The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861

Author: Henry Clay  | Date: 1850

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The Clay Compromise

MR. PRESIDENT, I hold in my hand a series of resolutions which I desire to submit to the consideration of this body. Taken together, in combination, they propose an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and the slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery. It is not my intention, Mr. President, at this time, to enter into a full and elaborate discussion of each of these resolutions, taken separately, or the whole of them combined together, as composing a system of measures; but I desire to present a few observations upon each resolution, with the purpose chiefly of exposing it fairly and fully before the Senate and before the country; and I may add, with the indulgence of the Senate, toward the conclusion, some general observations upon the state of the country, and the condition of the questions to which the resolutions relate. Whether they shall or shall not meet with the approbation and concurrence of the Senate, as I most ardently hope they may, as I most sincerely believe they ought, I trust that at least some portion of the long time which I have devoted with care and deliberation, to the preparation of these resolutions, and to the presentation of this great national scheme of compromise and harmony, will be employed by each Senator before he pronounces against the propositions embraced in these resolutions. The resolutions, sir, are all preceded by a short preamble, to which, of course, I attach no very great importance. The preamble and first resolution are as follows:

"It being desirable for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable and just basis. Therefore:"1st. Resolved, That California, with suitable boundaries, ought, upon her application, to be admitted as one of the States of this Union, without the imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery within those boundaries."

Mr. President, it must be acknowledged that there has been some irregularity in the movements which have terminated in the adoption of a constitution by California, and in the expression of her wish, not yet formally communicated to Congress it is true, but which may be anticipated in a few days, to be admitted into the Union as a state. There has been some irregularity in the manner in which they have framed that constitution. It was not preceded by any act of Congress authorizing the Convention and designating the boundaries of the proposed State, according to all the early practice of this Government, according to all the cases of the admission of new States into this Union, which occurred, I think, prior to that of Michigan. Michigan, if I am not mistaken, was the first State which, unbidden, unauthorized by any previous act of Congress, undertook to form for herself a constitution, and to knock at the door of Congress for admission into the Union. I recollect that at the time when Michigan thus presented herself, I was opposed, in consequence of that deviation from the early practice of the Government, to the admission. The majority determined otherwise; and it must be in candor admitted by all men that California had much more reason to do what she has done, unsanctioned and unauthorized by a previous act of Congress, than Michigan had to do what she did.

Sir, notwithstanding the irregularity of the admission of Michigan into the Union, it has been a happy event. She forms now one of the bright stars of this glorious Confederacy. She has sent here to mingle in our councils senators and representatives—men eminently distinguished, with whom we may all associate with pride, with pleasure, and with satisfaction. And I trust that if California, irregular as her previous action may have been in the adoption of a constitution, but more justifiable than was the action of Michigan—if she also shall be admitted, as is proposed by the first resolution, with suitable limits, that she too, will make her contribution of wisdom, of patriotism, and of good feeling to this body, in order to conduct the affairs of this great and boundless empire.

The resolution proposes her admission when she applies for it. There is no intention on my part to anticipate such an application, but I thought it right to present this resolution as a part of the general plan which I propose for the adjustment of these unhappy difficulties.

The second resolution, sir, is as follows:

"2nd. Resolved, That as slavery does not exist by law, and is not likely to be introduced into any of the territory acquired by the United States from the Republic of Mexico, it is inexpedient for Congress to provide by law either for its introduction into or exclusion from any part of the said territory; and that appropriate territorial governments ought to be established by Congress in all of the said territory not assigned as the boundaries of the proposed State of California, without the adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery."

This resolution, sir, proposes, in the first instance, a declaration of two truths, one of law and the other of fact. The truth of law which it declares is that there does not exist at this time slavery within any portion of the territory acquired by the United States from Mexico. When I say, sir, it is a truth, I speak my own solemn and deliberate conviction. I am aware that some gentlemen have held a different doctrine; but I persuade myself that they themselves, when they come to review the whole ground, will see sufficient reasons for a change, or at least a modification of their opinions; but that, at all events, if they adhere to that doctrine, they will be found to compose a very small minority of the whole mass of the people of the United States.

