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The three years following the passage of Henry Clay's compromise measures were marked by the apparent triumph, in public opinion and in federal and state politics, of the belief that the slavery issue between north and south could be permanently set aside. This triumph was foreshadowed, during the spring and summer of 1850, by a rising demand for sectional peace, which aided Clay and his followers to carry out their program. 

By the time that Congress adjourned, in October 1850, the victory seemed almost won. All that remained was to secure definite ratification by press, pulpit, party resolutions, and the election of "compromise" candidates. To secure this the antislavery sentiment of the north, embodied in the Free Soil movement, and the still more threatening secessionist agitation in the south, must be stamped out, and the old-time political system re-established.

In the northern states, the problem of the defenders of the new compromise was to induce men of anti-slavery tendencies to forego all further agitation concerning slavery, on the ground that the decision just reached was equitable; and that, unless the north accepted it as final, the southern states might be driven to secede. To prove that the failure to exclude slavery from Utah and New Mexico was unimportant was comparatively easy, but to render the fugitive-slave law acceptable seemed at first a difficult task. For the speedy capture of fugitives, special federal commissioners were provided, and the United States marshals and their deputies were enjoined to aid; the procedure was simply proving the identity of the asserted slave to the satisfaction of the commissioner by ex parte evidence, excluding any testimony of the negro whose freedom was at stake; the decision of the commissioner was final, and all good citizens were liable to be called upon to aid in enforcing the law under heavy penalties for refusal or for aiding the fugitive. The commissioner's fee was to be ten dollars when he returned a fugitive to slavery, five when he discharged him. No part of the law indicated any precautions against the enslavement of actually free negroes; it assumed that members of that race were normally slaves and that their liberty was a concern of the laws of the slave states alone, subject only to the check of the commissioner's judgment.

Upon this act was poured out the anger of all unreconciled antislavery people in the autumn of 1850. Public meetings by the hundred were held in all parts of the free states to denounce it as unconstitutional, immoral, unchristian, and abhorrent to every instinct of justice and religion, and to demand its repeal. Many announced their purpose to disobey the act, often in exasperating language. "We hereby declare our purpose," said an Indiana meeting, "to make it powerless in the country by our absolute refusal to obey its inhuman and diabolical provisions." "The enactment of it is utterly null and void," declared a Syracuse mass meeting, "and should so ... be treated by the people."

Against this agitation, such defenders of the compromise as Cass, Dickinson, and Douglas, of the Democrats, and Choate and Webster among the Whigs, began a powerful counter-movement for peace and submission to law. On their side rallied respectable society, the clergy, businessmen, and all who were tired of wrangles; and they all proclaimed earnestly and repeatedly that the time had come for an absolute cessation of antislavery controversy. "Union meetings " in New York, Boston, and other cities approved the compromise measures and demanded the execution of the fugitive-slave law in order to save the country. The great meeting in New York on October 30 voted "the thanks of this community and of the whole nation ... to those eminent statesmen and patriots, Clay, Cass, Webster, Fillmore, Dickinson, Foote, Houston, and others," resolved to sustain the fugitive-slave act by all lawful means, declared all further slavery agitation to be dangerous to the Union, and pledged those present not to vote for anyone who favored it.

No one was more active nor more influential than Webster, who devoted all the powers of his eloquence in letters and speeches to reiterating the substance of his Seventh-of-March speech, denouncing the abolitionists, censuring all who did not admit the binding force of the fugitive-slave law, and declaring, again and again, " No man is at liberty to set up, or affect to set up his own conscience above the law." In Chicago the city council, supported by popular opinion, passed a resolution requesting all citizens to abstain from executing the obnoxious act; but Douglas achieved the feat of bringing a hostile public meeting by sheer force of oratory to adopt resolutions for submission to the law.

The effect of this general campaign for finality was shown in the elections of 1850; the crisis seemed over, and voters were returning to the party situation which existed before 1848. The Whig party, whose platforms were usually rather more antislavery than those of the Democrats, lost ground in congressional and state elections, the Barnburners of 1848 now returned to their old ranks, and the Free Soil party crumbled into insignificance. In two states, however, the Free-Soilers were able to score one last triumph owing to the accident that their representatives in the legislatures held the balance between the two old parties and thus were able to dictate the election of antislavery senators. In Ohio, they assisted in sending to the Senate Benjamin F. Wade, a Whig of strong antislavery principles and pugnacious northern sectionalism. In Massachusetts, by a formal coalition, the two minority groups, Free-Soilers and Democrats, managed to control the legislature and share the offices by electing George S. Boutwell, a Democrat, as governor, and Charles Sumner, a Free-Soiler, as senator. This coalition, which was denounced by the dispossessed "Cotton Whigs" as utterly immoral and unprincipled, seemed by its success to obscure the real decline of anti-slavery feeling; but outside of Massachusetts, the failure of the Free Soil party was manifest.

