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15.1: The Sectional Balance Begins to Unravel

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    Northerners and southerners alike saw the territories in the West as a place of opportunity to improve their quality of life. People from both regions wanted to ensure social mobility, but their views of social mobility differed significantly. For northerners, it meant small, family homesteads where they could ensure self-sufficiency and participate in the market economy. For southerners, it meant the opportunity to acquire more land and more slaves on which to build their life. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, political leaders struggled to balance the interests of their constituents and maintain national unity. They managed to halt the sectional conflict with the Compromise of 1850, but their efforts provided only a temporary solution to the problem of a nation half slave and half free.

    Slavery in the Territories

    For at least some Americans, the Mexican-American War and the potential territorial expansion spelled trouble for the future of the United States. An aging John C. Calhoun opposed the war because it would bring slavery back into the national political discourse. A young Abraham Lincoln had similar misgivings. From the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s, the Democratic Party had managed to keep debates about slavery in Congress to a minimum with the gag rule. Calhoun and Lincoln realized, however, that any discussion over a treaty with Mexico or the question of slavery in newly acquired territories would raise challenging issues. Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson also recognized the potential problem, when he noted, “Mexico will poison us.” These men, of course, were correct since the sectional divide only intensified after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

    Wilmot Proviso

    Before the end of the war, Democrat Representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania brought up the question of slavery in the territories. Wilmot proposed to ban slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso passed in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. The measure came before Congress several times over the next few years; in every instance, northerners voted for the compromise and southerners voted against it. Party affiliation, it seemed, mattered little when it came to the debate over slavery in the territories.

    Screenshot (264).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Wilmot Proviso | In 1846, Democrat David Wilmot, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a proviso to an appropriations bill that would have barred slavery in any territory acquired as a result of the Mexican-American War. His suggestion reintroduced the issue of slavery into national politics. artist: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    Wilmot introduced the measure because he opposed slavery and because he opposed southern control of the Democratic Party. As northerners lined up to support the measure, both reasons motivated their decision. Northern Democrats worried the question of slavery in the territories would drive antislavery voters to the Whigs; taking the lead on banning slavery in the Southwest would lessen that possibility. Meanwhile, true abolitionists found the proposal appealing. It fell short of their ultimate goal to end slavery as quickly as possible, but it allowed them to duck charges of extremism. Many northerners believed they were fulfilling the wishes of the founding fathers by fighting the extension of slavery. They maintained that the Revolutionary generation compromised on slavery in order to provide a decent interval for the institution to die out naturally. As such, supporters of the Wilmot Proviso invoked the Revolution’s legacy.

    Few southerners expected slavery to take hold in most of the Mexican Cession because the climate was inhospitable to plantation slavery. However, they objected to the Wilmot Proviso because it would limit their ability to dominate national politics. While they held a majority in the Senate in 1846, they could not compete in the House. The North’s population grew at a much faster rate than did the South’s. If Congress legislated on the status of slavery in the territories, then it might also pass laws on the status of slavery in the states in the future. Calhoun, hoping to halt further debate on the issue, introduced a measure suggesting that the Fifth Amendment prevented Congress from excluding slavery from the territories. The Senate did not pass Calhoun’s resolution because the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise had set a precedent for Congressional authority. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo went into effect, it became more important for Congress to set up territorial governments. Thus, the future of slavery in the territories became a major issue in the next presidential election.

    Election of 1848

    The extension of slavery proved problematic for both the Democrats and Whigs. Both parties had always been a coalition of diverse voters, and they had won national elections by holding those voters together in support or opposition of issues like the tariff. Slavery had always been the issue leaders wanted to avoid at all costs, but that no longer seemed possible in 1848. First, the Wilmot Proviso made the issue a matter of national public debate. Until the national government resolved the issue, it would continue to dominate politics. Second, antislavery advocates worked hard to keep the expansion of slavery on the minds of voters. Northern “Free Soilers” sought to prevent the expansion of slavery. Most Free Soilers did not worry much about the effect of slavery on the slaves. Rather, they worried about how slavery undermined the dignity of free labor. Southern proponents of slavery hardly could understand the Free Soil arguments. Slavery provided blessings to the slave and to the master, and thus should be spread to the new territories.

    James K. Polk opted not to run again in 1848, so potential Democratic candidates James Buchanan and Lewis Cass proposed solutions on the extension question in their attempt to win the nomination. Buchanan, Polk’s secretary of state, supported the administration’s plan to extend the Missouri Compromise line (the 36°30’ line) to the Pacific Ocean. The Senate voted to support the proposal several times before the election, but the House voted it down. Lewis Cass, a Michigan senator, proposed letting the people who actually settled in the territories decide slavery’s fate. Popular sovereignty’s most appealing feature was the ambiguity about the precise moment when settlers needed to decide slavery’s fate. The doctrine won Cass the Democratic nomination because, as long as the timing remained vague, it gave both sides hope they could win new territories to their cause.