The next truth which the resolution asserts is that slavery is not likely to be introduced into any portion of that territory. That is a matter of fact; and all the evidence upon which the fact rests is, perhaps, as accessible to other Senators as it is to me; but I must say that, from all I have heard or read, from the testimony of all the witnesses I have seen and conversed with, from all that has transpired and is transpiring, I do believe that not within one foot of the territory acquired by us from Mexico will slavery ever be planted, and I believe it could not be done even by the force and power of public authority.

Sir, facts are daily occurring to justify me in this opinion. Sir, what has occurred? And upon that subject, and indeed upon this whole subject, I invite Senators from the free States especially to consider what has occurred even since the last session—even since the commencement of this session—since they left their respective constituencies without an opportunity of consulting with them upon that great and momentous fact—the fact that California herself, of which it was asserted and predicted that she never would establish slavery within her limits when she came to be admitted as a State; that California herself, embracing, of all other portions of the country acquired by us from Mexico, that country into which it would have been most likely that slavery should have been introduced; that California herself has met in convention, and by a unanimous vote, embracing in that body slaveholders from the State of Mississippi, as well as from other parts, who concurred in the resolution—that California by a unanimous vote, has declared against the introduction of slavery within her limits. I think, then, that taking this leading fact in connection with all the evidence we have from other sources on the subject, I am warranted in the conclusion which constitutes the second truth which I have stated in this resolution, that slavery is "not likely to be introduced into any of the territory acquired by us from Mexico."

Sir, the latter part of the resolution asserts that it is the duty of Congress to establish appropriate territorial governments within all the country acquired from Mexico, exclusive of California, not embracing in the acts by which these governments shall be constituted either a prohibition or admission of slavery.

Sir, much as I am disposed to defer to high authority, anxious as I really am to find myself in a position that would enable me to co-operate heartily with the other departments of the government in conducting the affairs of this great people, I must say that I can not without a dereliction of duty consent to an abandonment of them without government, leaving them to all those scenes of disorder, confusion and anarchy which I apprehend, in respect of some of them, there is too much reason to anticipate will arise. It is the duty, the solemn—I was going to add the most sacred—duty of Congress to legislate for their government, if they can, and, at all events, to legislate for them, and to give them the benefit of law, and order and security.

The next resolutions are the third and fourth, which, having an immediate connection with each other, should be read and considered together. They are as follows:

"3rd. Resolved, That the western boundary of the State of Texas ought to be fixed on the Rio del Norte, commencing one marine league from its mouth, and running up that river to the southern line of New Mexico; thence with that line eastwardly, and so continuing in the same direction to the line established between the United States and Spain, excluding any portion of New Mexico, whether lying on the east or west of that river."

"4th. Resolved, That it be proposed to the State of Texas, that the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the legitimate and bona fide public debt of that State, contracted prior to its annexation to the United States, and for which the duties on foreign imports were pledged by the said State to its creditors, not exceeding the sum of $——, in consideration of the said dues so pledged having been no longer applicable to that object after the said annexation, but having thenceforward become payable to the United States; and upon the condition also, that the said State of Texas shall by some solemn and authentic act of her legislature, or of a convention, relinquish to the United States any claim which it has to any part of New Mexico."

Mr. President, I do not mean now, I do not know that I shall at any time (it is a very complex subject, and one not free from difficulty) to go into the question of what are the true limits of Texas. My own opinion is, I must say, without intending by the remark to go into any argument, that Texas has not a good title to any portion of what is called New Mexico. And yet, sir, I am free to admit that, looking at the grounds which her representatives assumed, first in the war with Santa Anna in 1836, then at what transpired between Mr. Trist and the Mexican negotiators when the treaty of peace was negotiated, and then the fact that the United States have acquired all the country which Texas claimed as constituting a portion of her territory; looking at all these facts, but without attaching to them, either together or separately, the same degree of force which gentlemen who think that Texas has a right to New Mexico do, I must say that there is plausibility, to say the least of it, in the pretensions that she sets up to New Mexico. I do not think that they constitute or demonstrate the existence of a good title, but a plausible one. Well, then, sir, what do I propose? Without entering into any inquiry whether the Nueces or the Rio Grande was the true boundary of Texas, I propose, by the first of these two resolutions, that its western limits shall be fixed on the Rio del Norte, extending west from the Sabine to the mouth of the Rio del Norte, and that it shall follow up the Bravo or the Rio del Norte, to where it strikes the southern line of New Mexico, and then, diverging from that line, follow on in that direction until it reaches the line as fixed by the United States and Spain, by their treaty of 1819; and thus embracing a vast country, abundantly competent to form two or three States—a country which I think the highest ambition of her greatest men ought to be satisfied with as a State and member of this Union.

