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POLITICAL CHALLENGES OF THE 1850s

The controversies of the 1850s largely centered around slavery and its status in the newly acquired American territories. Americans had been able to compromise on such issues in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1850s the volatile nature of debate on the issue of slavery made compromise much harder to come by.

The discovery of gold in California in January of 1848 caused a flood of “diggers” to enter the territory. Within a year over 80,000 “forty-niners” entered the state. By the end of 1849 the territory’s population swelled to over 100,000, Law enforcement and governmental controls were severely lacking in much of the territory. Zachary Taylor encouraged settlers in California and New Mexico to draft constitutions and to apply for statehood. By the end of 1849 California had adopted a constitution prohibiting slavery; New Mexico did the same six months later.

Taylor’s proposal to allow California to enter the Union as a nonslave state infuriated many Southerners. Southern senators railed that much of the California territory was south of the Missouri Compromise line: Shouldn’t slavery be allowed in that part of California? A convention was called for representatives of Southern states to come together and discuss leaving the Union. John C. Calhoun captured the feeling of many Southerners when he said, “I trust we shall persist in our resistance until restoration or all our rights, or disunion, one or the other, is the consequence.”

Henry Clay, the author of the Missouri Compromise, spoke forcefully against many of Calhoun’s arguments and wrote the parts of the legislation that together would be called the Compromise of 1850. Both the North and the South got some of what they wanted in this compromise. Northerners were happy that the legislation allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, that the residents of the New Mexico and Utah territories would decide if these areas would be slave territories, and that slave trading was eliminated in Washington, DC. Southerners were satisfied over several provisions found in the legislation: provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law were toughened, Congress stated that it didn’t have jurisdiction over interstate slave trade, and slavery was allowed to continue in Washington. Eight months of debate were needed to pass all provisions of the compromise. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was the most effective spokesperson for the cause of the compromise. California entering the Union as a free state gave the free states a majority; in the future, that majority would grow, helping to explain the increased tensions between the North and the South between 1850 and 1860.

The presidential election of 1852 was another campaign devoid of much discussion of the slave issue. The Free-Soilers got half the votes they had received in the 1848 election. General Winfield Scott was the candidate of the Whigs. Like Zachary Taylor in 1848, he made few public statements on political issues. Franklin Pierce was another dark-horse candidate who won the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.

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