Meanwhile, a very different contest was going on at the south. There the problem for such leaders as Clay, Crittenden, Stephens, Cobb, and Foote, who accepted the compromise, was far more difficult than that of their northern colleagues. It was necessary to persuade the southern people that their section had not lost by the admission of California and that the north was going to carry out the fugitive-slave law so that no cause existed any longer for secession. In the northernmost slave states, the influence of Clay was strong, but in the "cotton states" an active minority of leaders repudiated the compromise and refused to acquiesce without an effort to bring about secession. The result was a campaign carried on with all the personal absorption, high feeling, and vigorous oratory which characterized the contests of southern leaders with one another. Among the secessionist Governor Quitman, of Mississippi, was prominent, urging that the time for action had come. "There is nothing," he said in his message to the legislature in November, "to encourage the hope that there will be any respite from aggression. Never has hostility to slavery been more distinctly marked or more openly asserted. . . . The North has just triumphed in every claim she has asserted. I do not hesitate to express my decided opinion that the only effectual remedy to evils which must continue to grow from year to year is the prompt and peaceable secession of the aggrieved states." Governor Means, of South Carolina, and Governor Bell, of Texas, were equally ready to bring about a crisis over the Texas boundary question; and all that held Means back from prompt action was his conviction that some other state than South Carolina ought to take the lead. In Alabama, William L. Yancey, the eloquent and radical "fire-eater," organized Southern Rights associations whose purpose was frankly to agitate for disunion, and these were imitated in other states until a new secessionist organization had come into existence. The Alabama Southern Rights Convention, on February 1, 1851, denounced a "tame submission to hostile and unconstitutional legislation," resolved to form a new southern party, called for the election of delegates to a southern congress, and announced that, if any other state or states seceded, Alabama should follow.

On the other side, however, stood the bulk of the conservative Whigs and Democrats; and, in addition, many leaders who had been aggressive for slavery extension during the struggle just ended, but were now willing to accept the compromise as a temporary settlement. Such men as Foote, of Mississippi, Howell Cobb, Alexander Stephens, and the fiery Toombs, of Georgia, were no less champions of southern rights than Quitman and Yancey, and they now threw their personal weight into the scales against secession. The first victory of the southern Unionists was won in the adjourned session of the Nashville Convention of June 1850, which came together again in November, in spite of the fact that Judge Sharkey, the Unionist president, refused to issue the call. So reduced was the membership that the convention did not feel strong enough to do more than denounce the compromise measures, reassert the right of secession, and recommend the south to cut off commercial relations with the north until its rights were recognized. Then the governors of Arkansas, Virginia, Alabama, and Florida, while condemning the compromise, admitted that there was no necessity for secession until some further action on the part of the north should aggravate the situation; and the Texas legislature, instead of insisting on its boundary claim, accepted the federal offer of ten millions as a money compensation, thus removing a possible source of conflict.

Finally came the election of a state convention in Georgia to decide the question of union or secession. The strong trio of Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs canvassed the state, and after a campaign of considerable excitement, the Unionists won a complete victory in November. When the convention met the next month, it drew up what became widely known as the "Georgia platform," embodying the ultimatum of the southern proslavery Unionists. It declared in substance that the state, while not entirely approving of the compromise, would regard it as a permanent adjustment, but in future "would resist even to the disruption of the union' ' any act prohibiting slavery in the territories, or a refusal to admit a slave state or any modification of the fugitive-slave law. By the opening of the year, it looked as though the advocates of peace and union were likely to win in their contest. The next twelve months were to settle the matter definitely.

When Congress met in December 1850, it was evident that a calm had come over that once turbulent and angry body. All the forces of compromise united to declare the finality of the slavery adjustment, Fillmore intimating in his annual message that he would use his veto to protect it, and Clay uniting with forty other members in a manifesto pledging themselves to support no man for office who was not opposed to all further agitation. Attempts by Hale and Giddings, two inveterate anti-slavery champions, to revive discussion of slavery questions provoked no response; and when southern leaders such as Mason, of Virginia, pointed to the agitation against the fugitive-slave law as a proof that the compromise was not working well, they were met by eager assertions on the part of Clay and others that agitation was dying out. "I believe the law will be executed," asserted Cass, "wherever the flag of the Union waves. ... A wonderful change in public sentiment has taken place. It is going on and will go onward until the great object is accomplished. We see it at the North, we see it at the West, and all around us, and we cannot mistake it."

