The Appeasement of 1850

California was admitted as the 31st state 165 years ago today (1850).

Admission of California as a free state (that is, no slavery) was the first in the series of five measures known as the Compromise of 1850.

First page of Henry Clay's resolutions
First page of Henry Clay’s resolutions

The second measure organized the New Mexico Territory (which included present-day Arizona), settled the Texas-New Mexico boundary, and paid Texas $10 million to abandon its claims in New Mexico (everything east of the Rio Grande). The act also stated: “That, when admitted as a State, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” In other words, slavery in New Mexico would be decided by the people of New Mexico. This became known as “popular sovereignty.”

The third measure was the organization of the Utah Territory (which included Nevada and western Colorado) with an identical provision about slavery.

The fourth was a revised Fugitive Slave Act, amending the law passed in 1793. This act set up commissioners authorized to issue warrants for fugitives and order their return. The commissioners were to receive $10 when the person apprehended was a fugitive slave. They were to receive $5 when they decided he/she was a free person. Fugitives claiming to be freedmen were denied a trial by jury and their testimony was not to be evidence in any of the proceedings under the law. Citizens aiding fugitives could be fined or imprisoned.

The fifth measure was the abolition of the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia.

Like most political compromises, there was more for each side to dislike than to like. Slave states disliked California’s admission as a free state. And they disliked the end of the slave trade in D.C., not because it was important but because it demonstrated federal power over any aspect of slavery. Many northerners objected to the Fugitive Slave Act; and many violated it.

And, of course, slavery in the territories became the prime issue of the 1850s, the election of 1860, and coming of the Civil War.

Indeed, was it a compromise at all?

In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Read more: A Proposal to Change the Words We Use When Talking About the Civil War.