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For the Union: The Compromise of 1850

Three great Senators dominated what has come to be called the Senate's "Golden Age of Oratory," from the 1830s to the 1850s. The legendary orator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke for industrial New England. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Great Compromiser," represented the Western frontier. The Southerner John C. Calhoun of South Carolina defended states' rights and the institution of slavery. Yet all three represented the United States. Alternately feuding and cooperating, this "great triumvirate" helped forge major legislative agreements, culminating with the Compromise of 1850.

The compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners. By supporting it, Webster defied his antislavery constituents in Massachusetts, sacrificing his political career. The Massachusetts Senator believed passionately that he should defend the interests of the whole nation.

"I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American."
—Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, March 7, 1850

"I owe a paramount allegiance to the whole Union—a subordinate one to my own State."
—Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, July 22, 1850

  • The United States Senate, A.D. 1850, by P.F. Rothermel, engraved by R. Whitechurch, ca. 1855

    Symbolic of the Senate’s “Golden Age of Oratory,” this image shows Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky presenting his compromise measures.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • A broadside publicizes outrage at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaways

    A broadside publicizes outrage at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaways.

    Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

  • Fugitive Slave Act

    Five bills constituted the Compromise of 1850. The most controversial was the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that slaves who escaped to free states must be returned to their owners.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • Daniel Webster’s Notes for the “Seventh of March” Speech, 1850

    Senator Webster of Massachusetts prepared notes for his speech supporting the Compromise of 1850.

    Manuscript Division, Library of Congress