Right from the birth of United States, slavery remained a popular and divisive issue. Nearly half of the states supported slavery and regarded it as legal while the other half actively opposed it and considered it contrary to humane principles.
The division over this issue grew more intense over the course of the 19th century. It particularly became the central issue when more states were added during the Westward Expansion. The Compromise of 1850 was a political effort to resolve the issue, at least temporarily.
The political confrontation between slave states and Free states became very pronounced during the 19th century. The Free states were the states in the North which opposed slavery and deemed it illegal on a state level.
Slave states were the states in the South who relied on slavery for their economic activities. Both sides vehemently opposed each other and their confrontation would ultimately result in the American Civil War. However, the Compromise of 1850 postponed the war through a temporary truce between the two sides.
Slavery had been a contentious issue ever since American independence. But it became particularly contentious after the Mexican-American War. After United States won the war, many new territories were added to its size. The fate of these territories became a major controversy – the slave states wanted slavery to be legal in the new states while the Free states opposed this.
Texas was already a part of the United States and a pro-slavery state. When the Mexican-American War concluded, it demanded control of the new territories won in the war. This would have expanded the size of the pro-slavery territories in the United States.
Efforts were made to resolve the issue through a series of compromises but President Zachary Taylor blocked these efforts as they would spark controversy. When he was succeeded by President Millard Fillmore, these efforts were renewed. They ultimately resulted in the passage of the five bills that were collectively called the ‘Compromise of 1850’.
Five separate bills were proposed to the Congress and passed as a part of the Compromise. These bills organized the New Mexico Territory as separate and distinct from the state of Texas, taking up the $10 million debt of Texas in return. The bills also established the Utah Territory. The issue of slavery in both the New Mexico and Utah territories was left open, to be resolved later through popular vote.
California was admitted as a free state. One of the bills abolished slave trade in the District of Columbia so that slavery would henceforth be outlawed in the capital of the country.
One of the most controversial bills of the 1850 Compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This act stipulated that special commissioners would hear cases of runaway slaves, and would be paid for every runaway slave they returned to its owner. The law was harsh and inhumane, so most of the northern states simply refused to enact it.