The acquisition of territory following the U.S. victory in the Mexican War revived concerns about the balance of free and slave states in the Union. On March 7, 1850, Senator Daniel Webster delivered his famous “Seventh of March” speech urging sectional compromise on the issue of slavery. Advising abolition-minded Northerners to forgo antislavery measures, he simultaneously cautioned Southerners that disunion inevitably would lead to war.
I wish to speak today; not as a Mass[achusetts] man – nor a Northern man – but as an American, & a member of the Senate of the U[nited] S[tate]s.
Daniel Webster’s notes for his speech to the United States Senate favoring the Compromise of 1850, March 7, 1850. (Daniel Webster Papers) Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division
Following the lead of senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, Webster endorsed Clay’s plan to assure sectional equilibrium in Congress. Passed after eight months of congressional wrangling, the legislation admitted California to the Union as a free state, permitted the question of slavery in Utah and New Mexico territories to be decided by popular sovereignty, settled Texas border disputes, and abolished slave trading in the District of Columbia while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act.
The legislative package known as the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War by a decade. However, like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 failed to resolve the question of slavery in a meaningful way. Over the course of the 1850s, the inadequacies of both measures were made painfully clear. “Popular sovereignty” undermined the Missouri compromise by suggesting the earlier division of the country along the thirty-sixth parallel into free states and slave states no longer applied. Indeed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act External of 1854 permitted slavery. The resulting bloodshed in Kansas, like later incidents at Harper’s Ferry, presaged the violent conflict of the Civil War.
- Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years , an online display of approximately ninety representative documents preserved by the Manuscript Division includes features on John C. Calhoun’s speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850 and Henry Clay’s appointment as secretary of state on March 7, 1825.
- Read the Documentary History of Slavery in the United States by John Larkin Dorsey. A contemporary of Webster and Clay, Dorsey reviews slavery in the U.S. from 1774 and the Continental Congress to 1850 with special attention to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the probable dissolution of the Union. Search African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 on slavery to access this document and many more.
- For more information about the movement to abolish slavery, visit the Abolition section of The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship exhibition and the Abolition section of The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture. Also, read the Today in History features on Abolition in the District of Columbia and on the abolitionists Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
- Browse The Frederick Douglass Papers. Many remarkable items are included in the papers of this nineteenth-century African-American abolitionist who escaped from slavery and then risked his own freedom by becoming an outspoken antislavery lecturer, writer, and publisher. The papers are divided into a series of nine sets. Set nine, for example, contains a booklet entitled Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass (on West Indian Emancipation and the Dred Scott Decision).
- A search on Daniel Webster in the Library of Congress Digital Collections yields numerous items including correspondence, speeches, images of statues, books, and even sheet music.