But, sir, the second of these resolutions makes a proposition to the State of Texas upon which I desire to say a few words. It proposes that the Government of the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the debt of Texas for which the duties received upon imports from foreign countries were pledged by Texas at a time when she had authority to make pledges. How much it will amount to I have endeavored to ascertain, but all the means requisite to the ascertainment of the sum have not been received, and it is not very essential at this time, because it is the principle and not the amount that is most worthy of consideration. Now, sir, the ground upon which I base this liability on the part of the United States to pay a specified portion of the debt of Texas is not new to me. It is one which I have again and again announced to be an opinion entertained by me. I think it is founded upon principles of truth and eternal justice. Texas, being an independent power, recognized as such by all the great powers of the earth, invited loans to be made to her, to enable her to prosecute the then existing war between her and Mexico. She told those whom she invited to make these loans, that "if you make them, the duties on foreign imports shall be sacredly pledged for the reimbursement of the loans." The loans were made. The money was received, and expended in the establishment of her liberty and her independence. After all this, she annexed herself to the United States, who thenceforward acquired the right to the identical pledge which she had made to the public creditor to satisfy the loan of money which he had advanced to her. The United States became the owners of that pledge, and the recipient of all the duties payable in the ports of Texas.

Now, sir, I do say that, in my humble judgment, if there be honor, or justice, or truth among men, we do owe to the creditors who thus advanced their money upon that pledge, the reimbursement of the money, at all events to the extent that the pledged fund which have reimbursed it, if it had never been appropriated by us to our use. We must recollect, sir, that in relation to that pledge, and to the loan made in virtue and on the faith of it, there were three parties bound—I mean after annexation—the United States, Texas, and the creditor of Texas, who had advanced his money on the faith of a solemn pledge made by Texas.

Texas and the United States might do what they thought proper; but in justice they could do nothing to deprive the creditor of a full reliance upon the pledge upon the faith of which he had advanced his money. Sir, it is impossible now to ascertain how much would have been received from that source of revenue by the State of Texas, if she had remained independent. It would be most unjust to go there now and examine at Galveston and her other ports, to ascertain how much she now receives by her foreign imports; because, by being incorporated into this Union, all her supplies, which formerly were received from foreign countries, and subject—many of them at least—to import duties, are now received by the coasting trade, instead of being received from other countries, as they would have been, if she had remained independent. Considering the extent of her territory, and the rapid manner in which her population is increasing, and is likely to increase, it is probable that in the course of a few years there might have been such an amount received at the various ports of Texas—she remaining independent—as would have been adequate to the extinction of the debt to which I have referred.

But, sir, it is not merely in the discharge of what I consider to be a valid and legitimate obligation resting upon the United States to discharge the specified duty, it is not upon that condition alone that this payment is proposed to be made; it is also upon the further condition that Texas shall relinquish to the United States any claim that she has to any portion of New Mexico. Now, sir, although, as I believe, she has not a valid title to any portion of New Mexico, she has a claim; and for the sake of that general quiet and harmony, for the sake of that accommodation, which ought to be as much the object of legislation as it is of individuals in their transactions in private life, we may do now what an individual in analogous circumstances might do—give something for the relinquishment of a claim, although it should not be well founded, for the sake of peace. It is, therefore, proposed—and this resolution does propose—that we shall pay the amount of the debt contracted by Texas prior to its annexation to the United States, in consideration of our reception of the duties applicable to the extinction of that debt; and that Texas shall also, in consideration of a sum to be advanced, relinquish any claim which she has to any portion of New Mexico.

The fifth resolution, sir, and the sixth, like the third and fourth, are somewhat connected together. They are as follows:

"5th. Resolved, That it is inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, while that institution continues to exist in the State of Maryland, without the consent of that State, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.

"6th. But Resolved, That it is expedient to prohibit within the District the slave-trade, in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein as merchandise, or to be transported to other markets, without the District of Columbia."

