The Armistice of 1850

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

On July 31, 1850, the omnibus failed and hope of a settlement must have faded with it. But the compromise bloc, if not as large as Clay hoped, did not simply evaporate when the Great Compromises repaired to Newport. Illinois’ Stephen Douglas stepped into Clay’s place. Clay and Douglas planned as much, in a sense. Douglas never expected much from the omnibus and kept himself off the Committee of Thirteen. Clay assented, seeing Douglas’s distance from the omnibus as an insurance measure. If it failed, Douglas could step in as an independent voice for compromise. Maybe the new Democrat (first elected to the Senate in 1846) could do what the ancient Whig could not.

The Little Giant, all five feet and four inches of him, worked and drank with equal vigor. He saw that Clay did not command the loyalty of his own party. Its internal divisions ran too deep and so the compromise majority must come from the ranks of Democrats. But no true compromise majority existed to lead, Whig, Democrat, or bipartisan. Instead Douglas saw that a Lower North and Upper South compromise minority could join with the majority of each of the two sections in turn to enact the measures that section generally favored.

Douglas went to work assembling those majorities and on August 9 the Senate passed a new Texas boundary settlement that gave the state more than thirty thousand square miles beyond what the omnibus had promised, in exchange for $10 million. Bills admitting California, and giving New Mexico a territorial government, and the new fugitive slave law soon followed. For the slave trade in Washington, the Senate waited on the House. The House passed the Senate’s bills in short order and Fillmore signed them without delay. The final measure, abolishing Washington’s slave trade, passed both chambers on September 16 and 17, receiving Fillmore’s signature the same day.

Compromise prevailed, the Union endured, and a substantial number of politicians pickled their livers in celebration. Or did they? Douglas made the Clay Measures law, in modified form, but the Compromise of 1850, to paraphrase Voltaire, involved neither compromise nor Union. David M. Potter makes the point in The Impending Crisis:

on all the crucial roll calls by which the six measures of compromise passed in both the Senate and the House, only once in one house did a northern majority and a southern majority join in support of a bill.

They agreed in the Senate on the New Mexico bill, with the North 11 to 10 in favor to the South’s 16 to 0. Even agreement came sectionally lopsided. On Texas, the Senate split with the North in favor to the South’s even division. Utah passed with eleven of sixteen Northern senators opposed. The fugitive slave act passed with unanimous Southern support in the Senate and many Northern abstentions. (Millard Fillmore secured those by  lobbying his fellow Whigs.) On the admission of California and abolishing Washington’s slave trade, the North gave lopsided majorities to measures the South strongly, if not quite universally, opposed. The divisions ran on sectional, not party lines.

One cannot call this a compromise in the sense that it enjoyed broad support. Rather positions stood largely unchanged. Adversaries did not so much come to agree as fail against a much smaller compromise bloc that held the balance of power. Potter wrote:

In the Senate, four senators voted for the compromise measure every time, and eight others did so four times while abstaining on the fifth measure; in the House 28 members  gave support five times and 35 did so four times out of five.

The Senate thus boasted 13.33% core compromisers and 26.67% mostly pro-compromise for a total of 40%. The House claimed 12.17% and 15.21%, respectively, for a total of 27.38%. These thin reeds make for a feeble consensus and neither party truly surrendered to, much less accepted, the outcome. Potter called it only an armistice. But for the first time since 1846, some semblance of sectional peace came to the nation.

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