    Meanwhile, the Whigs hoped to maintain party unity by adopting no platform at all. They also decided to bypass longtime Whig leader Henry Clay because of his association with the Whig’s efforts to oppose territorial expansion during the war. The Whigs needed to accept and deal with the Mexican Cession because peace came before they nominated a candidate. So, they chose General Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero. Historian James M. McPherson suggests his nomination “illustrated…the strange bedfellow nature of American politics.” Taylor hardly looked presidential; he often appeared in a simple uniform and a straw hat when in battle. At the same time, his image of “Old Rough and Ready” had great appeal to the average voter. Furthermore, Taylor owned plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, ensuring that southern Whigs would not abandon the party after their northern brethren supported the Wilmot Proviso.

    Screenshot (265).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Zachary Taylor | This portrait captures Zachary Taylor, the successful presidential nominee in 1848. The Whigs chose him because he was war hero and a plantation owner. artist: Unknown Source: National Archives US Presidents in the Census Records

    Antislavery Whigs could not accept Taylor’s nomination. Therefore, they left the party. New Yorker William H. Seward proclaimed the time had come to create “one grand Northern party of Freedom.” They joined with the Barnburners, who were a group of Democrats opposed to Cass’s nomination, as well as members of the Liberty Party. In August, the new Free Soil Party met in Buffalo. It nominated Martin Van Buren for president and Charles Francis Adams for vice president. The Free Soil platform called for no more slave states and no more slave territories. At the same time, delegates carefully chose a former president and the son of a former president to give their ticket more appeal to voters.

    The presence of the Free Soil candidate in 1848 meant the Whigs and the Democrats could not ignore the issue of slavery. The Whigs promoted statements made by Taylor that he would not veto any decisions Congress made about slavery in the North; they also highlighted Taylor’s status as a war hero and a slaveholder in the South. The Democrats, meanwhile, embraced the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Taylor won both the popular and the Electoral College votes. He was stronger in the South than in the North. However, Van Buren took ten percent of the popular vote, throwing many northern states into the Taylor column. As it turned out, Taylor shared the Free Soilers’ ideas about preventing the extension of slavery. Moreover, the Free Soilers elected nine representatives and two senators, Salmon P. Chase (OH) and Charles Sumner (MA). Their influence far exceeded their numbers when the new Congress began to address California’s application for statehood.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Presidential Election Map, 1848 | The central issue of the 1848 election related to the extension of slavery in the territories. Both the Democrats and the Whigs hoped to avoid the issue, but the presence of the Free Soil candidate meant the parties had to take a stand. The Democrats promoted popular sovereignty. The Whigs, meanwhile, did not unite on a single position; they ran different campaigns in the North and the South. Ultimately, the Whigs triumphed. (Public Domain; United States Geological Survey via Wikipedia)

    Question of California

    While the presidential election played out, an unexpected discovery in California quickened the pace of the sectional divide. In January 1848, a worker at John Sutter’s sawmill in northern California stumbled upon gold. Word spread quickly to San Francisco about the discovery. Within days, the city appeared empty as people poured into the gold fields. By the end of the year, gold fever had shifted to the East coast. The so-called “fortyniners” migrated to California to make their fortune. The population grew so quickly that military authorities called for an organized territorial government. Before Congress acted, California had enough people to consider applying for statehood. Throughout the debate on the extension of slavery, politicians assumed they would have plenty of time before any of the areas of the Mexican Cession would apply for statehood. The gold rush, of course, changed that assumption.

    As California’s population rose, national leaders weighed the question of whether the new state would be slave or free. Southerners saw California as the most suitable territory acquired from Mexico for cotton production. Northerners refused to accept the idea that its suitability preordained it as a slave state. Meanwhile, the residents of California grew impatient since the lame-duck Polk did little to encourage a divided Congress to appoint a territorial government before they adjourned. In fact, tensions ran so high in the Senate that late one night several rather drunk members began to exchange not only insults, but punches too. When Zachary Taylor took office, he made it clear he wanted to resolve the issue. He proposed to skip the creation of a territory and move directly to the application for statehood. So, the military authorities in California issued a call for a state constitutional convention.

