At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union

Compromise has existed in America since time immemorial. The founding fathers of the nation Compromised on writing the constitution, producing a union of thirteen sovereign and independent states, the structure of the legislature, the election procedure of Congressmen, the powers of each branch of government and the existence of slavery. Years down the line, however, the strength of the union almost came apart when Missouri applied for admission into the union as a slave state

The Northerners were for slavery while the Southerners were for its abolition and this was exposed quite plainly by the debates carried out on the floor of Congress. This came on the backdrop of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which saved the country from Civil war and secession but did nothing to address the issue of slavery in their midst. There were a number of revolts between 1820 and 1850 by slaves seeking to gain their freedom. In addition, several race-riots were witnessed. This led to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.

In the year 1850, the union was once again at the edge of disunion. There was an influx of new territory and tensions between the Slave-holders and the abolitionists were growing rapidly. Northerners demanded that new states were included in the free states. Southerners, on the other hand, threatened to secede from the Union hence the fear of the Union’s collapse. Due to the introduction of new tariff rates, States such as South Carolina threatened to pull out of the union and form its own parallel government but the President would have none of it and marshalled troops in readiness for war. One talented senator named Henry Clay of Kentucky was approached by his friends to help save the country from an impending civil war. He did these through various attempts at negotiations with congressmen and tried to address the issue of slaver via the press. Even though he was regarded a true statesman, there was an evident lack of discipline about him and many of his speeches and arguments came across as unpolished and this had cost him a chance at the presidency.

Clay was against slavery and condemned the Tallmadge amendment. He was a learned enthusiastic man who spoke with commanding grace. Being a master Strategist, he pleaded with Congressional leaders “to pause – solemnly to pause at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken into the yawning abyss below

In the years leading to 1850, all indications were that the union was on the brink of collapse and it was up to clay to resolve the matter. Clay tried to broker a compromise on a number of issues linked to slavery. Clay grouped various different components of the Compromise into one bill nicknamed the “omnibus” and this was defeated. Learning from this miscalculation, this was corrected when the bill was dissected into its various components and passed as different bills. This helped the union remain united. In addition, presidents such as Millard Filmore and politicians like Stephen Douglas, though not up to par with the Likes of Henry Clay, were instrumental in helping to organize the Compromise of 1850.

In his Compromise of 1850, Clay hoped to prevent the spread of slavery to newer conquests such as California, Texas and New Mexico. He tried to balance one concession of the North, with one for the South. It was a delicate balancing act where he tried to coax the Southerners to halt Slave-trading in the District of Columbia. On the other hand, the Fugitive Slave Act bound northerners to assist in capturing escaped slaves and to punish anyone assisting them. This led to widespread anger in the Northern States. Additional legislation was added in which California was added to the union as a free state. In addition, there were included elements of a border dispute resolution between the States of Texas and New Mexico. These pieces of legislation and others related to slavery were passed and this led to both North and South stepped back from the precipice.

There was apparent extremism from both parts of the divide. In his speeches, Clay emphasized the role of national leadership in the quest to save the union. He emphasized that the congressmen were honour-bound to preserve the union. The result of the Compromise of 1850 was that it saved the union from disunion and preserved it while delaying a crisis for another ten years. During this time, the south stagnated in its economy, population growth and in military power strength while the North grew both politically and economically. Its population also increased tremendously.

Though the Compromise of 1850 was essential to the union’s cohesion, it failed to address the fundamental question of the place of slavery in the American society. The union eventually collapsed in 1860. In actual fact, the Compromise of 1850 served two purposes one was to allow the northern states to modernize which gave them an edge during the Civil War, while the other was to allow the nation time to find another political saviour and statesman in Abraham Lincoln. For his effort in preserving the union, Clay was known as the Great Pacificator and the Great Compromise of 1850.


Remini, Robert V. At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union. Sydney: Read How You want, 2010.Print