Long before Congress convened in December 1849, Taylor faced a rebellious South prepared to contest California's admission as a free state. In 1849 there were fifteen slave and fifteen free states, giving the South equality in the Senate. The admission of California as a free state would shatter the balance irretrievably. Calhoun's "Southern Address" of the previous January, a strong, uncompromising defense of slavery expansion, became the standard of southern loyalty for Democrats and Whigs alike. Southerners accused the president of manipulating the entire constitution-making process in California. Northern antislavery congressmen lauded Taylor's initiative and returned to Washington determined to bring California into the Union as a free state. Sectional disagreements so splintered the parties that not until Christmas could the House elect a Speaker.
Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts was the leading Whig candidate for the speakership. Northern and southern Whigs had elected him in 1847; thereafter he had commanded the position with fairness and distinction. Assuming that Winthrop might face opposition in the South, northern Whigs sought a southern candidate who might appeal to the North. The likeliest candidate was Charles S. Morehead of Kentucky. On the Democratic side, Howell Cobb of Georgia towered over the rest. He inspired confidence not only as a skilled debater but also as a man of integrity. A Unionist, Cobb was one of the few southerners in Congress who had refused to sign Calhoun's Southern Address.
When the voting began, Cobb secured a strong plurality, but could never gain the needed majority. As the voting continued week after week, no fewer than fifty-three Democrats received votes in the balloting. When Cobb and Winthrop failed to win the speakership, the Democrats turned to northerners while the Whigs turned to southerners. Nine Free-Soilers complicated the balloting. They held the balance of power and stood as a bloc against both Winthrop and Cobb. As the balloting continued, various moderate Democrats from the Old Northwest moved ahead only to reach a stalemate.
Finally, on 21 December, a Whig-Democratic conference agreed on a proposal that the House proceed to elect a Speaker and if no one received a majority in three ballots, then the one with the largest number of votes be declared the victor. Winthrop and Cobb now resumed their places at the head of the balloting. On the third ballot Cobb became Speaker with 102 votes to 99 for Winthrop. At the end, Cobb received one vote fewer than he had at the beginning. The voting demonstrated that no party or section could control the House. Taylor's actions had driven some key southern Whigs into the opposition. Georgia's two leading Whigs, Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens, turned against the northern Whigs when the president refused to give them any pledge that he would oppose the Wilmot Proviso.
Taylor viewed the congressional turmoil at a distance, determined to do his duty when the time came. Visitors at the White House reported that he remained calm and relaxed. In his first annual message, dispatched to both the House and the Senate on Christmas Eve, Taylor advocated the immediate recognition of California's statehood under its new constitution. He noted that New Mexico would be asking for admission to the Union shortly. To maintain the nation's tranquillity, the president admonished that
we should abstain frown the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character which have hitherto produced painful apprehensions in the public mind; and I repeat the solemn warning of the first and most illustrious of my predecessors against furnishing "any ground for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations."
Again Taylor asserted his belief that the executive had no authority to dictate to Congress or to counter its will with a veto. For northerners this meant that Taylor would not veto the Wilmot Proviso. The president still hoped that the admission of California and New Mexico as states would eliminate the proviso from congressional consideration. Taylor reminded members of Congress that their first obligation was to the nation and not to slavery. Much of the conservative press praised the president's appeal to nationalism.
Editors predicted another congressional crisis when Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, on 27 December, moved that Congress establish territorial governments for California, New Mexico, and Utah—a clear rejection of Taylor's proposals. In a special message to Congress on 21 January 1850, Taylor explained to southerners his limited role in California's decision to form a constitution. He had sent King to California, he admitted, but he had not instructed King to exercise any influence over the selection of delegates or the drawing of the constitution. Taylor again advocated the admission of New Mexico as a state, not a territory, to permit the residents of the region to settle the question of slavery permanently.
Southern orators spent January churning the emotions of Congress. Even the moderate Whig Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina termed Taylor's proposals "impudent." They would bring California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Minnesota into the Union as free states, giving the North a majority of ten votes in the Senate and two-thirds of the House. With the South shorn of its power, the North would abolish slavery in the states. The South wanted a "fair settlement." Clingman would give California to the North in exchange for the extension of slavery into New Mexico. Southerners accused the president of adopting Cass's popular sovereignty, permitting northern majorities to resolve the slavery issue. Elected by southern votes, the president had turned on the South. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri further antagonized the South when he declared that Texas' claims to New Mexican lands extending to the Rio Grande were unwarranted. Only the federal government, Benton argued, could resolve this controversy. He recommended a boundary 4° east of Santa Fe. Southerners noted that Benton's proposal would reduce the area of slavery in the Southwest. Even the future Texas boundary had become a subject of serious sectional dispute.