Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore - Clay's compromise measure and the great debate





Such a maze of conflicting sectional interests called for a political compromise. In the waning days of January, Clay, the elder statesman of the Whig party who had recently returned to the Senate, pondered the issues in search of some formula that would resolve the numerous controversies between the free and slave states. One evening he walked to Daniel Webster's quarters to obtain the advice and support of his noted Whig rival, like Clay nearing the end of a long career in public life.

On 29 January, Clay presented eight resolutions to the Senate. One endorsed the president's plan to admit California under its free constitution. The second would establish territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah without regard to slavery. The third and fourth would redraw the Texas boundary to exclude all lands claimed by New Mexico but would compensate Texas with the federal assumption of the Texas debt. The fifth and sixth would abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia but would guarantee slavery there unless the people of Maryland and the District consented to its abolition with just compensation to the owners. The seventh favored an effective fugitive slave act. The last guaranteed the slave trade between slaveholding states against congressional action. Clay combined these measures into an omnibus bill, hopeful that it would restore health to the Union and strength to the Whig party.

After submitting his resolutions, Clay explained and defended them. He appealed to members of Congress to show "mutual forebearance" and accept a peaceful resolution of the sectional conflict. Clay admitted that his major appeal was to the North. He had asked for more concessions there because the North was numerically more powerful and therefore could afford to be magnanimous. The southern concern over slavery, moreover, was far more pervasive than that of the North. "In one scale, then," said Clay, "we behold sentiment, sentiment, sentiment alone. In the other property, the social fabric, life, and all that makes life desirable." He asked senators to avoid behavior destructive of the Union. Clay returned to the Senate floor on 5 February to open the formal debate on the omnibus bill. Sensing the importance of the occasion, people of power and eminence packed the galleries and floor of the Senate chamber. The House adjourned so that its members could join the throng. Clay spent more than two hours in presenting every argument to uphold his measures. At the end he appealed to the Union now threatened with destruction. Dissolution and war, he cried, were "identical and inseparable."

Clay had challenged Taylor for the leadership of the Whig party and the nation. The attempt was futile. In the North, Clay had the support of Webster and James Cooper of Pennsylvania, but not one other northern Whig followed him. In the South, Clay had four or five staunch Whig supporters, no more. Successful in avoiding the compromise principles of the Democratic party, the Whigs, in the burgeoning crisis, would avoid the territorial question by following the president. The core of compromise strength lay in the Democratic party. Indeed, the majority of Democrats backed Clay completely; it was there that he received four-fifths of his support. Sam Houston of Texas, a Jacksonian Democrat, followed Clay in the Senate with a ringing defense of popular sovereignty and an appeal to the Union. Clay had done nothing to win the adherence of such Democrats, but his measure reflected so substantially the dominant Democratic approach to the sectional controversy that some believed Douglas the real author of the Clay proposals. Taylor Whigs and southern extremists, however, constituted a bloc of opposition that Clay and the Democrats could not overcome.

Northerners expected little of Clay because he was not one of them. It was the South that Clay's moderation offended. Georgia's John M. Berrien, a well-known conservative Whig, opened the southern offensive. Accepting Calhoun's argument, he asserted that he, as a slaveholder, had the right to enter the West with his slave property. Nothing in the Constitution, he argued, denied that slavery could exist in any territory that was the common property of the United States. He would employ his best efforts to avert disunion, but he owed his allegiance, he avowed, to Georgia. One day later, on 13 February, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi drew a packed gallery when he launched the southern Democratic attack. In perhaps the major forensic effort of his career, Davis pledged to uphold the Southland, now losing its traditional role in American life. He accused the North of sowing the seeds of disunion by attacking southern institutions and society.

Calhoun's famous reply to Clay came on 4 March. Near death and so weak that he could not speak, Calhoun asked James M. Mason of Virginia to read his final plea for the Union—a Union that recognized the rights and institutions of the South. As Mason read, Calhoun sat in his chair directly in front of him, his hands clinging to the armrests like claws. Calhoun, like Davis, saw danger to the South in the gradual destruction of the old balance between the sections. Once, in the days of Washington and Jefferson, the South had felt secure in the Union. Now the North, with its augmented numbers, was on the verge of creating a consolidated government to pursue its advantage. Having gained the admission of Iowa and Wisconsin, northerners now demanded that all the new territories be carved eventually into free states. Against such aggression the South asked for simple justice—equality in the territories, the faithful return of fugitive slaves, the end of agitation on the slavery question, and an amendment that would restore the guarantees of the Constitution. In the absence of such assurances, Calhoun concluded, the future of the Union was fraught with peril. Together Berrien, Davis, and Calhoun reminded the nation that the South had a heavy financial and social investment in slavery, which it would defend at all costs against the onrush of northern numbers, power, and sentiment.

Meanwhile, Taylor's Whigs had not remained silent. Jacob W. Miller of New Jersey took up the defense of Taylor's simple program on 21 February. He supported the president's behavior toward California, arguing that Congress had the right to bar slavery from the territories; but, he added, the question was academic because California would enter the Union as a state. If the South denied Congress the right to act on the question of slavery in the territories, it should permit the people of the West to settle the matter under the president's program. The South would gain nothing and defy its own principles by resisting. That day Taylor visited Richmond to dedicate the cornerstone for the Richmond monument to Washington. His cordial reception in Virginia demonstrated that the debate in Congress had not marred his popular image, although Democrats attributed Taylor's good reception to the country's appreciation of his office, not his leadership.

