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Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and the Compromise of 1850

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 postponed the potential break-up of the union over the divisive issue of slavery. But the acquisition of new territory as a result of the Mexican War reignited this issue and when James K. Polk left the presidency in March of 1849, sectional tensions were once again flaring up. In 1848, the Whig Party convinced popular General Zachary Taylor to run as their candidate, even though Taylor had never run for office before. No one was even sure what party he belonged to or if he had ever even voted before. Taylor ultimately decided that he supported the Whig Party and agreed to run as their candidate. He won the election as President in November of 1848, as tensions were mounting between slave-holding states and free states. More territory had been acquired during the Mexican War and strong disagreement existed over whether some, all or none of the new territory would allow slavery.

Many in the Whig Party expected that the politically naive Taylor would do as he was told and simply follow the party line on the question of what would become of the new territory. As a southerner who owned slaves himself, southerners expected that they had an ally in the White House. During his brief tenure as president, Taylor surprised many, and established himself as a strong supporter of the union. He refused to take his marching orders from the Whigs in Congress. Debate over the slave status of the large territories claimed in the Mexican War led to threats of secession from Southerners, but despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery. He wanted settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood. Debate over the issue led to the Compromise of 1850, something that Taylor did not support. But before the issue could be decided, Taylor died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five bills, passed in Congress in September of 1850, intended to broker a peace in the confrontation between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North concerning the status of the newly acquired territories. The compromise was drafted by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. It was negotiated between Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas, and for a time it prevented secession or civil war and reduced sectional conflict. On September 9, 1850, the Compromise of 1850 transferred a third of Texas's claimed territory (now parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) to the control of the United States government in return for the federal government assuming $10 million of Texas's pre-annexation debt.

Under the compromise, Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico, as well as its claims north of the Missouri Compromise Line. It transferred its public debt to the federal government, and retained the control over El Paso. California's application for admission as a free state with its current boundaries was approved and a Southern proposal to split California at parallel 35° north to provide a Southern territory was abandoned.

The New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory could in principle decide in the future to become slave states by popular vote, even though Utah and a northern fringe of New Mexico were north of the Missouri Compromise Line where slavery had previously been banned. These lands were generally unsuitable for plantation agriculture and their existing settlers were non-Southerners uninterested in slavery. The unsettled southern parts of New Mexico Territory, where Southern hopes for expansion had been centered, remained a part of New Mexico instead of becoming a separate territory.

The most significant Southern gains were (1) a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, the enforcement of which offended Northern public opinion, and (2) preservation of slavery in Washington, DC, although the slave trade was banned there.

The Compromise became possible after Taylor's death. Although Taylor was a slave owner, he favored excluding slavery from the Southwest. Whig leader Henry Clay designed a compromise, which failed to pass in early 1850, due to the opposition of both pro-slavery southern Democrats, led by John C. Calhoun, and anti-slavery northern Whigs. Calhoun's supporters thought that the compromise didn't offer enough to the slave states, while the northern Whigs thought it gave too much. At Clay's suggestion, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas divided Clay's bill into several smaller pieces and he was able to narrowly win their passage over the opposition of those with stronger views on both sides.

After Taylor's death on July 9, 1850, Vice-President Millard Fillmore became president. Despite being a Northerner from New York, Fillmore had very different views on the slavery issue from Taylor. Before Taylor's death, Fillmore told Taylor that, as President of the Senate, he would use his tie-breaking vote to support the Compromise of 1850. When Fillmore took office, the entire cabinet offered their resignations. Fillmore accepted them all and appointed men who supported the compromise, except for Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin. When the compromise finally came before both Houses of Congress, Fillmore urged Congress to pass the original bill. This provoked an enormous battle in congress that eroded much of the public support for the compromise.

On August 6, 1850, Fillmore sent a message to Congress recommending that Texas be paid to abandon its claims to part of New Mexico. This, combined with his mobilization of 750 Federal troops to New Mexico, helped shift a critical number of northern Whigs in Congress away from their insistence upon the Wilmot Proviso (the stipulation that all land gained by the Mexican War must be closed to slavery, proposed by Congressman David Wilmot).

Douglas's effective strategy in Congress combined with Fillmore's message to Congress gave momentum to the Compromise movement. Breaking up Clay's single legislative package, Douglas presented five separate bills to the Senate which individually would:

1. Admit California as a free state.
2. Settle the Texas boundary and compensate the state for lost lands.
3. Grant territorial status to New Mexico.
4. Place federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking escapees—the Fugitive Slave Act.
5. Abolish the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia.

Each measure obtained a majority, and, by September 20, President Fillmore had signed them into law. Fillmore had won the battle, but ended up losing the war. His actions split the Whigs irreparably, as Whigs on both sides were upset by the compromise, which led to a party division that was never healed. One northern Whigs said "God Save us from Whig Vice Presidents." (Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the name of the person who uttered this line.) Millard Fillmore was the last Whig President of the United States and by 1856 the party was a shadow of its former self, with many former anti-slavery Whigs joining the newly formed Republican Party.
Tags: henry clay, james k. polk, millard fillmore, slavery, stephen douglas, zachary taylor

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