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THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
To win California as slave territory the Southern leaders had forced the war on Mexico. The territory was won, and no political force had developed strong enough to halt their progress. But now came a check from the realm which could not be cajoled or brow-beaten,-the world of natural and industrial forces. Gold was discovered in California. There was a rush of immigrants, and a swift opening and settlement of the country. The pioneers-hardy, enterprising and democratic-had no use nor room for slaves. They held a convention, with the encouragement of President Taylor; framed a Constitution in which slavery was excluded from the future State-this by unanimous vote, including the 15 delegates who had come from slave States; and the popular vote ratified the proposed Constitution by 10 to I. Then they asked for admission to the Union.
The Southern faction was wrathful. The extremists were for excluding the new State unless slavery was permitted. But it was clear that slavery could not be forced on a State against the wish of its entire people. Then compensation was sought in concessions to be made by the North. The remainder of the new domain, Utah and New Mexico, was not ripe for Statehood; but let slavery, it was urged, be established as a territorial condition. Then came up another grievance of the South. Its fugitive slaves, escaping over the border line, were systematically helped, either to make their way to Canada and the protection of the British flag, or to safe homes in the Northern States. Naturally the slaves
who dared the perils of escape were either the most energetic or the most wronged, and sympathy for them at the North was active and resourceful. Along their most frequented routes of flight were systematic provisions of shelter and help, known as the underground railroad." The Federal Constitution required their return, but this task had been left to State laws and courts, and was performed slackly, if at all. The total number of fugitives was not large nor the pecuniary loss heavy, but the South was exasperated by what it considered a petty and contemptible depredation. So there was a demand that the Federal government should undertake and enforce the return of fugitive slaves.
Congress opened the session of 1849-50 amid great excitement and confusion. Once more Clay came forward to reconcile the disputants. Clay in these last days was at his best. He was no longer swayed by Presidential aspirations. When in 1849 the Kentucky Constitution was to be revised, he wrote a letter strongly favoring a gradual emancipation and colonization. This had no effect, but Clay's unshaken hold on his State was shown by his unanimous re-election to the Senate. There he at once entered upon his last great effort at national reconciliation. He introduced a bill providing for a series of concessions on both sides. California was to be admitted as a free State; and New Mexico and Utah were to be organized as territories, leaving the question of slavery for future settlement. Slavery was to continue in the District of Columbia, but the slave trade was to be forbidden there. Texas was to cede to New Mexico a disputed strip of territory, which presumably would ultimately become free; and was to be compensated by a large grant from the Federal territory. A law was to be passed for the return of fugitive slaves by Federal authority.
Over these measures the debate was long and hot. Clay
pleaded that by his scheme the advantages were fairly balanced between North and South. He urged that the rising spirit of disunion at the South should be disarmed by reasonable concessions. He appealed to the North for concessions and to the South for peace. When Jefferson Davis, Senator from Mississippi, declared that the plan conceded nothing to the South, and demanded that the Missouri compromise line be extended to the Pacific (bisecting California), with the express establishment of slavery south of that line, Clay declared that no earthly power should make him vote for the establishment of slavery anywhere where it had had no previous existence. To do so, he said, would be to incur from future inhabitants of New Mexico the reproach which Americans justly applied to their British ancestors for fastening the institution on them. But he would spare Southern sensibilities by withholding an explicit exclusion of slavery from New Mexico; Nature and the future would attend to that. Against any right of secession, against any possibility of peaceful secession, he declared with strongest emphasis: "War and dissolution of the Union are identical; they are convertible terms; and such a war!" Fighting for the extension of slavery, the sympathies of all mankind would be against the South.
The venerable old man, speaking with all the sincerity and warmth of his heart and with all the powers of his mind, was heard, says Schurz, by a great and brilliant audience. His first faltering words were followed by regained power; the old elevation of sentiment, the sonorous flow of words, the lofty energy of action, were enhanced by the pathetic sense that this was the final effort.
More pathetic, tragic even, was the last speech of Calhoun, read for him while he sat in his senatorial chair; the tall form bowed by age and weakness, the gaunt, impressive face furrowed by the long strife for a doomed cause, but
the old fire still alight in the dark eyes and in the resolute spirit. He recognized that the strife of the sections was radical, and that the proposed compromises and palliatives were weak and temporary. He declared that the South had been thwarted in its rights from the ordinance of 1787 until now; that the equilibrium would be destroyed past hope if California and New Mexico were to become free States; and that the only effective resource lay in some constitutional amendment to safeguard the rights of the South. What amendment could effect this, he did not say. But it transpired later that he had in mind the election of two Presidents, one from each section,-a fantastic and impossible scheme. In truth, Calhoun in this last utterance was less a statesman aiming to guide events than a prophet predicting an inevitable woe. He was too wise to share the elation with which hot-heads talked of an independent South, and it was with sad forebodings that he sank to his grave.
When on the 7th of March Webster rose to speak, the Senate and the country hung on his words. He too was drawing toward the end, but his powers were unabated. Hope was strong that in him would be found the champion of freedom. But the key of his speech was a view of the situation, not as a contest between freedom and slavery, but as an opposition of geographical sections, inflamed by extremists on both sides. The mischief, he declared, was due to Southern disunionists and Northern Abolitionists. The remedy was a calm, patriotic temper; the rebuke of fanaticism of both kinds, and the acceptance of reasonable accommodations and adjustments. He approved substantially the scheme proposed by Clay. The formal exclusion of slavery from New Mexico was an unnecessary affront to the South; natural conditions would prevent slavery there. A fugitive slave law was fairly required by the Constitution and the South had a right to claim it. He, like Clay, declared
peaceable secession an impossibility, and his speech, impressive throughout by the power of a lucid and massive intellect, rose at its close to lofty eloquence in a plea for the maintenance of the Union and a warning of the catastrophe which secession would precipitate.
The defect of the speech was its complete failure to recognize the wrong and mischief of slavery. Webster had rarely shown himself a moral idealist, except as to the sentiment of patriotism. He was identified with the prosperous and "respectable" classes, and the sufferings of the poor and oppressed woke little sympathy in him. These limitations had always been apparent, and while Clay seemed to grow finer and gentler with advance of years, Webster's course was the other way. That imperial and commanding presence, with its imposing stature and Jove-like visage, was the tenement of a richly dowered nature. He had not only great powers of intellect, but warm affections, generous sentiments, and wholesome tastes for humanity and the outdoor world, but his moral fiber, never of the stanchest grain, had been sapped by prosperity. He was selfindulgent in his personal habits and heedless of homely obligations. His ambition was strong, and as the favor of the South had come to be the almost necessary condition of the Presidency, he could not escape the suspicion of courting that favor. He was in substantial agreement with Clay as to the compromise measures, but the Kentuckian rose higher than his section and his look was forward; while Webster was distinctly below the characteristic temper of New England, and his movement was retrograde. The anti-slavery men mourned his 7th of March speech as a great apostasy, and Whittier branded it in his poem of Ichabod," which fell with Judgment-day weight. Yet it was not an apostasy, but the natural culmination of his course; and in spite of its error, he still was true to the char