The first of these resolutions, Mr. President, in somewhat different language, asserts substantially no other principle than that which was asserted by the Senate of the United States twelve years ago, upon the resolutions which I then offered, and which passed—at least the particular resolution passed—by a majority of four-fifths of the Senate. I allude to the resolution presented by me in 1838. I shall not enlarge on that resolution; it speaks for itself; it declares that the institution of slavery should not be abolished in the District of Columbia without the concurrence of three conditions; first, the assent of Maryland; second, the assent of the people within the District; and third, compensation to the owners of the slaves within the District for their property.

The next resolution proposed deserves a passing remark. It is that the slave-trade within the District ought to be abolished, prohibited. I do not mean by that the alienation and transfer of slaves from the inhabitants within this District—the sale by one neighbor to another of a slave which the one owns and the other wants, that a husband may perhaps be put along with his wife, or a wife with her husband. I do not mean to touch at all the question of the right of property in slaves among persons living within the District; but the slave-trade to which I refer was, I think, pronounced an abomination more than forty years ago, by one of the most gifted and distinguished sons of Virginia, the late Mr. Randolph. And who is there who is not shocked at its enormity? Sir, it is a great mistake at the North, if they suppose that gentlemen living in the slave States look upon one who is a regular trader in slaves with any particular favor or kindness. They are often—sometimes unjustly, perhaps—excluded from social intercourse. I have known some memorable instances of this sort. But, then, what is this trade? It is a good deal limited since the retrocession of that portion of the District formerly belonging to Virginia. There are Alexandria, Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, south of the Potomac, and Baltimore, Annapolis, and perhaps other ports, north of the Potomac. Let the slave-dealer, who chooses to collect his slaves in Virginia and Maryland, go to these places; let him not come here and establish his jails, and put on his chains, and sometimes shock the sensibilities of our nature by a long train of slaves passing through that avenue leading from this Capitol to the house of the Chief Magistrate of one of the most glorious Republics that ever existed. Why should he not do it? Sir, I am sure I speak the sentiments of every Southern man, and every man coming from the slave States, when I say let it terminate, and that it is an abomination; and there is no occasion for it; it ought no longer to be tolerated.

The seventh resolution relates to a subject embraced in a bill now under consideration by the Senate. It is as follows:

"7th. Resolved, That more effectual provision ought to be made by law, according to the requirement of the Constitution, for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State who may escape into any other State or Territory in the Union."

Sir, that is so evident, and has been so clearly shown by the debate which has already taken place on the subject, that I have not now occasion to add another word.

The last resolution of the series of eight is as follows:

"And 8th. Resolved, That Congress has no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slaveholding States; but that the admission or exclusion of slaves brought from one into another of them, depends exclusively upon their own particular laws."

It is obvious that no legislation is necessary or intended to follow that resolution. It merely asserts a truth established by the highest authority of law in this country, and, in conformity with that decision, I trust there will be one universal acquiescence.

I should not have thought it necessary to embrace in that resolution the declaration which is embraced in it, but that I thought it might be useful in treating of the whole subject, and in accordance with the practice of our British and American ancestors occasionally to resort to great fundamental principles, and bring them freshly and manifestly before our eyes, from time to time, to avoid their being violated upon any occasion.

Mr. President, you have before you the whole series of resolutions, the whole scheme of arrangement and accommodation of these distracting questions, which I have to offer, after having bestowed on these subjects the most anxious, intensely anxious, consideration ever since I have been in this body. How far it may prove acceptable to both or either of the parties on these great questions, it is not for me to say. I think it ought to be acceptable to both. There is no sacrifice of any principle, proposed in any of them, by either party. The plan is founded upon mutual forbearance, originating in a spirit of reconciliation and concession; not of principles, but of matters of feeling. At the North, sir, I know that from feeling, by many at least cherished as being dictated by considerations of humanity and philanthropy, there exists a sentiment adverse to the institution of slavery.

Sir, I might, I think—although I believe this project contains about an equal amount of concession and forbearance on both sides—have asked from the free States of the North a more liberal and extensive concession than should be asked from the slave States. And why, sir? With you, gentlemen Senators of the free States, what is it? An abstraction, a sentiment—a sentiment, if you please, of humanity and philanthropy—a noble sentiment, when directed rightly, with no sinister or party purposes; an atrocious sentiment—a detestable sentiment—or rather the abuse of it—when directed to the accomplishment of unworthy purposes. I said that I might ask from you larger and more expensive concessions than from the slave States. And why? You are numerically more powerful than the slave States. Not that there is any difference—for upon that subject I can not go along with the ardent expression of feeling by some of my friends coming from the same class of States from which I come—not that there is any difference in valor, in prowess, in noble and patriotic daring, whenever it is required for the safety and salvation of the country, between the people of one class of States and those of the other. You are, in point of numbers, however, greater; and greatness and magnanimity should ever be allied.

