I. The Popular Sovereignty Panacea
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, but it started a whole new debate about the extension of slavery, with Northerners rallying around the Wilmot Proviso (which proposed that the Mexican Cession lands be free soil); however, the Southerners shot it down. Before, the two national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, had had strong support from all over the nation; now, that was in jeopardy. In 1848, Polk, due to tremendous overworking and chronic diarrhea, did not seek a second term, and the Democrats nominated Gen. Lewis Cass, a veteran of the War of 1812, a senator and diplomat of wide experience and considerable ability, and the originator of popular sovereignty, the idea that issues should be decided upon by the people (specifically, it applied to slavery, stating that the people in the territories should decide to legalize it or not). It was good (and liked by politicians) because it was a compromise between the extremes of the North and the South, and it stuck with the idea of self-determination, but it could spread slavery.
II. Political Triumphs for General Taylor
The Whigs nominated General Zachary Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista in the Mexican War, a man with no political experience, but popular man, and they avoided all picky issues in his campaign. Disgusted antislavery Northerners organized the Free Soil Party, a party committed against the extension of slavery in the territories and one that also advocated federal aid for internal improvements and urged free government homesteads for settlers. This party appealed to people angry over the half-acquisition of Oregon, people who didn’t like Blacks in the new territory, as well as “conscience Whigs” who condemned slavery on moral grounds. The Free-Soilers nominated Martin Van Buren.
Neither major party talked about the slavery issue, but Taylor won narrowly.
III. “Californy Gold”
In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and thousands flooded into the state, thus blowing the lid off of the slavery issue. Most people didn’t “strike it rich,” but there were many lawless men and women. As a result, California (privately encouraged by the president) drafted a constitution and then applied for free statehood, thus bypassing the usual territorial stage and avoiding becoming a slave state.
IV. Sectional Balance and the Underground Railroad
In 1850, the South was very well off, with a Southerner as president (Taylor), a majority in the cabinet and on the Supreme Court, and equality in the Senate meaning that its 15 states could block any proposed amendment that would outlaw slavery. Still, the South was worried. The balance of 15 free states and 15 slave states was in danger with the admission of free California (which would indeed destroy the equilibrium forever) and other states might follow California as free states. The South was also agitated about Texas’ claims on disputed territory and the prospect of no slavery in Washington D.C., thus putting a piece of non-slavery land right in the middle of slave-holding Virginia and Maryland. Finally the Underground Railroad, a secret organization that took runaway states north to Canada, was taking more and more slaves from the South. Harriet Tubman freed more than 300 slaves during 19 trips to the South. The South was also demanded a stricter fugitive slave law.
V. Twilight of the Senatorial Giants
In 1850, the South was confronted with catastrophe, with California demanding admission as a free state. Thus, the three giants met together for the last time to engineer a compromise. Henry Clay, AKA “The Great Compromiser,” now 73 years old, urged concession from both the North and the South (the North for a fugitive slave law, the South for others) and was seconded by Stephen...