It was a source of grief to Clay and his sympathizers that a succession of annoying episodes proved that the fugitive law was bitterly unpopular at the north. Its passage, accompanied by rumors that the government intended to apply it vigorously, caused a panic among the colored population of northern cities. Fugitives who had been living in imagined security fled to Canada, and their course seemed justified by the first cases under the law, which appeared to show a greater anxiety to return alleged slaves than to secure certainty as to their identity. Finally, in February 1851, a fugitive named Shadrach was violently rescued in Boston by a crowd of negroes after examination before a commissioner. This act, not significant in itself, distressed the advocates of sectional harmony as seeming to contradict their confident assertions of the purpose of the north to execute the act; and Fillmore at once issued a proclamation announcing his purpose to employ the whole force of the government to support the law. In a special message, he also asked Congress for additional powers, with the result of a lively controversy between extreme southerners who were anxious to prove the law a failure and conservatives like Clay, who insisted that the behavior of Massachusetts was exceptional; but no action was taken, and the session ended without further sectional recrimination.

The campaign for finality was now fought to a successful conclusion. In the north, Webster and others continued with unabated activity preaching the sanctity of the Union, the finality of the compromise, the futility and folly of agitation, and the supremacy of the law. It was true that a number of other cases of forcible resistance to the fugitive-slave law occurred in 1851, notably the rescue of " Jerry" in Syracuse by a crowd of abolitionists and others, and the killing of a master, Gorsuch, by a band of negroes, among whom was the fugitive whom he was attempting to recapture. In their anxiety to punish this crime with adequate severity, the federal authorities made an effort to convict a Quaker, Castner Hanway, of treason, on the ground that, as a bystander, he had refused to assist Gorsuch; but this attempt to bring resistance to the fugitive-slave act under the head of "levying war against the United States" proved futile. As the year wore on, it became evident that the compromise had done its work.

In spite of the efforts of radicals, the excitement over the fugitive-slave act diminished, and the people of the free states settled down to an attitude of sincere but reluctant acquiescence. " It is a disgraceful and dirty business," said the Ohio State Journal, "but it is sanctioned by the constitution," and "whatever things it pledges them [the northern people] to do, these things they intend to do, whether agreeable or disagreeable." A sign of this acquiescence was the successful return from Boston of a fugitive named Sims, in April 1851, in spite of the opposition of sympathetic abolitionists.

In the elections of 1851, both Whig and Democratic platforms dropped the last shreds of anti-slavery language. The decline in the Whig vote continued, and the Free Soil party now numbered little more than the old Liberty party. So hopeless appeared its outlook that one of its leaders in the Senate, Chase, of Ohio, formally joined the Democrats in the state election. Another result of the compromise struggle was seen this year in Missouri. Senator Benton, having refused to obey proslavery instructions of the state legislature, and having voted for the admission of California, his defiant attitude led to a split in the Democratic party in the senatorial election. Though Benton retained a majority of Democrats, his opponents joined the Whigs to elect H. S. Geyer, an adherent of the compromise. Benton refused to accept this defeat as final, and fought hard for six years, sitting for one term in the House of Representatives, and dividing his party in election after election, without success. After his death, in 1858, the Bentonian Democrats in many cases became Republicans.

The struggle between the Unionists and Secessionists was now fought to a conclusion in the cotton states, where the efforts of the Southern Rights associations caused a temporary reconstruction of party lines. Most of the Whigs united with the conservative Democrats in a Union party, while the Southern Rights party, comprising the rest of the Democrats, and led by the unreconciled Quitman and Yancey, took the field in a last effort at secession. The result was a sweeping and conclusive victory for the Unionists in every state where the issue was joined, a victory due in large part to the personal power of the Unionist leaders in a region where personality counted much. In Georgia, Cobb, the Union candidate for governor, won easily over the State Rights nominee; in Alabama, both candidates approved the compromise; in Mississippi, the Unionists won a complete victory in the election of delegates for a state convention. This seemed such a personal condemnation that Quitman, the Southern Rights candidate for governor, withdrew and Jefferson Davis took his place, finishing out the campaign with vigor against Foote, who barely succeeded in defeating him. Finally, in South Carolina, where the issue was made between those demanding immediate secession and those advocating cooperation with other states, the cooperations won by a good majority in October. By the autumn of 1851, accordingly, the last elements of irreconcilable opposition to the finality of the compromise were beaten down in north and south. The only relics of the extreme wings were a few Free Soil senators and representatives — Hale, Chase, Sumner, Giddings — and a few Southern Rights exponents. The people of the country clearly accepted the compromise as a settlement, for the time being at all events, and the slavery question seemed laid to rest as a national issue.

The reasons for this state of rest are the same as those for the passage of the compromise: the mass of the northern people were not enough concerned about slavery to risk driving the south into disunion, and were willing to endure even the fugitive-slave law for the sake of regaining political and commercial peace. The southern people, deeply as they felt the loss to their section of a share of California, and little as they trusted the goodwill of the north, were willing to let matters rest, provided nothing further should arise to disturb the equilibrium. So peace reigned once more at Washington, and among the states.