Slavery was sadly familiar during the early decades of an independent America. Here, Ian Craig discusses the failure of compromise during the years from 1789 until the US Civil War. In particular he considers the sectional divide between the North, South, and – later – Western American states.

You can also read Ian’s series on President James Buchanan and the US Civil War here.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

In the history of the United States, the nation has long been divided along sectional lines, most notably North and South.  In 1789, when the Constitution became the law of the land, compromise had been used to get the states to agree on the new form of government.  The Three-Fifths Compromise was one such example.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the economy of the South, while the North began to rely heavily on its manufacturing industry. When it came time to decide representation in the new Congress, the Southern states demanded that their slave population be counted toward their population total.  Since the North did not support slave labor and had a growing abolitionist movement, it disagreed with the South’s proposal.  Instead, the authors of the Constitution, including James Madison, came up with a compromise.  The South’s total slave population would not count towards representation, only three-fifths of its slave population would be counted towards each southern states’ population.  This compromise managed to win support on both sides, but the debate and compromise over slavery did not end there.

When President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he had no idea that it would help spark further debates over slavery.  The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States with most of its territory lying northwest of the Mississippi River.  The acquisition of such a vast territory was seen by many Americans as progress for the young nation.  No one considered the idea that as more territory was added to the nation, that slavery’s expansion would take center stage.  In 1819, the first debate over slavery’s expansion into the western territories took place.  Missouri, which was relatively more north than south, wanted to enter the Union as a slave state.  However, this would upset the balance of power between slave and free states in the Senate.  The South needed to maintain this due to the fact that the North’s greater population often gave them more support in the House of Representatives.  In an attempt to put an end to the issue, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky came up with a compromise.  He called for slavery to be banned in the region northwest of Missouri and for Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) to enter the Union as a free state.  This compromise was agreed to and attempted to hold the nation together for another thirty years.  However, when the compromise was passed in 1820, it merely put a temporary fix on the growing issue of slavery.  It did nothing to settle the growing sectional divide the nation was facing as well.


Sectionalism in the US

Sectionalism was deeply rooted in the United States.  When the nation was founded in 1776, many Americans had more loyalty to their individual states rather than the nation as a whole.  This was because many felt that their own state governments represented their best interests because they were their neighbors and friends in some cases. In conjunction with this, many did not trust the new federal or central government.  This goes back to the trade off between having a king thousands of miles away to having many “kings” a mere couple hundred miles away.  It was for this reason that the original government of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was made relatively weak.  Under the Articles, there was not one single leader, but many in a representative body or congress.  This Congress was led by a president, but this person was by no means the President of the United States.  In addition, the government had no power to collect taxes or to raise them nor could it regulate trade or create a standing army and navy to defend the nation.  In these terms, the States had all the power as it was intended to be.  Therefore, the Continental Congress had to ask the states to raise funds and relied on the states to provide their militias in times of war.  The Articles left the federal government extremely weak, the Founding Fathers did not want to have a repeat of the rule they had under King George III and Great Britain.   

The federal government would become much stronger when the Constitution was passed in 1789; however, the individual loyalty to one’s state remained.  Often America was referred to as “these United States” instead of a single nation “The United States.” It is this sentiment that began to take hold after 1820. In 1848, when the U.S.-Mexican War came to an end, more territory was added to the nation through the Mexican Cession.  This included land that would become the American southwest and California.  When gold was discovered in California in early 1848, prospectors and settlers flocked to the territory causing its population to rapidly increase.  By 1850, California was ready to enter the Union and become the thirty-first state. However, the majority of the population had come from areas that did not support slavery and as a result, California had wished to enter as a free state.


The Compromise of 1850

This concept had re-opened the door for slavery’s debate in the nation.  Although it had never gone away, it now became a topic for discussion for many. President Zachary Taylor wanted to see California admitted into the Union as soon as possible.  He recognized the sizzling debate of slavery which was growing over the nation, but he felt that a quick admission would solve the issue. In contrast, allowing California to enter the Union as a free state would upset the balance of power in the Senate. Something had to be given to the South for compensation.  This led to the Compromise of 1850 which began under Henry Clay but was resolved under Senator Stephen Douglas.  

In order to appease both sides, Douglas was able to come up with five resolutions that would require a vote. They included allowing California to enter as a free state, the ban of the slave trade in Washington D.C., the creation of a new Fugitive Slave Law, that popular sovereignty be allowed in the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and that Texas’ border dispute with New Mexico be resolved.[1]  President Taylor threatened to veto the legislation if it came to him because he did not want any chance of slavery entering the western territories.  This surprised those in the South who believed that Taylor, a Southerner himself, had betrayed them.  In July 1850, the president’s unwillingness to compromise seemed to be taking hold.  However, President Zachary Taylor died of presumed food poisoning after eating cherries and drinking a pitcher of milk.  His vice president, Millard Fillmore, had no issue signing the Compromise of 1850 as he believed he had once and for all settled the question of slavery’s expansion.  Instead, he only made the issue much worse. 


Disputes in the 1850s

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that the North no longer became a safe haven for escaped slaves.  Instead, those in the northern states were required by law to aid slave catchers in their retrieval of runaway slaves.  Any violation of the law would result in fines and even jail time.  With this act in place, the federal government was essentially allowing slavery to continue while keeping it enforced.  In the eyes of the North, this was a betrayal by the federal government as it appeared to be helping the South continue slavery not end it.  By 1854, the debate which was thought to have ended with the Compromise of 1850 heated up again.  Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, governments were formed for the territories of Kansas and Nebraska allowing for popular sovereignty.  At the same time, the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in those territories for thirty years, was repealed.  This caused much concern for those in the North.

Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was also authored by Stephen Douglas, attempted to appease both sides, it ended up causing much violence in the region.  When Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a free state, pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally.  This resulted in the election of a pro-slavery government.  In what would become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces would battle for control of the territory.  This would continue until President James Buchanan sent the military to secure fare elections; however, it wasn’t until 1861 that Kansas was admitted as a free state.  

The sectional wound that the nation felt only became worse after the 1854 Act.  “Bleeding Kansas” was a snapshot of what would come during the US Civil War.  Compromise failed in many ways, but ultimately if failed because the sectional wound between the North, South, and eventually the West, was never resolved. Each compromise or act only put a temporary bandage on a wound that needed stitches to fully heal.  However, all sides refused to find that resolution because they all believed their point of view was correct.  They did not have any regard for the integrity of the nation, instead it was for their individual homes or states.  When the Civil War broke out and South Carolina seceded from the Union, a man who would go down in history was offered a much different path. President Lincoln authorized Francis P. Blair Sr., an advisor, to offer Robert E. Lee full command of the Union Army to put down the rebellion in the South.  Despite his loyalty to the United States, Lee refused because he could not help lead an invasion of his native home Virginia and the South.  Like Lee, many others felt the same way in taking up arms to either defend or fight against the United States.


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[1]James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rded, (McGraw-Hill, 2001), 74.