When Congress met, in December, 1848, the last session under Polk's Presidency, it had to confront a state of things unexpected a year before. The discovery of rich gold mines in California had attracted thither from all parts of the country a sudden and unexampled emigration, increasing in volume from day to day. In a few months a population gathered there strong enough in numbers to authorize the organization of a State government. In any event, the character of that population and the adventurous nature of its pursuits rendered the establishment of some legal authority peculiarly pressing. Polk, therefore, strongly urged that the provisional military rule in New Mexico and California, which ought to have ceased with the war, should be superseded by legally organized territorial governments.
As to the slavery question, he recommended the extension of the Missouri Compromise line. Various schemes were proposed in Congress, provoking hot debates between pro-slavery and antislavery men. The excitement was increased by vigorous protests from the inhabitants of New Mexico and California against the introduction of slavery there; by an attempt on the part of Calhoun to organize a distinctively Southern party; and by threats that the Union would be dissolved in case the North insisted upon the exclusion of slavery from the new conquests; until finally, the impossibility of an agreement becoming evident, the Thirtieth Congress adjourned, leaving the decision of the great question to its successor. . . .
The slaveholding interest watched these proceedings with constantly increasing alarm. The territories taken from Mexico were eluding its grasp. Instead of adding to the strength of the South, they would increase the power of the free States. It was a terrible shock. The mere anticipation of it had brought forth suggestions of desperate remedies. The cry of disunion was raised with increasing frequency and violence. Many meant it only as a threat to frighten the North into concession. But there were not a few Southern men also who had regretfully arrived at the conclusion that the dissolution of the Union was necessary to the salvation of slavery. On the other hand, while every Southern legislature save one denounced the exclusion of slavery as a violation of Southern rights, every Northern legislature save one passed resolutions in favor of the Wilmot Proviso.2 . . .
Clay, on January 29, 1850, unfolded his "comprehensive scheme of adjustment." His object was to save the Union, and he reasoned thus: The Union is threatened by the disunion spirit growing up in the South. That disunion spirit springs from an apprehension that slavery is not safe in the Union. The disunion spirit must be disarmed by concessions calculated to quiet that apprehension. These concessions must be such as not to alarm the North. Clay proposed, in a set of resolutions to be followed by appropriate bills, a series of measures intended to compromise all conflicting interests and aspirations. The first declared that California should be speedily admitted as a Stateof course, with her free-State constitution; the second, that, as slavery did not by law exist, and was not likely to be introduced in any of the territories acquired from Mexico, Congress should provide territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah, without any restriction as to slaverythus sacrificing the Wilmot Provisowithout, however, authorizing slaveholders to take their slaves therethus adjourning the slavery question as to those territories to a future day; the third and fourth, that a boundary line between Texas and New Mexico should be fixt, giving to Texas but little of the New Mexican territory she claimed, but granting her a certain sum of money for the payment of that part of her public debt for which, during her independent existence, her customs revenue had been pledged; the fifth, that it was inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the consent of Maryland, etc.; the sixth, that the slave-trade in the District should be prohibited; the seventh, that a more effectual fugitive-slave law should be enacted; and the eighth, that Congress had no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slaveholding States. The preamble declared the purpose of these resolutions to be "for the peace, concord, and harmony of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them, arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable, and just basis."
This was Clay's plan of compromise. There was at once a rattling fusillade of objections and protests from Southern men, Whigs as well as Democrats. On February 5 Clay supported his plan of adjustment with a great speech. The infirmities of old age began to tell upon him. Walking up to the Capitol, he asked a friend who accompanied him, "Will you lend me your arm? I feel myself quite weak and exhausted this morning." He ascended the long flight of steps with difficulty, being several times obliged to stop in order to recover his breath. The friend suggested that he should defer his speech, as he was too ill to exert himself that day. "I consider our country in danger," replied Clay; "and if I can be the means in any measure of averting that danger, my health and life is of little consequence."
When he arrived at the Senate chamber, he beheld a spectacle well apt to inspire an orator. For several days his intention had been known to address the Senate on February 5, and from far and nearfrom Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and places still more distantmen and women had come in great numbers to hear him. The avenues of the Senate chamber were buzzing with an eager multitude who in vain struggled to gain access to the thronged galleries and the equally crowded floor. When Clay arose to speak, an outburst of applause in the chamber greeted him. The noise was heard without, and the great crowd assembled there raised such a shout that the orator could not make himself heard until the officers of the Senate had gone out and cleared the entrances. Clay's speech occupied two days. . . .
The debate which followed called forth all the great men of the Senate. On March 4 Calhoun appeared, gaunt and haggard, too ill to speak, but still full of that grim energy with which he had been for so many years defending the interests of slavery, calling them the rights of the South. His oration was read to the Senate by Mason of Virginia. Calhoun's mind was narrow, but within its narrow sphere acute. He saw with perfect clearness that slavery could not be saved within the Union, and that every compromise putting off the decisive crisis only made its final doom all the more certain. . . .
There he sat, the old champion of slavery, himself the picture of his doomed causea cause at war with the civilization of the age, vainly struggling against destinya cause which neither union nor disunion, neither eloquence in council, nor skill in diplomacy, nor bravery in battle, could save: there he sat, motionless like a statue, with the hand of death upon him; his dark eyes flashing with feverish luster from beneath his knitted brows; listening to his own words from another's mouth, and anxiously watching on the faces of those around their effectwords of mournful despair, heralding the coming fate, and, without hope, still trying to avert it by counseling impossible expedients. Four weeks later Calhoun closed his eyes forever, leaving his cherished cause to its doom. Clay and Webster were among those who strewed flowers of eulogy upon his grave.
