The Less Than Final Settlement

We have it from Millard Fillmore and Stephen Douglas that the Compromise of 1850 represented the final settlement of sectional strife. Sixteen decades later we know they oversold it, but fairness requires us to allow the tremendous advantage we have in knowing what happened later. After four years of nearly constant strife, with the future of the Union often in doubt and debate devolving into fisticuffs and drawn pistols, the political establishment had good reason to hope their settlement final. They had cured the Union’s disease.

Or had they? While California clearly came in as a free state and the matters of the Washingtonian slave trade and Texas border admitted little ambiguity, in organizing New Mexico and Utah the Congress deliberately made no mention of slavery as even Douglas could not build a majority for any position.

This certainly left the Wilmot Proviso dead. It asked Congress to exclude slavery from all the Mexican Cession, an affirmative step Congress declined to take. Likewise, Congress abandoned the geographical partition conceded by the Nashville Convention and hallowed by a generation of tradition. Congress declined to draw any such line, or to extend the previous line that continued to wall off all the Louisiana Purchase north of Arkansas, save Missouri, from slavery.

What did that mean for the peculiar institution in New Mexico and Utah? Could slaveholders carry their human property there? The onnibus had a kind of answer when it left committee, specifically prohibiting either territory from making any laws with regard to slavery. But did that mean that Mexican law, which abolished slavery, prevailed as Wilmot had suggested all the way back at the start of the strife? Or did that mean that the territories had no power over the institution and Southerners could flood in with as many slaves as they liked? Yet even the omnibus’s evasive answer did not survive the Senate. Clay and Douglas worked to see it removed.

Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs

To Northerners, congressional silence largely meant territorial legislatures might exclude slavery from their territory. After all, the measure prohibiting them from making laws for slavery did not make the final bills. That must reveal a legislative intent to hand the issue off on something like Cass’s popular sovereignty doctrine. Douglas went home to Chicago insisting on just that.

Georgia’s Robert Toombs, one of the men Taylor threatened to hang, worked with Douglas’s men in the House to make the compromise law. He could claim the same silence as Douglas, holding that removing the measure prohibiting New Mexico and Utah making laws against slavery did not make the final bills. Toombs thus returned home to tell his supporters that he regained the principle that Congress had no power to restrict slavery which the South had wrongly conceded in 1820 to secure the admission of Missouri as a slave state.

Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase read the ambiguity differently:

The question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.

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