By the year 1850, there were only 14% of slaves left in the entire population of America. Slavery became virtually non-existent in the northern states. But, there were about 58% slaves still left in South Carolina and 51% in Mississippi. In the September of 1850, the U.S. Congress took several measures to settle the issues pertaining to slavery and avert Secession. They formed the Compromise of 1850. Let us briefly look into the Compromise of 1850, which is one of the major events that took place in the American history.
Compromise of 1850
Missouri became a state in 1818, but the settlers wanted it to remain a slave state. The Congressmen of the north states, on the other hand, did not want a slave state. During the same year, Maine also wanted to be admitted as a state under the Union. Therefore, in 1820, an agreement was reached called the Missouri Compromise that allowed Missouri to remain a slave state and Maine a slave-free state. This led to division of United States on the basis of an imaginary line that ran across the east coast to Pacific ocean separating the slave free states from the slave states.
After 30 years of the Missouri Compromise, California asked to be admitted in the Union prohibiting slavery, but the Missouri Compromise divided California in half. This problem became even more complicated due to the unresolved question of slavery's extension into other areas that were granted by Mexico in 1848. Congressmen could not decide whether they should let California enter as a slave state or free state. The U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay was determined to find a solution to the problem.
The 70-year-old, Clay, presented a compromise on January 29, 1850. This compromise consisted of five bills that would help defuse the tension between the slave states from the South and free states of the North. These five bills included the following points:
- The compromise stated that Texas would relinquish the land in dispute. They would be given 10 million dollars in return as compensation that could be used to pay off its debt to Mexico.
- The territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Utah could be organized without mentioning slavery. The inhabitants of these places would decide upon slavery when they applied to be admitted as states.
- The slave trade would be completely abolished in the District of Columbia, but slavery is still permitted.
- California would be admitted as a free state.
- The most controversial part of the bill was the Fugitive Slave Act. This act fined any federal officer who did not arrest a runaway slave.
Fugitive Slave Act
One of the most controversial bills that made up the Compromise of 1850 was the Fugitive Slave Act. Under this act, the citizens were required to help the state in recovery of fugitive slaves. Special commissioners would handle the cases of fugitive slaves and the fugitives were denied a right to jury trial. The commissioners were paid $5 when the fugitive was released and $10 if the slave was sent away with the claimant. Under this new law, it became a very easy process for slave owners to file a claim and more federal officials were made responsible for enforcement of the law. Anyone who did not aid in the arrest or trial of a fugitive slave already in custody was subjected to a heavy fine and even imprisonment.
But, this law sounded a death knell for all the slaves who were trying to rebuild their lives in the North. Many slaves fled to Canada. Many fugitive slaves and even free slaves were captured and forced into slavery. This led to a widespread outrage in the North and this made the abolitionists more resolved in their belief that slavery should be completely abolished from the western territories.
Eight of the Northern States enacted 'personal liberty' laws that prohibited the federal officials from assisting in the return of runaways. They also granted the right of jury trials to the fugitive slaves. But, their attempts were interpreted as obstruction to the return of runaways as a violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal law by the Southern states.
This led to a defiant response from the free black communities of the North. They provided statuary to the fugitives and established vigilance communities. These vigilance communities helped in protecting the blacks from hired kidnappers, who were on a look out for run away in the North. More than 15,000 Blacks took refuge in the neighboring areas of Canada, British Caribbean, Haiti and even Africa after the compromise of 1850.
Although the Compromise of 1850 achieved its goal of keeping the nation united, it was only a temporary phase. The citizens of America were divided in the coming decade, due to the issue of slavery. The rift grew so wide, that the nation was on a verge of dividing itself. This led to the inevitable U.S. Civil War after the swearing-in of Abraham Lincoln as the President, a known opponent of slavery, that began in 1861 and went on till 1865.