Through his control of the Whig party, Taylor possessed the power to prevent a compromise on the territorial question, but he could in no way de-fuse the mounting sectional and legislative crisis. When the Whigs Toombs and Clingman urged Taylor to settle the California question by accepting Clay's compromise, the president retorted that the country would accept his formula for avoiding the territorial issue or end in disunion. He reminded the dissenting South that the federal government would use force to snuff out any rebellion. As in his election campaign, Taylor rejected any necessity to bridge his Unionist, antislavery appeals to the North and his rejection of southern demands.

Daniel Webster entered the debate on 7 March with the year's most memorable oration. The crowd jammed the corridors demanding admittance to the galleries. At sixty-eight, Webster suffered from poor health, but his presence remained commanding. He would not speak, he began, "as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American.. . . I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. 'Hear me for my cause.' " Using historic argument, Webster cautioned extremists of North and South alike to be wary of their claims to righteousness. Webster could be magnanimous to the South in favoring constitutional guarantees of slavery in the states, because he knew that nature had declared both California and New Mexico free. Slavery could survive nowhere in the Mexican Cession. On the matter of fugitive slaves, he agreed with the South. His peroration was a magnificent appeal to the Union. He ridiculed the idea of peaceful secession. I would rather," he said, "hear of . . . war, pestilence, and famine, than . . . hear gentlemen talk of secession.. . . To break up this great Government! to dismember this great country!" Disruption would not be peaceful; it would produce a war, a war that he would not describe. Webster gave ringing affirmation to Clay's arguments, something that the Democrats could not do. Webster's remonstrance to both sections to forgive and forbear in the interest of national harmony antagonized those northerners who expected more of him. Ralph Waldo Emerson rebuked the senator: "Every drop of blood in this man's veins has eyes that look downward." Still, the favorable response to Webster's appeal suggested that much of the country favored compromise.

Several other speakers followed Webster during March and April, but they offered little new to the arguments. Douglas' address was important, not because it changed the trend, but because it revealed the Democratic ties to Clay. Douglas challenged Webster on a minor point and then turned on Taylor, accusing him of cleverly avoiding the territorial issue in 1848 in order to make people of each section believe that his opinions harmonized with their own. Now the president favored nonintervention, permitting him to defend the Wilmot Proviso without asking Congress to act on the issue. Douglas insisted that the situation called for action, that the administration, in dwelling only on California, was exposing the West to anarchy. Like Webster, Douglas acknowledged that geography had settled the question of slavery in New Mexico and Utah. Finally, Douglas praised Clay for proposing a solution of the issues before the country.

Douglas had long been active behind the scenes. Since February he had been negotiating an understanding between House Whigs and Democrats on the territorial issue. He arranged for his Illinois lieutenant, John A. McClernand, to report out of the House Committee on Territories bills providing for the territorial organization of New Mexico and Utah under the principle of popular sovereignty, California's admission as a free state, and slavery's retention in the District of Columbia. Douglas prepared similar bills for the Senate's territorial committee. He avoided the issues of fugitive slaves and the slave trade. In Douglas' preparations lay the foundations of the Compromise of 1850. On 31 March, Calhoun died, and the southern extremists were thus deprived of their most powerful and revered leader.

During April the Senate debate became ill-tempered and personal. Foote, as associate of Calhoun, pressed the Senate to refer the plans of Clay, Douglas, and others to a select committee of thirteen for the purpose of creating a new master plan. Clay and Cass supported the proposal. Benton favored a compromise but opposed Clay's omnibus arrangement. On 17 April the Missourian, whose previous exchanges with Foote had become heated, accused Foote of attempting to blackmail the Senate into action by magnifying the crisis with abstractions. The Mississippian rose to defend the southern leaders as patriots whose names would be venerated when their "calumniators" would be recalled only with contempt. At that statement Benton left his desk and strode toward Foote, who retreated toward the clerk's table, pointing a cocked revolver at Benton. Seeing the weapon, Benton tore open his coat and dared Foote to assassinate him. Senators surrounded the two men and restored order. To recover its dignity, the Senate appointed a committee to study the incident. The committee recommended no action.

On 18 April the Senate provided for the Select Committee of Thirteen to prepare a compromise measure and appointed Clay as chairman. Douglas refused to join the committee, convinced that a compromise would be possible only if the individual bills were voted separately. On 8 May, Clay presented the committee's report to the Senate. The three bills in the committee proposal modified and rearranged the original Clay compromise, but the differences were slight. After presenting the majority report, Clay turned to the minority members to present their objections. The result was confusion.

For three weeks the debate raged while the Taylor forces remained silent. Clay insisted that his committee desired to cooperate with the executive and that his program and the president's were reconcilable. But Taylor stood firm, advocating statehood for California and New Mexico as an independent measure. Against the northern Whigs and the possibility of a presidential veto, Clay had no chance. By July he was no closer to gaining a compromise than he had been in January. Clay faced strong opposition in the South, but the real barrier to his success was in the executive mansion. As the debates in Congress continued with no end in sight, rumors from the White House indicated that the president was ill. Indeed, Taylor had become afflicted with cholera and died on the evening of 9 July 1850.





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