    The president worked under the assumption that California, as well as New Mexico, would become free states. Although he owned slaves, Taylor supported a Free Soil solution for the Mexican Cession as the best way to preserve the Union. The settlers in California also opposed slavery, which worked in Taylor’s favor. In July 1849, a group of Texas slaveholders arrived in the gold fields. After staking out their claim, they set their slaves panning for gold. White miners did not like the idea of competing with slave labor. Hence, they held a meeting to discuss slavery in the gold fields. The miners resolved that “no slave or Negro should own claims or even work in the mines.” Not long after forcing the Texans out, a delegate to the state constitutional convention from the mining region proposed a ban on slavery and involuntary servitude in California. The other delegates supported the measure unanimously and began to draft a constitution that barred slavery. Although California’s application for statehood seemed the perfect the opportunity to test the real meaning of popular sovereignty, it instead provoked a crisis in Congress.

    Compromise of 1850

    Tensions between northern and southern leaders were quite high when the new Congress convened in December 1849. The House could not even decide on a new speaker, much less on the more substantial questions about slavery once Zachary Taylor proposed to admit California to the Union. The president, wanting to play on the members’ devotion to the Union, asked them not to discuss the “exciting topics of a section character” that “provided the painful apprehensions in the public mind.” According to historian Michael A. Morrison, Taylor hoped non-action in Washington would allow people in the West to take the initiative with respect to becoming a free or a slave state. However, few members of Congress—Whig or Democrat— wanted a quick solution.

    Northern Whigs saw the president’s move as rejecting his support for the Wilmot Proviso. Southern Whigs saw the president as a traitor to the slaveholding class. Southern Democrats maintained the president wanted to harm the South on purpose. Southerners, regardless of party affiliation, believed they would, perhaps permanently, lose control of the Senate with California’s admission as a free state. Taylor’s request did little to quell the debate. According to one northerner, it seemed that slavery affected every public policy issue in 1850. Henry Clay once again decided to step in to promote a compromise. Denied the Whig nomination in 1848, Clay wanted to seize the initiative from the president and preserve national unity as he had done with the Missouri Compromise. Daniel Webster and Stephen A. Douglas aided him in working out the details and finally getting Congressional approval. At the same time, John C. Calhoun and William H. Seward led the opposition to any compromise.

    Road to the Compromise

    On January 29, 1850, Henry Clay rose before the Senate to introduce a series of measures to relieve the sectional tension. Throughout much of his career, the Kentucky senator had promoted economic growth and national unity at the expense of slavery, even though he owned slaves. He proposed measures that required both sides to give a little in the increasingly tense debate. First, California would enter the Union as a free state; the rest of the Mexican Cession would organize without restriction on slavery, or along the lines popular sovereignty. Second, Texas would abandon its claim to territory in New Mexico; in return, the federal government would cover debts incurred by Texas when it was an independent republic. Third, Congress would abolish the slave trade but not slavery in the District of Columbia. Finally, Congress would adopt a stronger fugitive slave law, but it would not regulate the interstate slave trade. Clay’s proposals touched off an eight-month debate in Congress. Southern and northern radicals opposed the measures for a variety of reasons.

    Screenshot (267).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Henry Clay Promotes Compromise | Questions surrounding the extension of slavery in Mexican Cession, especially California, created a major rift between the North and South. Longtime unionist, Henry Clay, promoted a series of measures in 1850 designed to resolve the differences of opinion. artist: Engraving by Robert Whitechurch of painting by Peter Rothermel Source: Library of Congress

    John C. Calhoun spoke ardently for the southern position. Calhoun, who was too ill to deliver his own speech, blamed the North for the crisis. He implied only the North could save the Union “by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled.” Moreover, the North needed to “provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution…which will restore to the South in substance the power she possessed of protecting herself, before the equilibrium between the sections was destroyed by the action of this Government.” If the North failed to respond to the South’s concerns, Calhoun indicated the South could not stay in the Union.

    In his first speech before the Senate, William H. Seward explained the northern opposition to compromise. Seward denied the Constitution protected the right to own human property and, even if it did, slavery was “repugnant to the law of nature and of nations.” While the Constitution did recognize slavery, he implied the institution was incompatible with the nation’s founding principles. “Freedom is…in harmony with the Constitution of the United States…You may separate slavery from South Carolina, and the state will still remain; but if you subvert freedom there, the state will cease to exist.” Finally, he suggested Americans, though subject to the Constitution, were subject to a higher law as well. Clay, Taylor, and others lambasted the radical and inflammatory nature of Seward’s comments, but to some extent, he represented the feelings of much of the upper North.

