Slavery, Economics & Politics: The Compromise of 1850

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been sharing parts of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text here for some time. We often don’t like to admit it but all to often racism and other forms of prejudice, intolerance and hate line up perfectly with some peoples and groups political and economic agenda. The Compromise of 1850 shows how in American history that confluence of hatred, racism, political power and economic gain  come together to create the perfect storm of oppression. 

We are not alone in this, such has been the case in many other cultures and in many other nations for millennia and continue to be today. 

The lesson of this should be taken to heart as anyone seeks political and economic aggrandizement on the backs of other people and sadly it happens all too often here in the United States and Western Europe. 

I do plan on weighing in on the issue of the Confederate flag either tonight or tomorrow. But until then have a great as well as a thoughtful night.


Padre Steve+


Slavery and National Expansion: The Compromise of 1850

The Ante-Bellum South was an agrarian society that depended on the free labor provided by slaves. In a socio-political sense the South was an oligarchy that offered no freedom to slaves, openly discriminated against free blacks and provided little hope of social or economic advancement for poor and middle class whites. However, despite this, even poor whites supported it. Many Southern Yeoman farmers were willing to tolerate their second class status because they: “feared the fall from independent producer to dependent proletarian, a status he equated with enslavement” [1] more than remaining subservient to planters and plantation owners. In fact, for them slavery was the one institution that kept them above the despised black.

While all Northern states had abolished slavery, or were in the process of gradual abolition in the after independence and the Civil War and had moved to an economic concept of free labor, the South had tied its economy and society to the institution of slavery. The contrast was well said by the members of an Alabama agricultural society, which noted in 1846:

“Our condition is quite different from that of the non-slaveholding section of the United States. With them their only property consists of lands, cattle and planting implements. Their laborers are merely hirelings, while with us our laborers are our property.” [2]

Northerners on the other hand, even in states where the last vestiges of slavery held on, nearly universally ascribed to the understanding that there was a dignity to labor and that free labor was essential if people were to have a better life. It undergirded their understanding of human dignity and that “labor was the source of all value.” [3]

That understanding of the intrinsic value of free labor continued to gain ground in the North in the decades preceding the Civil War and found much of its support in the Calvinist theology that predominated in most Protestant Northern denominations. Labor was intrinsic to one’s calling as a Christian and a human being, slave labor, at least in the eyes of many Northerners undercut that idea. Success in one’s calling glorified God and provided earthly evidence that a person was among the elect. For many Northern Christians, “the pursuit of wealth thus became a way of serving God on earth, and labor, which had been imposed on fallen man as a curse, was transmuted into a religious value, a Christian calling.” [4] Such ideas found their way into Republican political thought even when not directly related to religion. William Evarts said in 1856 “Labor gentlemen, we of the free States acknowledge to be the source of all of our wealth, of all our progress, of all our dignity and value.” [5] Abraham Lincoln noted that “the free labor system…opens the way for all, and energy and progress, and improvement in condition for all,” [6] and noted something inherent in the economic theory of Adam Smith that Labor is prior to, and independent of capital…in fact, capital is the fruit of labor.” [7]

However, the South by the 1830s had completely wedded itself to slavery and southern advocates of slavery deplored the free-labor movement as wage slavery and extolled the virtue of slavery. James H. Hammond condemned the free-labor movement in his King Cotton speech to the Senate in 1858:

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life…. It constitutes the very mudsill of society….Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other that leads to progress, civilization and refinement….Your whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives,’ as you call them, are essentially slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated…yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated.” [8]

Even so, the fact that the slave barons “were forced at every election to solicit the votes of “ignorant, slovenly, white trash in the country” with “frequent treats that disgrace our elections,” [9] rankled and humiliated many members of the Southern aristocracy. It was a marriage of two disparate parties linked by their membership in a superior race, something that only the continued existence of slavery ensured.

