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Chapter 2:

  • The session of 1849-50
  • -- the Compromise measures -- virtual Abrogation of the Missouri Compromise -- the admission of California -- the fugitive slave law-death of Calhoun -- Anecdote of Clay.

The first session of the Thirty-first Congress (1849-50) was a memorable one. The recent acquisition from Mexico of New Mexico and California required legislation by Congress. In the Senate the bills reported by the Committee on Territories were referred to a select committee of which Clay, the distinguished Senator from Kentucky, was chairman. From this committee emanated the bills which, taken together, are known as the compromise measures of 1850.

With some others, I advocated the division of the newly acquired territory by an extension to the Pacific Ocean of the Missouri Compromise line of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude. This was not because of any inherent merit or fitness in that line, but because it had been accepted by the country as a settlement of the sectional question which, thirty years before, had threatened a rupture of the Union, and it had acquired in the public mind a prescriptive respect which it seemed unwise to disregard. A majority, however, decided otherwise, and the line of political conciliation was then obliterated, as far as it lay in the power of Congress to do so. An analysis of the vote will show that this result was effected almost exclusively by the representatives of the North, and that the South was not responsible for an action which proved to be the opening of Pandora's box.1

However objectionable it may have been in 1820 to adopt that political line as expressing a geographical definition of different sectional interests, and however it may be condemned as the assumption by Congress of a function not delegated to it, it is to be remembered that the act had received such recognition and quasi-ratification by the people of the states as to give it a value which it did not originally possess. Pacification had been the fruit borne by the tree, and it should not have been recklessly hewed down and cast into the fire. The frequent assertion then made was that all discrimination was unjust, and that the popular will should be left untrammeled in the formation of new states. This theory [11]

J. C. Calhoun

[12] was good enough in itself, and as an abstract proposition could not be gainsaid; its practical operation, however, has but poorly sustained the expectations of its advocates, as will be seen when we come to consider the events that occurred a few years later in Kansas and elsewhere. Retrospectively viewed under the mellowing light of time, and with the calm consideration we can usually give to the irremediable past, the compromise legislation of 1850 bears the impress of that sectional spirit so widely at variance with the general purposes of the Union, and so destructive of the harmony and mutual benefit which the Constitution was intended to secure.

The refusal to divide the territory acquired from Mexico by an extension of the line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific was a consequence of the purpose to admit California as a state of the Union before it had acquired the requisite population, and while it was mainly under the control of a military organization sent from New York during the war with Mexico and disbanded in California upon the restoration of peace. The inconsistency of the argument against the extension of the line was exhibited in the division of the territory of Texas by that parallel, and payment to the state of money to secure her consent to the partition of her domain. In the case of Texas, the North had everything to gain and nothing to lose by the application of the practice of geographical compromise on an arbitrary line. In the case of California, the conditions were reversed; the South might have been the gainer and the North the loser by a recognition of the same rule.

The compensation which it was alleged that the South received was a more effective law for the rendition of fugitives from service or labor. But it is to be remarked that this law provided for the execution by the general government of obligations which had been imposed by the federal compact upon the several states of the Union. The benefit to be derived from a fulfillment of that law would be small in comparison with the evil to result from the plausible pretext that the states had thus been relieved from a duty which they had assumed in the adoption of the compact of union. Whatever tended to lead the people of any of the states to feel that they could be relieved from their constitutional obligations by transferring them to the general government, or that they might thus or otherwise evade or resist them, could not fail to be like the tares which the enemy sowed amid the wheat. The union of states, formed to secure the permanent welfare of posterity and to promote harmony among the constituent states, could not, without changing its [13] character, survive such alienation as rendered its parts hostile to the security, prosperity, and happiness of one another.

It was reasonably argued that, as the legislatures of fourteen of the states had enacted what were termed “personal liberty laws,” which forbade the cooperation of state officials in the rendition of fugitives from service and labor, it became necessary that the general government should provide the requisite machinery for the execution of the law. The result proved what might have been anticipated—that those communities which had repudiated their constitutional obligations, which had nullified a previous law of Congress for the execution of a provision of the Constitution, and had murdered men who came peacefully to recover their property, would evade or obstruct, so as to render practically worthless, any law that could be enacted for that purpose. In the exceptional cases in which it might be executed, the event would be attended with such conflict between the state and federal authorities as to produce consequent evils greater than those it was intended to correct.

It was during the progress of these memorable controversies that the South lost its most trusted leader, and the Senate its greatest and purest statesman. He was taken from us— “Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest—
” when his intellectual power, his administrative talent, his love of peace, and his devotion to the Constitution might have averted collision; failing in that, he might have been to the South the Palinurus to steer the bark in safety over the perilous sea. Truly did Webster—his personal friend, although his greatest political rival—say of him in his obituary address, “There was nothing groveling, or low, or meanly selfish, that came near the head or the heart of Mr. Calhoun.” His prophetic warnings speak from the grave with the wisdom of inspiration. Would that they could have been appreciated by his countrymen while he yet lived!

While the compromise measures of 1850 were pending, and the excitement concerning them was at its highest, I one day overtook Clay of Kentucky and Berrien of Georgia in the Capitol grounds. They were in earnest conversation. It was the 7th of March—the day on which Webster had delivered his great speech. Clay, addressing me in the friendly manner which he had always employed since I was a schoolboy in Lexington, asked me what I thought of the speech. I liked it better than he did. He then suggested that I should “join the compromise [14] men,” saying that it was a measure which he thought would probably give peace to the country for thirty years—the period that had elapsed since the adoption of the compromise of 1820. Then, turning to Berrien, he said, “You and I will be under ground before that time, but our young friend here may have trouble to meet.” I somewhat impatiently declared my unwillingness to transfer to posterity a trial which they would be relatively less able to meet than we were, and passed on my way.

1 The vote in the Senate on the proposition to continue the line of the Missouri Compromise through the newly acquired territory to the Pacific was twenty-four yeas to thirty-two nays. Reckoning Delaware and Missouri as Southern states, the vote of the two sections was exactly equal. The yeas were all cast by Southern Senators; the nays were all Northern except two from Delaware, one from Missouri, and one from Kentucky.

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