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The year 1850 marks the end of the first stage of the slavery controversy in the United States. In 1843 a movement began for expansion towards the southwest which brought about the annexation of Texas in 1845, the war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848, and the purchase of the great domain of New Mexico and California. In the course of these events, it was discovered that the majority of the people in the states where slavery did not exist were unwilling to see it introduced into any of the newly acquired territories. 

They demanded, accordingly, from Congress, the passage of laws expressly prohibiting involuntary servitude in the new lands, asserting this to be the traditional policy of the country, as illustrated in the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. This sentiment of the free states regarding slavery was to a large degree the result of an agitation for its abolition which had been active for a score of years without any positive results, until the northern feeling against slavery extension revealed that numbers of people who strongly disavowed any sympathy with abolitionists, properly so-called, had, nevertheless, been brought to dislike slavery as an indirect consequence of the abolitionists' incessant denunciation of the institution.

On the other hand, it became evident that the people of the southern states regarded the existence of slavery in the new territories as vital to their interests. They maintained that, from the start, it had been the policy of the country to leave southern territory open to slavery, the proof being the absence of any restrictions upon the territories south of Ohio at the time of the Northwest Ordinance, upon Florida or upon the Louisiana cession south of the Missouri Compromise line. In opposition to the proposal to exclude slavery from all the new regions, they demanded either the admission of slaves everywhere or at least the division of New Mexico and California by a continuation of the Missouri Compromise line, prohibiting slavery to the north of it (as in the Louisiana territory) but permitting it to the southward. They considered the northern attitude an outgrowth of ignorance, bigotry, and unfairness, due to the abolitionist propaganda, and, regarding themselves as the aggrieved party — since the expansion movement was from the start a southern one — freely threatened to dissolve the Union in case their equality in the territories was not conceded.

As soon as the consideration of territorial organization began in Congress, it was found that the House, in which the superiority of the north in population gave an antislavery majority, was balanced by the Senate, in which the number of members from free and slave states was equal. The "Wilmot Proviso," as the clause excluding slavery from the territories was called from its original mover, repeatedly passed the House, from 1846 to 1849, only to fail in the Senate; on the other hand, the extension of the Missouri Compromise line, which the Senate stood ready to adopt, was never favored by the House. Congress could not agree upon any form of organization for the territories, owing to this sectional issue, and popular excitement increased in intensity as year after year elapsed and no decision was reached.

During this controversy, however, there existed a powerful influence which prevented the sectional antagonism from showing itself in undisguised form. Two political parties, the Democratic and Whig, stood in the years from 1840 to 1850 as parts of the accepted institutions of the country, singularly deep-rooted, thoroughly organized in every part of the Union, and not dependent upon casual issues for their existence. Led by keen politicians, their chief function was to carry out elections and fill offices. Around their nominations, platforms, and campaign methods there had grown up a body of tradition hardening into immovable custom; and the sense of party loyalty among the voters had developed into an unquestioning faith and acceptance of the duty of supporting the "regular ticket" and the "usages of the party."

Principles which were supposed to divide Democrats from Whigs were not always easy to discover, since the real basis of the organizations was social and partisan and not related to legislation; but, in general, the Democratic party professed an adherence to states' rights and a tendency to restrict the powers of the central government; while the Whigs inherited to some degree the more liberal governmental views of the Federalists, whose semi-aristocratic attitude they also shared. On all issues of the day, it was practicable and often necessary for the parties to avoid taking definite action since it was seldom that their membership was sufficiently united upon any federal policy to make it safe to enforce party discipline in a merely legislative question. The main desideratum was always party unity in elections; and while the widest divergence in voting in Congress was compatible with party membership, no deviation at election time was tolerated, except in rare cases.

Towards the new slavery issue, the attitude of the two parties was strictly limited by the opinions of the leaders as to how far it was safe for campaign purposes to take ground for or against any measure. In 1844 the Democratic party declared for the annexation of Texas, but the Whig platform carefully avoided the subject, for fear of cooling the zeal of proslavery southerners or of antislavery northern members. As soon as the sectional divergence became apparent in Congress, the local party organizations fell in with the sentiment of their sections, demanding exclusion or admission of slavery as the case required; but this apparent sectional division disappeared in the presidential campaign of 1848, when each party, by the simple expedient of refusing to take any attitude whatever on the problem of slavery in the new territories, was able to face both ways and retain its constituency. Throughout the period, however, there was visible a tendency on the part of the party leaders, both in the federal executive and in Congress, to favor conciliating the south as far as was feasible without danger of alienating the north, since the possibility of southern disunion was always alarming. This attitude, and the absence of any definite party principles on the issue of the extension of slavery, led the more radical antislavery politicians to attempt the formation of a new northern party at Buffalo, in 1848, but the Free Soil organization succeeded only in drawing enough votes in the state of New York from Cass, the Democratic candidate, to secure the election of his rival, General Taylor. The election decided nothing and the situation remained critical.

