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Gold in California


Slaves packed on a slave ship
Slaves packed on a slave ship

Although no proposed solution was acceptable to all sides, the question of slavery in the territories could not be postponed. In 1848 gold was discovered in California, and thousands of Americans rushed to the region. The previous year, Brigham Young had led Mormon settlers to the Salt Lake Valley, in what became the northeastern corner of the Mexican Cession in 1848. At the same time, slaveholding Texas claimed half of New Mexico. It was at this point that politicians proposed a series of measures that became known as the Compromise of 1850. California was admitted as a free state.

The remainder of the land taken from Mexico was divided into Utah and New Mexico territories and organized under popular sovereignty. The Texas claims in New Mexico were denied. The slave trade (but not slavery) was banned in the District of Columbia, and a stronger fugitive slave law went into effect. These measures resolved the question of slavery in the territories in ways that tended to favor the North, then enacted additional measures important to both antislavery and proslavery forces. The compromise was less a permanent solution than an answer to an immediate crisis. It would satisfy neither section. One historian has called it the Armistice of 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Law


The one element of the Compromise of 1850 that explicitly favored the South was the Fugitive Slave Law. A federal law of 1793 required that slaves who escaped to a free state be returned if the master could offer proof of ownership to a state court.

The new law turned these cases over to federal commissioners, and it denied a captured slave the right to testify in his or her own behalf or to be tried before a jury. The law violated Northerners’ notions of states’ rights, it infringed on civil liberties in the North, and it turned Northerners into direct participants in Southern slavery. Northern citizens, even those who had not previously opposed slavery, refused to support the law.

While some hid fugitives or helped spirit them into Canada, nine Northern states passed personal liberty laws that forbade state officials from helping to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published a sentimental antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a direct challenge to slavery in general and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular. It sold 300,000 copies that year, and 1.2 million by summer 1853. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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