    While the radicals set the tone of public debate, moderates from the lower North and upper South worked toward a compromise. In a speech supporting the compromise, Daniel Webster said, “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union…I speak to-day out of a solicitous and anxious heart for the restoration to the country of that quiet and harmonious harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich, and so dear to us all.” Many moderates shared his opinion and hoped to gain support for Clay’s scheme. A special Congressional committee combined the proposals into the one measure. The supporters of compromise hoped the desire to preserve the Union would outweigh sectional interests so they could pass the “Omnibus Bill.” Unfortunately, they hoped in vain.

    Radicals, who composed nearly two-thirds of Congress, did not intend to accept the compromise. Neither, for that matter, did Zachary Taylor. He wanted to see California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota admitted to statehood before the question of slavery was addressed, a proposal that would have given the North a ten-vote majority in the Senate. A sudden turn of events changed the debate over the compromise. Zachary Taylor died unexpectedly on July 9, 1850. Millard Fillmore, a New Yorker who ardently supported a compromise, succeeded him. Even with Fillmore’s support, the Omnibus Bill failed to win a majority in either chamber.

    Screenshot (268).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Millard Fillmore | This photograph captures Millard Fillmore who ascended to the presidency after Zachary Taylor unexpectedly died. Author: Unknown Source: National Archives US Presidents in the Census Records

    While Clay gave up on the compromise, other members of Congress decided to try a different tactic. Led by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, supporters of compromise worked to salvage the situation. Douglas broke Clay’s proposal into separate parts. By introducing the measures one at a time, he managed to gather support from varying coalitions of Whigs and Democrats and Northerners and Southerners on each issue. In September, Fillmore signed each bill—collectively known as the Compromise of 1850—into law. California entered the Union as a free state. New Mexico and Utah territories were organized, but Congress deferred the question of slavery until their admission as states. Texas gave up a portion of its western boundary to New Mexico in return for $10 million. Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Finally, Congress passed a more stringent fugitive slave law.

    Impact of the Compromise

    People around the country rejoiced at how the compromise saved the Union; the president even called it “a final settlement” of sectional differences. However, radicals on both sides maintained the battle would continue, especially when the Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. Few members of Congress had paid much attention to the provisions of the measure designed to assist slaveholders capture runaway slaves. The nation’s first fugitive slave law came in 1793 because Article IV of the Constitution said “No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” However, the 1850 version made the law much harsher than it had been in the past.

    The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required all citizens to help in the capture of fugitive slaves. U.S. Marshalls had the ability to deputize citizens to aid in seizing runaways. Those who refused to help or interfered in the effort to capture slaves faced stiff fines and jail time. Furthermore, those accused of being runaways had no right to a jury trial and no right to testify in their own defense. Federal commissions could send blacks, runaway or free, back to slavery solely on the sworn statement of individuals claiming to be their owners. The law also said the government would pay commissioners a $10 fee if they found in favor of the claimant, but a $5 fee if they found in favor of the accused. Frustrated about the preference the law gave to southern slaveholders, northerners began to obstruct its implementation. While the law did not turn all northerners into antislavery advocates, many believed that accepting it would undermine their states’ freedom of choice.

    In northern communities, blacks and whites banded together to protect runaways. They passed “personal liberty laws” denying federal officials the use of state facilities. They formed vigilance committees to warn blacks when slave catchers arrived in town and to obstruct their efforts in capturing runaways. In Boston, abolitionists helped fugitives William and Ellen Craft of Georgia escape capture by harassing the slave catchers in the streets. They also freed Shadrach, who fled his master in Virginia, from a federal courtroom. Abolitionists saved some runaways with such daring stunts, but they could not save them all. In the 1850s, commissioners returned over three hundred blacks to the South and set only eleven free. Most fugitives opted to head to Canada rather than wait to see whether a slave catcher would come after them.

    In Christiana, a small Quaker community near Gettysburg, a slaveholder died in an attempt to capture his runaways. Millard Fillmore, under pressure from southerners to enforce the law, sent the marines to find the runaways and those responsible for the slaveholder’s death. The federal government tried the resisters for treason, but the case fell apart. Local juries would simply not convict those accused of violating the law. Southerners expressed horror at the open defiance of the law, even though most northerners complied with it. Historian William W. Freehling remarks that white southerners happily relied on the use of federal power “whenever necessary to sustain the Peculiar Institution,” even as they promoted states’ rights. Historian Vernon Burton indicated southerners expected the federal government to protect their right to property even when it came at the expense of northerners’ right to free speech.

