Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

The Compromise of 1850: Effective Political Action or Forecast of Disaster?

with 2 comments

Thanks to everyone that has participated in the Compromise of 1850 Poll going on here. If you haven’t voted, please do!

To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.


The United States Senate, A.D. 1850. Drawn by P. F. Rothermel; engraved by R. Whitechurch. c1855. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZCN4-149

Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s , that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)

This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which –  on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.

But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.

Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.

And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.


See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.

(1) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983), 139.


2 Responses

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  1. Rene,

    I think your penultimate paragraph is exactly right: “the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster.”

    On the positive side, first, is the result. Had the Compromise not been achieved, fighting might have broken out between Texas and New Mexico and escalated from there. The legislators (and president) of 1850 could not know that future events, such as Kansas-Nebraska, would undermine the Compromise, and even so war was averted for ten critical years.

    Second, Mark Stegmaier has convincingly argued that there were elements of “compromise” within the Compromise. It was not merely an armistice, as David Potter maintained.

    Even so, as you point out, the votes on the Compromise measures revealed that sectional affiliation was becoming more important than party affiliation, which was a harbinger of things to come. At the same time, one needs to remember that it took unpredictable future events — everything from Kansas to the Know Nothings — to finally destroy the Whigs and rip the Democrats apart.


    February 11, 2009 at 4:59 am

  2. Excellent additional comments elektratig. Thanks for adding the link to Stegmaier’s book.


    Rene Tyree

    February 11, 2009 at 10:03 am

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