The Old Senate Chamber

The Compromise of 1850

The United States might well have divided a decade before the Civil War had the Senate not achieved the Compromise of 1850. At issue was whether slavery would be permitted in the vast western territories the United States had gained from the Mexican War. In February 1850, the veteran Kentucky Whig Senator Henry Clay rose in the Senate chamber to propose an omnibus bill admitting California as a free state, letting the people of New Mexico decide the slavery issue there, fixing the Texas boundary, prohibiting the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and toughening federal fugitive slave laws. Clay hoped to prevail by offering something for everyone. The ensuing debate produced dramatic speeches by Clay, Daniel Webster, and the dying John C. Calhoun.

Demonstrating the level of tension on the Senate floor, Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote, at one point in the deliberations, pulled a pistol against Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. "Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!" Benton bellowed at the senators separating them, but Foote was quickly disarmed and order restored in the chamber. By July, the omnibus bill had stalled and an exhausted Clay, who had spoken some seventy times for the compromise, left on vacation. During his absence, the young Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas took the unwieldy bill apart and won passage of its individual provisions. By September, the Compromise was completed and the Union saved--for ten years more.

For further reading:

Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978)