On July 22, nearly six months after the introduction of his resolutions, and two and a half months after the Committee of Thirteen had presented its report, Clay made his closing speech . Ever since January 28 he had been on the floor almost day after day, sometimes so ill that he could hardly drag his tottering limbs to the Senate chamber. . . .
His patriotism was, however, not all meekness. In the same speech he severely censured the Abolitionists as reckless agitators, and denounced the Southern fire-eaters for their disunion tendencies, reflecting especially upon a member of the Nashville Convention, Rhett of South Carolina, who, after his return to Charleston, had in a public meeting openly proposed to hoist the standard of secession. When Clay had finished his appeal for peace and union, Barnwell of South Carolina, Calhoun's successor, rose and declared his dissatisfaction with Clay's remarks, "not a little disrespectful to a friend" whom he held very dear, and upon whose character he then proceeded to pronounce a warm eulogy, intimating that the opinions held and expressed by Mr. Rhett might possibly be those of South Carolina. Clay was quickly upon his feet. "Mr. President," he replied, "I said nothing with respect to the character of Mr. Rhett. I know him personally, and have some respect for him. But, if he pronounced the sentiment attributed to him of raising the standard of disunion and of resistance to the common government, whatever he has been, if he follows up that declaration by corresponding overt acts"the old man's eye flashed and his voice rang out in a thundering peal"he will be a traitor, and I hope he will meet the fate of a traitor!" Like an electric shock the word thrilled the audience, and volleys of applause broke forth from the crowded galleries.
After Clay's closing speech the voting began. Several Southern Senators, who at first had been bitterly opposed to Clay's plan, had gradually become persuaded. But the compromise had to suffer a disheartening defeat before achieving its victory. Amendments were offered in perplexing profusion. The Omnibus Bill was disfigured almost beyond recognition. At last, after a series of confusing manipulations, Clay himself incautiously accepted an amendment offered by a Senator from Georgia, that, until a final settlement of the Texas boundary was effected with the assent of Texas, the territorial government of New Mexico should not go into operation east of the Rio Grande. As this was virtually delivering over New Mexico to Texas, the whole provision concerning New Mexico was struck out by the aid of friends of the compromise; and when on July 31 the bill was passed, there was nothing left in the "Omnibus" but the establishment of a territorial government for Utah. All the rest had been amended out of it. The compromise seemed to be lost.
The next day Clay appeared in the Senate once more to avow his devotion to the Union, and to defy its enemies; for he feared that, the compromise having failed, it might now be impossible to save it without the employment of force. "I stand here in my place," he said, "meaning to be unawed by any threats, whether they come from individuals or from States. I should deplore, as much as any man living or dead, that arms should be raised against the authority of the Union, either by individuals or by States. But if, after all that has occurred, any one State, or the people of any State, choose to place themselves in military array against the Government of the Union, I am for trying the strength of the Government." The galleries broke out in applause, which was checked by the presiding officer. . . .
At last, on August 2, mortified, exhausted, broken in health, he gave up his leadership and went to Newport to rest and recuperate. Then, in Clay's absence, that proved true, which had been frequently urged against the Omnibus Bill, namely, that measures which could not be adopted when lumped together, might be adopted separately. . . .
When Clay returned to Washington in the last week of August, he found that the Senate had carried out the whole program laid down in his compromise resolutions seven months before, except the interdiction of the slave traffic in the District of Columbia. After a long debate, in which Clay with great emphasis exprest his expectation that slavery would pass away in the District, adding that he was glad of it, that bill, too, passed and became a law. The compromise of 1850 was then substantially complete. . . .
The compromise of 1850 was perhaps the best that could be made under the circumstances to effect a temporary truce. But no compromise could have been devised to keep the antagonistic forces of freedom and slavery permanently at peace. Calhoun was perfectly right in his conclusion that slavery, in order to exist with security in the Union, must rule it. It needed controlling political powermore Slave States, more representation, an absolute veto upon all legislation hostile to it. If slavery could not obtain this within the Union, and still desired to live, it had to try its fortunes outside. Calhoun's great error was to believe that slavery could survive at all in the nineteenth century. . . .
A prolific source of mischief later was the fugitive-slave law. No doubt a large number of slaves had in the course of time escaped from the South and found shelter in the North. No doubt the Northern States had been remiss in performing their constitutional obligations as to the return of fugitives, for in some of them the enforcement of the existing law was actually obstructed by State legislation. No doubt the South had in this respect occasion to complain. But an institution like slavery was naturally exposed to such losses. It would have been prudent to bear them in silence. It was certainly most unwise to make laws calculated to bring the most odious features of slavery home to a free people naturally impatient of its existence. This the fugitive-slave law did in a very provoking form. It gave United States commissioners the power, by summary process, to turn over a colored man or woman claimed as a fugitive slave to the claimant. It excluded from the evidence the testimony of the defendant. It "commanded" all good citizens, whenever summoned, to aid in the prompt and effective execution of the law, including the capture of the fugitive. It made the United States marshal liable for the full value of the slave, if a recaptured fugitive escaped from his custody.
1 From Schurz's "Life of Henry Clay." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright, 1887.
2 The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 prohibited slavery in territory that was about to be purchased from Mexico. It never became a law.