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Compromise of 1850 and the Civil War: Cause and Effect

Updated on December 23, 2014
Henry Clay speaking about The Compromise of 1850 on the Senate Floor
Henry Clay speaking about The Compromise of 1850 on the Senate Floor

The Connection

When it comes to history, some things are not as “black and white” as they may appear to be. As with any war, you can analyze the causes of the Civil War for years on end and still not come up with a concrete conclusion as to what really sparked the fire. Most likely the separation of the union began decades before, as the North and South began to develop distinctly different economies, ideas, and personal beliefs. I absolutely believe that the Compromise of 1850, which occurred eleven years prior to the start of the Civil War, led to the break up of the Union in 1860. I have found that the documents I studied do not only support me in my belief, but give my position more grounds than I had previously believed to exist.

What was the Compromise of 1850?

First of all, it is critical for me to illustrate what the Compromise of 1850 actually was. The compromise was introduced by Henry Clay to calm tensions between the North and South, and unify them more than ever before. It ended up doing quite the opposite. In the compromise the North was promised California as a free state and a banning of the slave trade in Washington DC (you could still own slaves). On the other hand, the South was given a much more effective Fugitive Slave Act known as the “Bloodhound Bill”, and some land in Texas to develop a railroad. In the end, the North obviously benefited the most because it tipped the balance of free and slave states to the “free” side, and the new fugitive slave laws were once again not enforced because of the introduction of Personal Liberty Laws for slaves. In the end, it also bought the North time to build up resources before the Civil War.

A map of how the states were divided up from the compromise
A map of how the states were divided up from the compromise

North vs South

It is important to note that differing opinions on slavery were not the only things that separated the North from the South. A strong sense of sectionalism, which had started brewing decades before, was coming a peak. It seems as though James Knox Polk was trying to assure the American people quite the opposite when he said “The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged by all.” in 1845, but by that time it was much too late. At that times murmurs of succession were spreading across the states, and people were ready to take action. In addition to sectionalism, strong opinions on slavery were forming as well. In 1854 William Lloyd bluntly said “Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer”. The Compromise of 1850 made people really feel like their “union” was actually two forces, the North and the South, battling for every scrap of legal ground they could get their hands on.

Issues with the Compromise

The issue of returning slaves, and Personal Liberty Laws for slaves, was as much of a religious issue as it was a political one. One of the main reasons that the Compromise of 1850 ended up being so biased to the North was because the Personal Liberty Laws were developed, and the Bloodhound Bill was not enforced. In 1850 Daniel Webster referred to the North when he said “They have taken hold of the religious sentiment of that part of the country, as they have, more or less, taken hold of the religious feeling of a considerable portion of mankind”. This goes to show that the divisions between the North and South were not only due to political policies, they were additionally due to differing religious interpretations.

A sign warning fugitive slaves
A sign warning fugitive slaves

In Conclusion

In conclusion, I absolutely believe that the Compromise of 1850 was a major cause of the break up of the Union in 1860. The compromise greatly increased sectionalism, and strengthened the arguments of both the North and South against the other. It also led to a separation in religious interpretations of the regions, and obviously beliefs about slavery on a morality standpoint. Looking back at how the compromise eventually worked out, it seems to me that it was inevitable that there would be great conflict. The lesson I have received by studying the compromise is simple: few people are willing to compromise their beliefs, and many don’t take it kindly when you attempt to force them.

The Compromise of 1850 for Dummies

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      Meep The Astronaut 2 years ago

      Your one good writer. Love your articles. Both helpful and interesting. Thx