    With tensions already on the rise, the antislavery movement stepped up their efforts to persuade the northern population (and if possible some southerners) about the evils of slavery. They relied heavily on slave narratives and novels designed to highlight the worst aspects of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, became the most widely known of these efforts. The book, published in 1852, caused a sensation in the North. In the first year alone, it sold 300,000 copies. Most people were moved by the pain and suffering of the book’s main characters, Uncle Tom and Eliza. More than ever before, they began to think about the moral implications of slavery because Stowe successfully managed to link the antislavery cause with the preservation of the family. Stowe clearly criticized the southern way of life. However, in making the villain, Simon Legree, a northern transplant, she also blamed northerners for their complicity in perpetuating slavery.

    Screenshot (270).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Uncle Tom’s Cabin | Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel featuring the horrors of slavery incensed both northerners and southerners. People in the North reacted to the abuse slaves faced, while people in the South claimed the book contained many falsehoods about slavery. Author: Unknown Source: Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin

    While it would be hard to quantify the impact of Stowe’s book, James McPherson maintains that few contemporaries “doubted its power.” Influential political leaders both at home and abroad read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Moreover, the “vehemence of the southern denunciations” of the book served as “best gauge of how close they hit home.” Most southerners considered Stowe’s book slanderous. The Southern Literary Messenger thought the South had every right to criticize the book because it contained so many false accusations. Pro-slavery authors responded with dozens of books designed to counter the images presented in the antislavery literature. Most of their efforts suggested that slaves lived far better lives than workers in the North did; they focused on the goodness and gentility of life on the plantation. They suggested that slavery’s shortcomings came not from deficiencies in the institution, but from an unequal union.

    As national elections approached in 1852, much like in 1848, Whigs and the Democrats sought to close the sectional rifts that had opened within their parties. Both parties chose moderates who had not inflamed voters’ passions on the question of slavery. The Whigs needed to find a candidate other than Millard Fillmore, because antislavery Whigs would not vote for him after he ardently upheld The Fugitive Slave Law. Southern Whigs refused to support William H. Seward because of the “Higher Law” speech. To maintain party unity, they selected Winfield Scott, a Mexican War hero and non-slaveholding Virginian. The Democrats also bypassed their better-known members, including James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas. They settled on Franklin Pierce, a former New Hampshire senator.

    The Democrats and the Whigs wanted to avoid the issue of slavery but had no other issues on which to campaign. A healthy economy meant no one cared much about the tariff, a national bank, or internal improvements. Therefore, the campaign descended into a series of vicious personal attacks. The Whigs implied Pierce had no talent for governing; moreover, he was a cowardly drunk. In return, the Democrats, painted Scott as a nativist, which prevented him from picking up votes among immigrants. Pierce triumphed in both the popular and the Electoral College votes. Free Soil candidate Nathan P. Hale siphoned off some of Scott’s popular votes, but most Democrats returned to the party fold, thus giving Pierce the edge. Moreover, most southern Whigs could not accept Scott as a candidate because he seemed less than devoted to the Compromise of 1850. The sectional divide for the Whigs did not bode well for the party’s future. The Democrats, at least temporarily, papered over their divisions. After the election, many people believed the tensions had finally subsided.


    When Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “Mexico will poison us," he quite accurately captured the effect territorial acquisition from the Mexican-American War had on the United States. New territories raised new questions about the extension of slavery that political leaders could not easily answer in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The Wilmot Proviso, proposing to bar slavery in territories acquired from the war, touched off debate in Congress that took over four years to resolve. The gold rush forced a quick decision on the slave issue because California petitioned for statehood in 1849. Californians desired to enter the Union as a free state, and many southerners stood aghast at the real possibility of the Senate tilting in favor of the free states. Southerners threatened secession. In response, Senator Henry Clay proposed a series of measures, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, to preserve the Union. After months of debate, Congress passed the compromise. Slavery, however, was not a matter that would disappear. Concerns about the response of those opposed to slavery to the Fugitive Slave Law and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to promote the end of slavery kept North and South divided into 1852 when Democrat Franklin Pierce triumphed over Whig Winfield Scott in the presidential election.”

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Wilmot Proviso

    1. was unconstitutional.
    2. would prohibit slavery in lands acquired from Mexico.
    3. passed both houses of Congress.
    4. would extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Compromise of 1850

    1. postponed California statehood.
    2. gave Texas more territory.
    3. ended slavery in Washington, D.C.
    4. strengthened the fugitive slave laws.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin

    1. was perhaps the most effective piece of antislavery propaganda.
    2. was perhaps the most effective piece of proslavery propaganda.
    3. ended section hostilities after its publication in 1852.
    4. presented a picture of happy, well-treated slaves and benevolent masters.


    This page titled 15.1: The Sectional Balance Begins to Unravel is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.