In the session of Congress beginning December 1849, and lasting to October 1850, the moderate leaders of both parties— Clay, Webster, Cass, Douglas, and others — united to advocate, and, after a bitter struggle, to carry through, a series of acts intended to establish a permanent adjustment between the sections. This arrangement included three minor propositions as make-weights: the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, to satisfy antislavery sentiment; a more stringent fugitive-slave law, to satisfy the demands of slave owners; and the payment of a sum of ten millions in return for the relinquishment by Texas of territorial claims over part of New Mexico. The most important acts were three: one admitted California, where the discovery of gold had already drawn a considerable population, as a free state covering the entire Pacific coastline between Oregon and Mexico; the other two organized Utah and New Mexico as territories without prohibiting slavery, under the so-called "principle of Congressional non-interference." The final determination as to slavery was left to the inhabitants at the time when they should draught a constitution and apply for admission as a state. During the long congressional struggle over this compromise, the south resounded with threats of secession, and a convention of delegates of the slave states met at Nashville to take preliminary steps for uniting the section in case its rights were not recognized. The state of Texas threatened to assert its claims in the region of New Mexico by force, and President Taylor was preparing to maintain the authority of the United States, at the risk of civil war, when a sudden illness caused his death and the accession of Fillmore, a less pugnacious man, to the presidency. All felt that the country had been saved from a dangerous crisis by the leadership of Clay and his colleagues.

With the passage of these compromise laws, every part of the public territories of the United States received some sort of regulation as regards slavery. Except for the Indian reservation, all of the old Louisiana purchase which still remained in the territorial state was closed to slavery by the Missouri Compromise, which in 1845 had also been extended over a small part of Texas. The Oregon territory was closed by an organizing act of 1848. All that was left open to slaveholders was the large but arid domain of Utah and New Mexico, clearly unsuited to any industry hitherto carried on in the United States by slave labor. It seemed as though there was no further opportunity for sectional controversy over the slavery issue, provided that the existing conditions remained unaltered.

From 1850 to i860 the problem for the political leaders of the United States was that of guiding public affairs in such a way that neither section of the country should again feel that its interests were endangered. It was obvious that the chief danger to this program was to be feared from the southern extremists; for, whatever might be the legal or political rights of the south, the slave-holding communities, as Calhoun had been pointing out for a generation, were on the defensive and were in the minority. There was no northern institution which was really endangered by the south, no northern interest menaced by southern reprobation. Slavery, on the contrary, was the object of attack by northern public opinion; and if the north should, as a unit, decide to exclude slavery from the federal domain or to use the powers of the federal government to discourage the institution, its superiority of numbers would enable it to carry out the purpose. With this situation clearly before them, southern extremists formed a far larger proportion of the local population than did abolitionists in the north and were held in far higher respect at home and greater awe in the councils at Washington. They proclaimed a visible danger. Accordingly, all the conservative leaders of both sections regarded the south as the political element of the country to be placated and exercised their influence in executive, legislative, and judicial office upon that assumption. With the older generation, as sectional dangers thickened, this feeling grew to be the sole effective political aim, until the last years of such a man as Webster were devoted to the one object of inducing his section to cease criticizing the south, for fear of endangering the safety of the federal Union; and the entire energy of such a president as Pierce or Buchanan was expended in trying to satisfy southern desires.

The powerful assistance of the existing parties in carrying out this plan was clearly recognized, and from 1850 to i860 the possibility of keeping the south contented was seen to rest largely upon the preservation of these organizations in their national, non-sectional condition. So long as Whig and Democratic parties drew support from all parts of the country it was not possible for a sectional president or a sectional Congress to be elected. But it was seen that the free states if a sectional northern party were formed, could through their superior population elect an antislavery president and Congress, a result which would inevitably precipitate disunion; so that the one great political danger dreaded by conservatives and by the older party leaders was the disturbance of the existing party loyalty and the rise of either a northern or a southern sectional party. The practical problem in 1850 was, then, to preserve the old Whig and Democratic traditions, and to resume, if possible, the comparatively innocuous party contests of the years before 1848.

The only source of possible friction lay in the chance that the southern people might again attempt tropical annexations, an event which, in 1850, seemed by no means unlikely. Should the acquisition of Cuba, the goal of southern desires, be seriously sought, the question of the addition of slave territory would lift its head, and might again arouse the north to sectional action; hence any attempt on the part of the United States to enter this field must be made with caution. Other points where the federal government must continue to touch slavery might prove annoying, but could hardly be dangerous. The new fugitive-slave law involved no striking novelty, and the diplomacy of slavery, relating to the slave trade and shipwrecked or mutinous negroes, was not sufficiently important to arouse sectional antagonism.

Now that the slavery question had received some sort of adjustment, it remained to be seen whether the country would acquiesce and let the old parties resume their customary electoral contests, and concern themselves with those problems of internal government with which their earlier days had been taken up — such as the currency, the tariff, the public lands. The administration in power was that of Millard Fillmore, a conservative Whig, thoroughly committed to the compromise measures which, as president, he had signed. His cabinet, newly formed in the summer of 1850, was equally determined to adhere to sectional harmony, from Webster, the secretary of state, and Corwin, secretary of the treasury, to Crittenden, of Kentucky, the attorney-general. The era of compromise opened with its friends in power in all parts of the federal government.