prior to the Mexican Cession in 1848, the nation hosted 15 free and 15 slave states, allowing a balance between the Northern and Southern sections of the United States. In 1850 California was admitted to the Union as free state, followed by three additional free states with Minnesota in 1858, Oregon in 1859, and Kansas in 1861. Since no slave states were added to the United States during the time it resulted in 15 slave and 19 free states, causing sectionalism and cries for secession as tensions had increased and brought the nation to the eve of the American Civil War.

Compromise of 1850 History


Early on the evening of January 21, 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky trudged through the Washington, D.C. snow to visit Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Clay, 73 years old, was a sick man, wracked by a severe cough. But he braved the snowstorm because he feared for the Union's future.


For four years Congress had bitterly and futilely debated the question of the expansion of slavery. Ever since David Wilmot had proposed that slavery be prohibited from any territory acquired from Mexico, opponents of slavery had argued that Congress possessed the power to regulate slavery in all of the territories. Ardent proslavery Southerners vigorously disagreed.


Politicians had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to work out a compromise. One simple proposal had been to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, slavery would have been forbidden north of 36 30' north latitude but permitted south of that line. This proposal attracted the support of moderate Southerners but generated little support outside the region. Another proposal, supported by two key Democratic senators, Lewis Cass of Michigan and Stephen Douglas of Illinois, was known as "popular sovereignty." It declared that the people actually living in a territory should decide whether or not to allow slavery.


But neither suggestion offered a solution to the whole range of issues dividing the North and South. It was up to Henry Clay, who had just returned to Congress after a seven-year absence, to work out a formula that balanced competing sectional concerns.


For an hour, Clay outlined to Webster a complex plan to save the Union. A compromise could only be effective, he stated, if it addressed all the issues dividing North and South. He proposed that:

  • California be admitted as a free state;
  • there be no restriction on slavery in New Mexico and Utah;
  • Texas relinquish its claim to land in New Mexico in exchange for federal assumption of Texas's unpaid debts;
  • Congress enact a stringent and enforceable fugitive slave law; and
  • the slave trade--but not slavery--be abolished in the District of Columbia.

Free and Slave States in Compromise of 1850 Map
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Slave Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Map

A week later, Clay presented his proposal to the Senate. The aging statesman was known as the "Great Compromiser" for his efforts on behalf of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise Tariff of 1832 (which resolved the nullification crisis). Once again, he appealed to Northerners and Southerners to place national patriotism ahead of sectional loyalties.


Clay's proposal ignited an eight-month debate in Congress and led John C. Calhoun to threaten Southern secession. Daniel Webster, the North's most spellbinding orator, threw his support behind Clay's compromise. "Mr. President," he began, "I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as Northern man, but as an American ... I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause." He concluded by warning his listeners that "there can be no such thing as a peaceable secession."


Webster's speech provoked outrage from Northern opponents of compromise. Senator William H. Seward of New York called Webster a "traitor to the cause of freedom." But Webster's speech reassured moderate Southerners that powerful interests in the North were committed to compromise.


Still, opposition to compromise was fierce. Whig President Zachary Taylor argued that California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota should all be admitted to statehood before the question of slavery was addressed, a proposal that would have given the North a ten-vote majority in the Senate. William H. Seward denounced the compromise as conceding too much to the South and declared that there was a "higher law" than the Constitution, a law that demanded an end to slavery.


In July, Northern and Southern senators opposed to the very idea of compromise joined ranks to defeat a bill that would have admitted California to the Union and organized New Mexico and Utah without reference to slavery.

Compromise of 1850 Map and Popular Sovereignty
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Slavery Compromise of 1850 & Fugitive Slave Law. Map of Free and Slave States in Compromise of 1850.

Compromise of 1850 Map and Slavery
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Compromise of 1850 shows sectionalism between slave and free states

Compromise appeared to be dead. A bitterly disappointed and exhausted Henry Clay dejectedly left the Capitol, his efforts apparently for naught. Then with unexpected suddenness the outlook abruptly changed. On the evening of July 9, 1850, President Taylor died of gastroenteritis, five days after taking part in a Fourth of July celebration dedicated to the building of the still unfinished Washington Monument. Taylor's successor was Millard Fillmore, a 50-year-old New Yorker, who was an ardent supporter of compromise.