But there are other reasons why concession upon such a subject as this should be more liberal, more expansive, coming from the free than from the slave States. It is, as I remarked, a sentiment, a sentiment of humanity and philanthropy on your side. Ay, sir, and when a sentiment of that kind is honestly and earnestly cherished, with a disposition to make sacrifices to enforce it, it is a noble and beautiful sentiment; but, sir, when the sacrifice is not to be made by those who cherish that sentiment and inculcate it, but by another people, in whose situation it is impossible, from their position, to sympathize and to share all and every thing that belongs to them, I must say to you, Senators from the free States, it is a totally different question. On your side it is a sentiment without sacrifice, a sentiment without danger, a sentiment without hazard, without peril, without loss. But how is it on the other side, to which, as I have said, a greater amount of concession ought to be made in any scheme of compromise?

In the first place, sir, there is a vast and incalculable amount of property to be sacrificed, and to be sacrificed, not by your sharing in the common burdens, but exclusive of you. And this is not all. The social intercourse, habit, safety, property, life, every thing is at hazard, in a greater or less degree, in the slave States.

Sir, look at the storm which is now raging before you, beating in all its rage pitilessly on your family. They are in the South. But where are your families, where are your people, Senators from the free States? They are safely housed, enjoying all the blessings of domestic comfort, peace, and quiet, in the bosoms of their own families.

Behold, Mr. President, that dwelling-house now wrapped in flames. Listen, sir, to the rafters and beams which fall in succession, amid the crash; and the flames ascending higher and higher as they tumble down. Behold those women and children who are flying from the calamitous scene, and with their shrieks and lamentations imploring the aid of high Heaven. Whose house is that? Whose wives and children are they? Yours in the free States? No. You are looking on in safety and security, while the conflagration which I have described is raging in the slave States, and produced, not intentionally, by you, but produced from the inevitable tendency of the measures which you have adopted, and which others have carried far beyond what you have wished.

In the one scale, then, we behold sentiment, sentiment, sentiment alone; in the other property, the social fabric, life, and all that makes life desirable and happy.

But, sir, I find myself engaged much beyond what I intended, when I came this morning from my lodgings, in the exposition with which I intended these resolutions should go forth to the consideration of the world. I can not omit, however, before I conclude, relating an incident, a thrilling incident, which occurred prior to my leaving my lodgings this morning.

A man came to my room—the same at whose instance, a few days ago, I presented a memorial calling upon Congress for the purchase of Mount Vernon for the use of the public—and, without being at all aware of what purpose I entertained in the discharge of my public duty to-day, he said to me: "Mr. Clay, I heard you make a remark the other day which induces me to suppose that a precious relic in my possession would be acceptable to you." He then drew out of his pocket, and presented to me the object which I now hold in my hand. And what, Mr. President, do you suppose it is? It is a fragment of the coffin of Washington—a fragment of that coffin in which now repose in silence, in sleep, and speechless, all the earthly remains of the venerated Father of his country. Was it portentous that it should have been thus presented to me? Was it a sad presage of what might happen to that fabric which Washington’s virtue, patriotism and valor established? No, sir, no. It was a warning voice, coming from the grave to the Congress now in session to beware, to pause, to reflect, before they lend themselves to any purposes which shall destroy that Union which was cemented by his exertions and example. Sir, I hope an impression may be made on your mind such as that which was made on mine by the reception of this precious relic.

And, in conclusion, I now ask every Senator, I entreat you, gentlemen, in fairness and candor, to examine the plan of accommodation which this series of resolutions proposes, and not to pronounce against them until convinced after a thorough examination. I move that the resolutions be read and received.


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Chicago: Henry Clay, "The Clay Compromise (Clay)," The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861 in America, Vol.7, Pp.131-150 Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019,

MLA: Clay, Henry. "The Clay Compromise (Clay)." The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861, in America, Vol.7, Pp.131-150, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Clay, H, 'The Clay Compromise (Clay)' in The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861. cited in , America, Vol.7, Pp.131-150. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from