Lincoln extolled the virtues of free-labor, noting his own experiences after his election: “I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat boat – just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” [10] Other Northerners lauded free-labor as the basis of upward mobility, and the New York Times noted that “Our paupers to-day, thanks to free labor, are our yeomen and merchants of tomorrow.” [11]

But whites in the South held labor in contempt due to the system of slavery, and the divergent views of each side were noted by Thomas Ewing who noted that labor “is held honorable by all on one side of the line because it is the vocation of freedmen – degrading in the eyes of some on the other side because it is the task of slaves.” [12] Of course with labor being the task of African slaves for southerners, the issue was entwined with race, and “Even if slavery was wrong, its wrongs were cancelled out for nonslaveholders by the more monstrous specter of racial equity.” [13]

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown emphasized the threat to whites in that blacks would be their social equals and competitors. The racial component assured poor southern whites that they were superior to blacks and an Alabama lawyer wrote “The privilege of belonging to the superior race and being free was a bond that tied all Southern whites together… and it seemed from a Southern stand-point, to have for its purpose the leveling of all distinctions between the white man and the slave hard by.” [14] But poor white workers who remained in the South “repeatedly complained about having to compete with slaves as well as poorly paid free blacks” [15] leading many to seek a new livelihood in either Free States or the new territories.

For Southern politicians and slaveholders, the expansion of slavery was essential to its continued maintenance in the states where it was already legal. “Because of the need to maintain a balance in the Senate, check unruly slaves, and cultivate fertile soils, many planters and small plantation owners- particularly those living in the southern districts of the cotton states- asserted that their survival depended on new territory.” [16] In those decades “a huge involuntary migration took place. Between 800,000 and 1 million slaves were moved westward….” [17]

The need for slaves caused prices to soar, largely due to the ban on the import of slaves from Africa. This made the interregional trade much more important and linked the upper and lower south as well as the new slave-holding territories into “a regionwide slave market that tied together all of the various slaveowning interests into a common economic concern.” [18] In some older states like Virginia where fewer slaves were required, the exportation of slaves became a major industry:

“male slaves were marched in coffles of forty or fifty, handcuffed to each other in pairs, with a long chain through the handcuffs passing down the column to keep it together, closely guarded by mounted slave traders followed by an equal number of female slaves and their children. Most of them were taken to Wheeling, Virginia, the “busiest slave port” in the United States, and from there they were transported by steamboat to New Orleans, Natchez, and Memphis.” [19]

Economic Effects of the Compromise

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,” [20] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [21] The result was that slave owners and those who benefitted from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation. It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [22]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [23] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [24]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [25] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election n of 1860. Helper wrote that:

Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.” [26]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [27] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.” [28]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [29] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [30]

The trigger for the increase in tensions was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [31]

Robert Toombs of Georgia was an advocate for the expansion of slavery into the lands conquered during the war. Toombs warned his colleagues in Congress “in the presence of the living God, that if you by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people…thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the states of this Confederacy, I am for disunion.” [32]

The tensions in the aftermath of the war with Mexico escalated over the issue of slavery in the newly conquered territories brought heated calls by some southerners for secession and disunion. To preserve the Union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, supported by the new President Millard Fillmore were able to pass the compromise of 1850 solved a number of issues related to the admission of California to the Union and boundary disputes involving Texas and the new territories. But among the bills that were contained in it was the Fugitive Slave Law, or The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act was the device of Henry Clay which was meant to sweeten the deal for southerners. The law would “give slaveholders broader powers to stop the flow of runaway slaves northward to the free states, and offered a final resolution denying that Congress had any authority to regulate the interstate slave trade.” [33]

For all practical purposes the Compromise of 1850 and its associated legislation nationalized the institution of slavery, even in Free States. It did this by forcing all citizens to assist law enforcement in apprehending fugitive slaves. It also voided state laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which barred state officials from aiding in the capture, arrest or imprisonment of fugitive slaves. “Congress’s law had nationalized slavery. No black person was safe on American soil. The old division of free state/slave state had vanished….” [34] If there was any question as to whose “States Rights” the leaders of the South were advocating, it was certainly not those of the states whose laws were voided by the act.