In Congress, leadership in the fight for a compromise passed to Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois. An arrogant and dynamic leader, 5 foot 4 inches in height, with stubby legs, a massive head, bushy eyebrows, and a booming voice, Douglas was known as the "Little Giant." Douglas abandoned Clay's strategy of gathering all issues dividing the sections into a single bill. Instead, he introduced Clay's proposals one at a time. In this way, he was able to gather support from varying coalitions of Whigs and Democrats and Northerners and Southerners on each issue.


At the same time, banking and business interests as well as speculators in Texas bonds lobbied and even bribed congressmen to support compromise. Despite these manipulations, the compromise proposals never succeeded in gathering solid congressional support. In the end, only 4 senators and 28 representatives voted for every one of the measures. Nevertheless, they all passed.


As finally approved, the Compromise:

  • admitted California as a free state;
  • allowed the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to settle the question of slavery in those areas;
  • set up a stringent federal law for the return of runaway slaves;
  • abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia; and
  • gave Texas $10 million to abandon its claims to territory in New Mexico east of the Rio Grande.

The compromise created the illusion that the territorial issue had been resolved once and for all. "There is rejoicing over the land," wrote one Northerner, "the bone of contention is removed; disunion, fanaticism, violence, insurrection are defeated." Sectional hostility had been defused; calm had returned. But, as one Southern editor correctly noted, it was "the calm of preparation, and not of peace."

Slavery Compromise Map and Fugitive Slave Law
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Extent of Slavery in States by 1850. Compromise of 1850 was designed to appease opposing parties,

Fugitive Slave Law and Compromise of 1850 Map
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Missouri Compromise, Slave and Free States, and Compromise of 1850 Map

The Fugitive Slave Act

The most explosive element in the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Law, commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves. Any black--even free blacks--could be sent south solely on the affidavit of anyone claiming to be his or her owner. The law stripped runaway slaves of such basic legal rights as the right to a jury trial and the right to testify in one's own defense.

Under the Fugitive Slave Law, an accused runaway was to stand trial in front of a special commissioner, not a judge or a jury, and that the commissioner was to be paid $10 if a fugitive was returned to slavery but only $5 if the fugitive was freed. Many Northerners regarded this provision as a bribe to ensure that any black accused of being a runaway would be found guilty. Finally, the law required all U.S. citizens and U.S. marshals to assist in the capture of escapees. Anyone who refused to aid in the capture of a fugitive, interfered with the arrest of a slave, or tried to free a slave already in custody was subject to a heavy fine and imprisonment.

The Fugitive Slave Law produced widespread outrage in the North and convinced thousands of Northerners that slavery should be barred from the western territories.

Attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law provoked wholesale opposition. Eight northern states enacted "personal liberty" laws that prohibited state officials from assisting in the return of runaways and extended the right of jury trial to fugitives. Southerners regarded these attempts to obstruct the return of runaways as a violation of the Constitution and federal law.

The free black communities of the North responded defiantly to the 1850 law. They provided fugitive slaves with sanctuary and established vigilance committees to protect blacks from hired kidnappers who were searching the North for runaways. Some 15,000 free blacks emigrated to Canada, Haiti, the British Caribbean, and Africa after the adoption of the 1850 federal law.

The South's demand for an effective fugitive slave law was a major source of sectional tension. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, in 1851, a gun battle broke out between abolitionists and slave catchers, and in Wisconsin, abolitionists freed a fugitive named Joshua Glover from a local jail. In Boston, federal marshals and 22 companies of state troops were needed to prevent a crowd from storming a court house to free a fugitive named Anthony Burns.

Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act
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Slavery, Mexican Cession, Sectionalism, and Civil War

(About) Sectionalism Map. Sectionalism may be defined as excessive concern for interests of section, or causing excessive concern for the interests of one group or area to the detriment of the whole. The sectional lines dividing the nation in 1850 have changed little when superimposing the Compromise of 1850 map over the present-day national political map showing which states generally vote for the Republican Party or Democratic Party.

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

Recommended Reading: Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. From Library Journal: Award-winning historian Remini has written the definitive biography on controversial 19th-century politician Henry Clay of Kentucky. Remini's work, which uses a rich array of primary sources, especially letters uncovered by the Henry Clay Papers publication project, surpasses earlier studies of Clay by Glyndon Van Deusen (The Life of Henry Clay, Greenwood, 1979) and Clement Eaton (Henry Clay & the Art of American Politics, 1962). Continued below….

