With the acquisition of new territories following the Mexican-American War, the national conversation over slavery and the West was complicated further when exciting news from California reached the eastern United States.
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the American River near a sawmill owned by his partner, John Sutter. The news spread quickly. Within a week or two, nearly all of Sutter’s employees were scouring the area for gold. When the news reached San Francisco, many inhabitants left to seek their fortunes along the American River.
By 1849, thousands of people from around the world followed these first prospectors into the goldfields of California, igniting the Gold Rush.
It wasn't long before the Gold Rush became entangled with the issue of slavery. Most of the miners in California opposed the introduction of black slaves to the region. They feared that if slaveholders migrated to California, bringing laborers who worked at no cost, opportunities for individual prospectors would disappear.
While Congress waffled on the issue of slavery in California, white miners and settlers in the territory took matters into their own hands. In October of 1849, California ratified a state constitution that banned slavery. One month later, California requested entry into the Union as a free state.
Most northerners supported California’s request. Southerners, however, feared that California’s entry to the Union as a free state would tip the balance between northern and southern states in Congress in favor of the North. They expressed concern that exclusion of slavery from California might lead to the restriction of slavery in other parts of the territory acquired from Mexico.
Amidst the uproar over California’s request to join the Union as a free state, which included calls for secession from outraged white southerners, Congress sought a compromise. Henry Clay, the Senator from Kentucky (who had served in public office in one way or another since 1806, and who brokered the Missouri Compromise), offered a series of resolutions to address the issue of slavery and its potential expansion in the West.
Clay’s proposal included the following:
Clay presented his proposal as an omnibus bill: a measure that Congress would vote on as a package.
Clay did not seek to favor either faction with his compromise proposal. However, given the polarized nature of national politics at the time, Clay’s compromise was flawed in two important ways:
Subsequent debates in Congress reflected this divide.
During the Senate debate, the executive branch failed to offer direction. President Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay did not like each other, and Taylor did not approve of the proposed compromise.
The drama increased when, on July 4, 1850, President Taylor became gravely ill. He died five days later and vice president Millard Fillmore became president.
In July of 1850, Clay’s omnibus bill failed to pass the Senate. Frustrated and exhausted, he stepped down as the leader of the compromise effort. Following his departure, other senators attempted to find a solution. Their efforts were led by a young senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas.
Douglas succeeded where Clay had failed by pushing a series of separate bills through Congress that were collectively known as the Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise included the following:
Votes for the compromise occurred largely along sectional, not partisan, lines.
EXAMPLEA coalition of Whigs and Democrats from the northern states approved the admission of California as a free state, over the opposition of southern Democrats.
EXAMPLEConservative northern Democrats joined southern Democrats and Whigs to enact the Fugitive Slave Act.
Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief over the Compromise of 1850.
Hope that the Compromise of 1850 would resolve the sectional crisis proved to be short-lived as the Fugitive Slave Act turned into a major source of conflict.
Abolitionist societies quickly mobilized to prevent the capture of runaway slaves or the kidnapping of free blacks.
EXAMPLEIn October of 1850, abolitionists prevented the capture of William and Ellen Craft, two slaves who had escaped from Georgia. They harassed the two slave catchers sent to apprehend the Crafts, and helped the Crafts leave the United States. They ultimately settled in Great Britain.
Because the Fugitive Slave Act imposed heavy fines and prison sentences on anyone who aided runaway slaves, or refused to capture them, many northerners felt that the law forced them to serve as slave-catchers against their will. Furthermore, the law seemed to confirm the existence of a “Slave Power” — a cabal of elite slaveholders who used the power of the federal government to suit their interests.
The Fugitive Slave Act emboldened abolitionists. Some, including Frederick Douglass, advocated the use of violence to resist the law. According to Douglass, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half-a-dozen or more dead kidnappers.”
Ultimately, the Fugitive Slave Act was ineffective in returning runaway slaves to their owners. The cost of apprehending fugitives was too high for most plantation owners. More importantly, Congress did not primarily enact the law to facilitate the capture of runaway slaves. Rather, it was passed to test how well the North would uphold the Compromise of 1850.
Northern responses to the Fugitive Slave Act revealed that many northerners wanted nothing to do with the law. Along with the militant reaction among abolitionists, several northern state legislatures passed personal liberty laws during the 1850s.
The personal liberty laws demonstrated the North’s use of states’ rights to oppose the “Slave Power” perceived in the federal government. In the southern view, the Laws were evidence that northerners did not respect the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, or slaveholders’ property rights.
The appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly in 1851 influenced the national debate over slavery and runaways.
Partly inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act, Stowe’s novel is a tale of slaves who were sold by their Kentucky master. When Uncle Tom is "sold down the river" to the Deep South, young Eliza escapes with her baby in a harrowing flight to the free North and, ultimately, Canada.
Stowe’s story reinforces the abolitionist belief that slavery is a sin by depicting how it destroyed families: separating children from parents and husbands from wives. She also demonstrates how slavery corrupted white people. The cruelty of slaveholders, who genuinely believed that slaves did not feel things the way white people do, and the brutality of slave dealer Simon Legree, who beat and sexually abused slaves, show that the dehumanizing effects of slavery impact whites as well as blacks.
Within a year of its release, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies and inspired theatrical productions and musical compositions — much to the consternation of white southerners.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: “The Way They Go To California,” 1849, ret from the LOC, http://bit.ly/2kxLa1Z, The United States Senate, A.D. 1850, ca. 1855, PD, http://bit.ly/2ljKxNA, Image of Stephen A. Douglas, ca. 1850-1852, PD, http://bit.ly/2kK5EWf, Image of Ellen/William Craft, PD, http://bit.ly/2kKabI4, Image of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852, PD, http://bit.ly/2kSO1Gd, Eliza tells Uncle Tom she’s running away, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852, PD, http://bit.ly/2lL89Mf. Openstax tutorial 11.4, 11.5 & 14.1 http://bit.ly/2ov4DTs Some sections edited