Explain how the federal government tried to resolve the issue of slavery in the western territories during the 1850s.

Expert Answers
pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The end of the Mexican War was both a blessing and a curse for the United States.  The nation gained a great deal of new territory, but it could not decide whether or not this new land would be free or slave.  Initially, David Wilmot proposed that the new land should be entirely free; of course, this was considered a dead letter in Congress and Southerners voted against this.  There was also talk of extending the Compromise of 1820 dividing line between free and slave territory, but this would split California in half. 

The solution, the Compromise of 1850, came from Henry Clay.  It was an omnibus bill, which meant that it had to be passed as a whole unit.  The bill ensured that California would come in as a free state, New Mexico Territory could vote on whether or not to have slaves, the slave trade would be ended in Washington D.C., and the North would tighten the Fugitive Slave Law.  The bill passed, but it really made no one happy.  California was filled with miners and merchants, most of whom did not own slaves.  New Mexico was too dry to support cotton without extensive irrigation, and slave owners in Washington could go to neighboring Virginia or Maryland to buy their slaves.  The Fugitive Slave Law meant that more federal dollars would be used to bring fugitive slaves back to the South.  There were problems with this, as slave catchers were paid a bounty for each slave returned, and there were instances of some free men being sold into slavery.  

Another solution was Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed the people who lived in these territories the right to vote on whether or not they could own slaves.  Kansas was soon filled by abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates, and a state of war existed there starting in 1858 as both sides tried to intimidate and kill each other.