The Compromise of 1850: California Seeks Statehood as Free State


California desires to become a free state. Henry Clay proposes the Compromise of 1850 between North and South including a stronger fugitive slave law.

New Territories Free or Allow Slavery

Following the discovery of gold in California, in 1848, this territory desired to become a state-a free state. Previously, the South had strongly backed the Mexican War, looking towards newly acquired territories being broken up into slave states. Now the contention was on as to whether the new territories acquired from defeated Mexico should become slave states, free states with no slaves, or whether the issue should be left up to those living in said areas.

Henry Clay’s Proposed Compromise

The rift between North and South deepened and widened until Henry Clay offered a compromise. He proposed that each side yield something in the dispute: The North should allow New Mexico and Utah to organize as territories with no mention of slavery and give the South a stronger fugitive slave law. In addition, the South should accept California as a free state and allow prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Also, in the boundary dispute between Texas and the federal government, the Santa Fe region was to be ceded to New Mexico territory for compensation to Texas.

New Fugitive Slave Law Proposed

All spring and summer of 1850, a fight over these measures was waged in Congress. The new Fugitive Slave Law that was proposed as a part of the compromise would compel law enforcement agents and officials in the north to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves. This portion of the compromise strongly enraged antislavery northerners. They deeply resented the invasion of slave catchers into their sector of the country. One basis of their contention was that some slave catchers were well known to hunt down Blacks that were not always runaway slaves, taking free Blacks to the south and selling them into bondage.

Douglas and Webster Back Clay

Henry Clay won the support of influential Union men, including Stephen A. Douglas and Daniel Webster. Webster stressed that slave labor could never be profitable in New Mexico and that the North would lose nothing by granting this concession. New Mexico, being a dry and arid land, was considered unfit for growing either cotton or sugarcane.

Compromise of 1850 Passes into Law

After a fight of eight months, Webster and Clay secured the passage of the laws that are known as the Compromise of 1850, or Omnibus Bill.

California Becomes Free State

This measure did not, however, bring about what Webster had hoped for, that, “a finality that would give peace to a country long distracted by the quarrel over slavery.” It merely postponed the Civil War for ten years. However, California entered the Union as a free state on September 9, 1850.


  1. Brewer, Paul. The Civil War: State by State. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, California, 2004.
  2. Comptons, The Complete Reference Collection. CD Rom, 1997, The Learning Company, Inc.
  3. McPherson, James. Alan Brinkley, General Editors. Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History. DK Publishing, London and New York, 2001.