All facets of Clay's life are examined, especially much new information about his private life and how it influenced his public political career. Remini analyzes why an accomplished political leader such as Clay could never be elected president, though he ran for the office five times. Clay's political success came from his extraordinary talents as the engineer who directed three major compromises between 1820 and 1850 through Congress, thus averting civil strife and keeping the Union together. This is an excellently written, superbly crafted, and long-needed biography that is suitable for academic and large public libraries.

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Recommended Reading: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Paperback), by David M. Potter. Review: Professor Potter treats an incredibly complicated and misinterpreted time period with unparalleled objectivity and insight. Potter masterfully explains the climatic events that led to Southern secession – a greatly divided nation – and the Civil War: the social, political and ideological conflicts; culture; American expansionism, sectionalism and popular sovereignty; economic and tariff systems; and slavery. In other words, Potter places under the microscope the root causes and origins of the Civil War. Continued below…

He conveys the subjects in easy to understand language to edify the reader's understanding (it's not like reading some dry old history book). Delving beyond surface meanings and interpretations, this book analyzes not only the history, but the historiography of the time period as well. Professor Potter rejects the historian's tendency to review the period with all the benefits of hindsight. He simply traces the events, allowing the reader a step-by-step walk through time, the various views, and contemplates the interpretations of contemporaries and other historians. Potter then moves forward with his analysis. The Impending Crisis is the absolute gold-standard of historical writing… This simply is the book by which, not only other antebellum era books, but all history books should be judged.


Recommended Viewing: Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, Starring: Angela Bassett, Jeremy Rabb, Andre Braugher, Eric Foner, and Kemp Harris. Review: "Everything you thought you knew about slavery is about to be challenged." So says WGBH about its six-hour series Africans in America, and they are absolutely right. Interviews with historians and luminaries such as General Colin Powell, dramatic re-creations of important events, and beautiful photography create a vivid and compelling story of over 400 years of tragedy. Ten million Africans died on the journey to America alone; they and the countless numbers whose lives were wasted in servitude find a voice in Angela Bassett's outstanding narration. At once scholarly and moving, Africans in America should be required viewing for anyone interested in the American condition.


Recommended Viewing: Slavery and the Making of America (240 minutes), Starring: Morgan Freeman; Director: William R. Grant. Description: Acclaimed actor Morgan Freeman narrates this compelling documentary, which features a score by Michael Whalen. Underscoring how slavery impacted the growth of this country's Southern and Northern states; the series examines issues still relevant today. The variety of cultures from which the slaves originated provided the budding states with a multitude of skills that had a dramatic effect on the diverse communities. From joining the British in the Revolutionary War, to fleeing to Canada, to joining rebel communities in the U.S. the slaves sought freedom in many ways, ultimately having a far-reaching effect on the new hemisphere they were forced to inhabit. AWARDED 5 STARS by


Recommended Reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Author). Description: Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine, University of Kent at Canterbury. Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe's rich, panoramic novel passionately dramatizes why the whole of America is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy' will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'.


Recommended Reading: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Description: Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, David Brion Davis has long been recognized as the leading authority on slavery in the Western World. Now, in Inhuman Bondage, Davis sums up a lifetime of insight in this definitive account of New World slavery. The heart of the book looks at slavery in the American South, describing black slaveholding planters, rise of the Cotton Kingdom, daily life of ordinary slaves, highly destructive slave trade, sexual exploitation of slaves, emergence of an African-American culture, abolition, abolitionists, antislavery movements, and much more. Continued below…

But though centered on the United States, the book offers a global perspective spanning four continents. It is the only study of American slavery that reaches back to ancient foundations and also traces the long evolution of anti-black racism in European thought. Equally important, it combines the subjects of slavery and abolitionism as very few books do, and it connects the actual life of slaves with the crucial place of slavery in American politics, stressing that slavery was integral to America's success as a nation--not a marginal enterprise. This is the definitive history by a writer deeply immersed in the subject. Inhuman Bondage offers a compelling portrait of the dark side of the American dream.

Sources: Mintz, S. (2007). The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law. Digital History. Retrieved 16 Dec 2008 from; Library of Congress, National Archives, National Park Service,, US Department of State,, US Census Bureau,; Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict, the Crisis and Compromise of 1850. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964; Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Norton, 1983; Stegmaier, Mark Joseph. Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute & Sectional Crisis. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996; Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

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