The Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850
California’s application for statehood in 1850 threw Congress into turmoil. Southern leaders refused to consider admitting another free state into the United States. They did not want the balance of power disturbed unless it was going to be in their favor, and California’s leaders had made it clear that they would not permit slavery.
Once again, it was up to Henry Clay to find a way to get the two sides to meet one another halfway. Clay offered Congress the Compromise of 1850— California would enter the Union as a free state, but Congress would agree to sign a new Fugitive Slave Act into law.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had several provisions. First, it stated that a slave’s status was permanent; even if the slave escaped into a free state, he or she was still a slave. This was a change to the existing law, in which a slave automatically gained his or her freedom by traveling to a free state. Second, the Act made the permanency of slave status retroactive, robbing all former slaves throughout the United States of their freedom; their former owners now had a right to claim them as property. Third, the Act called for special commissions to hear cases of disputed ownership. In these trials, African Americans had no right to testify in their own defense, and the judges would earn more money if the slave owner won the case. Obviously, such a system was heavily slanted against the chance of a slave winning his or her case; in addition, it placed free African Americans in grave danger of being forced into slavery, because they could not speak for themselves if they were claimed. Fourth, it was now a crime for any American citizen to aid an escaping slave.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act had several effects. Hundreds of thou- sands of free African Americans, afraid of being returned to slavery, crossed the northern border into Canada to escape the reach of American laws. The Underground Railroad, a secret network of people who helped slaves escape from the Deep South into freedom, became more active than ever before. And thousands of whites living in free states, who already opposed slavery, were roused into becoming fiercely active abolitionists.
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