That law required all Federal law enforcement officials, even in non-slave states to arrest fugitive slaves and anyone who assisted them, and threatened law enforcement officials with punishment if they failed to enforce the law. The law stipulated that should “any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars.” [35]

Likewise the act compelled citizens in Free states to “aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required….” [36] Penalties were harsh and financial incentives for compliance attractive.

“Anyone caught providing food and shelter to an escaped slave, assuming northern whites could discern who was a runaway, would be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars and six months in prison. The law also suspended habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury for captured blacks. Judges received a hundred dollars for every slave returned to his or her owner, providing a monetary incentive for jurists to rule in favor of slave catchers.” [37]

The law gave no protection for even black freedmen. The legislation created a new extra-judicial bureaucratic office to decide the fate of blacks. This was the office of Federal Commissioner and it was purposely designed to adjudicate the claims of slaveholders and their agents, and to avoid the normal Federal Court system where often those claims were denied.

When slave owners or their agents went before these commissioners, they needed little in the way of proof to take a black back into captivity. The only proof or evidence other than the sworn statement by of the owner with an “affidavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses” [38] that a black was or had been his property was required to return any black to slavery. Since blacks could not testify on their own behalf and were denied representation the act created an onerous extrajudicial process that defied imagination. Likewise, these commissioners had a strong financial incentive to send blacks back to slavery. “If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor ten. This provision, supposedly justified by the paper work needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners.” [39] It was a system rigged to ensure that African Americans had no chance, and it imposed on the citizens of free states the legal obligation to participate in a system that many wanted nothing to do with.

Frederick Douglass said:

“By an act of the American Congress…slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated;…and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States.” [40]

On his deathbed Henry Clay praised the act, which he wrote “The new fugitive slave law, I believe, kept the South in the Union in ‘fifty and ‘fifty-one. Not only does it deny fugitives trial by jury and the right to testify; it also imposes a fine and imprisonment upon any citizen found guilty of preventing a fugitive’s arrest…” Likewise Clay depreciated the opposition noting “Yes, since the passage of the compromise, the abolitionists and free coloreds of the North have howled in protest and viciously assailed me, and twice in Boston there has been a failure to execute the law, which shocks and astounds me…. But such people belong to the lunatic fringe. The vast majority of Americans, North and South, support our handiwork, the great compromise that pulled the nation back from the brink.” [41]

The compromise had “averted a showdown over who would control the new western territories” [42] but it only delayed disunion. In arguing against the compromise South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun realized that for Southerners it did not do enough and that it would inspire abolitionists to greater efforts in their cause. He argued for permanent protection of slavery:

“He understood that slavery stood at the heart of southern society, and that without a mechanism to protect it for all time, the Union’s days were numbered.” Almost prophetically he said “I fix its probable [breakup] within twelve years or three presidential terms…. The probability is it will explode in a presidential election.” [43]

Of course it was Calhoun and not the authors of the compromise who proved correct. The leap into the abyss of disunion and civil war had only been temporarily avoided. However, none of the supporters anticipated what would occur in just six years when a “train of unexpected consequences would throw an entirely new light on the popular sovereignty doctrine, and both it and the Compromise of 1850 would be wreaked with the stroke of a single judicial pen.” [44]


[1] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With Sword p.50

[2] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.19

[3] Foner, Eric Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1970 and 1995 p.7

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men pp.12-13

[5] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.12

[6] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.28

[7] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.12

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.196

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.38

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.28

[11] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.16

[12] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.16

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.38

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.39

[15] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.44

[16] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes pp.125-126

[17] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.203

[18] Deyle, Steven The Domestic Slave Trade in Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.53

[19] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.203

[20] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.10

[21] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[22] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.54

[23] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[24] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[25] Goldfield, David America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York, London New Delhi and Sidney 2011 p.177

[26] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[27] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[28] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[29] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[30] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from 24 March 2014

[31] U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245

[32] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.62-63

[33] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.68

[34] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[35] ______________Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 retrieved from the Avalon Project, Yale School of Law 11 December 2014

[36] Ibid. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

[37] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.71

[38] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[39] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.80

[40] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.72

[41] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.94

[42] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.71

[43] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.64

[44] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.71



Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

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