Selected Criticism

Compromise of 1850
Klammer, Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The Compromise of 1850 was the term given to five statutes enacted by Congress in September 1850 that sought to resolve the bitter disputes about slavery between representatives of the North and South. The basic provisions of the compromise established territorial governments in Utah and New Mexico that allowed states formed out of these territories to decide the slavery question for themselves, admitted California under a constitution prohibiting slavery, abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and enacted a stringent Fugitive Slave Law which amended the original 1793 statute. As a Free-Soiler, Walt Whitman was strongly opposed to the compromise and wrote editorializing poems in hopes of discouraging its passage.

Regional divisions over slavery had remained tense since 1846, when the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso incited national debates over whether territory gained from Mexico should be organized as slave or free. By 1850 such tensions threatened to sever the Union. When President Zachary Taylor in his January 1850 address urged Congress to admit California immediately and New Mexico soon thereafter as free states, a faction of Southerners threatened disunion. In an attempt to avert crisis, Henry Clay of Kentucky offered an omnibus bill of compromise resolutions that came to be known as the 1850 Compromise. Clay's resolutions were intended to balance the interests of North and South, but the provisions allowing for the organization of western territories as slave states were anathema to Whitman and Free-Soilers who opposed the extension of slavery on the principle that it would discourage the migration of white labor. Moreover, the Fugitive Slave Law, which included a provision compelling local citizens to assist federal marshals in the return of fugitive slaves, was denounced by Whitman and most Northerners as an intrusion of federal authority.

Whitman saw the entire bill as a capitulation to those who threatened secession. From March to June of 1850 Whitman wrote four poems for New York newspapers in which he urged Northern Congressmen to oppose compromise and excoriated those whom he felt had surrendered their antislavery principles in the face of disunionist threats. While none of the poems bears the marks of his later poetry—one is a satire, two others employ extended biblical analogies—for the first time Whitman has worked the issue of slavery into the form of poetry.

Prevailing Unionist sentiment led to passage of the bill, which provided a measure of national harmony on slavery until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 once more divided the nation. The 1850 Compromise was a bitter disappointment to Free-Soilers and to Whitman, who had been fighting the extension of slavery since 1846. With his antislavery hopes frustrated, Whitman largely took leave from politics and journalism until the mid-1850s.


Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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