New Mexico in the Crosshairs

By Keli Holt

On a snowy night in Washington D.C., in 1850, a knock startled Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster at home. Sen. Henry Clay stood outside. “The Union is in peril again,” he exclaimed. The two aging politicians agreed that President Zachary Taylor was not capable of working out a compromise between the North and South over the territories recently seized from Mexico. The Kentuckian and Massachusettsan began to craft a plan to preserve the Union. However, in an increasingly polarized nation, it was unclear if compromise was possible.

A little background: Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and established a shaky republic. While Spain had outlawed trade with America during its reign, Mexico welcomed the burgeoning trade, and by 1822, the Santa Fe Trail was forged. Americans, first in a trickle and then in greater numbers, poured into what was then northern Mexico. Mountain men like Kit Carson epitomized the adventurous spirit of these Americans, many of whom married Mexican or Native Americans and hunted, trapped, and mapped what would become the American Southwest.

James K. Polk’s election to the presidency in 1844 confirmed that most Americans supported westward expansion. Polk had campaigned on a platform to “re-annex” all of Texas and the Oregon Territory (from Mexico and Britain, respectively) while his opponent, Clay, argued against further expansion.

Once in office, Polk, a Democrat, did not stop with the annexation of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon Territory. He launched the Mexican-American War in 1846 to fulfill what was called America’s “manifest destiny” to occupy the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Gen. Zachary Taylor, though a Whig, was instrumental in securing victory over Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848), negotiated while American troops occupied Mexico City, gave America Upper California, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The Mexican Cession shrunk Mexico by 55 percent and grew America by 33 percent.

Before the treaty was ratified, politicians in D.C. were arguing over the fate of all of this territory. Would these new territories and eventual states be free or slave? How would the precarious balance between the North and South, which had held since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, withstand these new pressures? In 1820, Clay had engineered a compromise that saw Missouri admitted as a slave state but balanced by the entry of Maine as free. That compromise also drew a line along the 36th parallel, with states to the north free and those to the south potentially slave. For 24 years the Missouri Compromise had placed the issue of slavery on the backburner while politicians bickered over a national bank, protective tariffs and internal improvements. With the victory over Mexico, slavery exploded back onto the national scene.

In 1850, the Southerner Taylor now sat in the President’s House, owned 100 slaves himself, and had fought in Polk’s expansionist war. However, he was politically a Whig and thus belonged to the same party as Webster, Clay and Abe Lincoln. The South had supported Taylor’s presidential run, believing that a southerner could be trusted in D.C. to defend its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Southerners looked with glee at the Mexican Cession and all the potential political power that new slave states would bring as most of the new land lay south of the 36th parallel.

Most Whigs had not supported Polk’s war and the subsequent land grab. Lincoln had even introduced measures in the House of Representatives censuring Polk for his aggression. By early 1850, when Clay knocked on Webster’s door, Northern politicians were working feverishly to stop the expansion of slavery into the Mexican Cession, while the South declared the right to take slaves to the new territories south of the 36th parallel. The South had trusted Taylor to defend its interests, and when it became clear that Taylor favored union over defending southern property rights, the threat of secession hung in the air.

The compromise that Sens. Clay and Webster crafted that snowy night, which was eventually passed and signed by the new President Millard Fillmore, enraged both the North and South. In it, California was admitted as a free state; Texas gave up its claim to most of New Mexico, as well as all land up to the headwaters of the Rio Grande in return for the assumption of Texan debt; the Fugitive Slave Act dictated the North assist in the return of runaway slaves; the slave trade was outlawed in Washington D.C., although slavery itself remained legal there; and Utah and New Mexico were established as territories that would vote on slavery before statehood.

Perhaps like all compromises neither side was pleased with the Compromise of 1850. Neither Webster nor Clay lived to see the fallout from their political deal. It was left to the next generation to see if the Compromise of 1850 could preserve a bitterly divided union.

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