Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 5. Segment 5
Three Senators

The year is 1850. The country is being pulled apart—everyone can see that. Each time a new state enters the Union, the balance in Congress between North and South is threatened. Now California wants to become a state. California's constitution prohibits slavery. If California enters the Union, free states will outnumber slave states. South Carolina's powerful senator John Calhoun says if that happens the South will leave the Union. He declares: "We are not a nation, but a union, a confederacy of equal and sovereign states. And how can the Union be saved? There is but one way—by adopting such measures as will satisfy the Southern states."

But Calhoun hasn't convinced the popular senator from Kentucky, Henry ClaySee It Now - Henry Clay, who has been working on another compromise—the Compromise of 1850 See It Now - The Compromise of 1850. California is to be admitted to the Union as a free state. A fugitive slave law will make Northerners return runaway slaves to their owners or face criminal charges See It Now - The Fugitive Slave LawCheck The Source - The Fugitive Slave Act. This proposal makes many Northerners, like abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, very angry. He says Hear It Now - Theodore Parker: "I will do all in my power to rescue any fugitive slave from the hands of any officer who attempts to return him to bondage. What is a fine of a thousand dollars, and jailing for one month, to the liberty of a man Check The Source - The Underground Railroad?"

Calhoun is still not satisfied. The North must ''cease the agitation on the slave question,'' he says. "And then he adds: "[If the abolitionists are not silenced] let the states agree to separate."

To avoid secession—which means turning the United States into two nations—even Massachusetts's senator Daniel WebsterSee It Now - Daniel Webster agrees to a compromise. He says: "I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, not as a northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. I see it will produce war, and such a war as I will not describe."

When Webster finishes his oration, some people weep. Is it because they know the Union is falling apart? But his speech helps do what it was meant to do. It helps hold the Union together. Congress votes to accept Henry Clay's compromise. The real problem is that no one knows how to end slavery and at the same time hold North and South together.




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