Compromise 1850

Jacqueline Laughlin
6 min readSep 19, 2021

Passed on September 18, 1850 by Congress, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850. The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also made the federal government responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves.

I wonder why we are chosen to be lovers of history, griots, storytellers, listeners to the ancestors whispering in our ears things they would like us to remember or wondering about what happened in this place before I arrived here…. that just might guide me along the way. Thank goodness for guides and angels and cautionary tales. I am going shopping for a bucket today; a vessel to hold my water and the longings of my heart! The place and the vessel where we put our bucket list…

This morning a dear friend reminded me of today’s anniversary of Booker T’s famous speech called the Atlanta Compromise offered to an all-white Georgia audience moving them to tears in 1895 barely 30 years post- Civil War Federal -Reconstruction. They were still working on the fine points of living together in the South comfortably with all pretenses that anything remotely like racial mixing would be a good idea.

How do we ignore a third of the population and render them both invisible but also ready if not willing to promote industry and business with the not so abrupt loss of a nearly free agricultural and household labor source? The so-called free lunch is not free my dad would say though we decided that having hungry children anywhere might be even more costly.

The country reeling from the horrific sequalae of Civil War and the compromises that were made along the way meant it very much mattered what state you were born in or where you went to school, if you did, what you learned; and where you worked and what was the return on the investment in the marketplace.

Earlier in the week I had been browsing through other events occurring coincidently on this date in September and multiple events in the month we associate with going back to school and the end of summer.

I attended a writers retreat yesterday that invited us to look albeit poetically at how we make connections and what were the themes that pop up in our minds over and over and how when we speak metaphorically about things, comparing A and B, there is always a new thing an entity and energy formed that is both creative and new.

Georgia and Texas are probably two states I would never live in, but if I had, I wonder how things that occurred there long ago might still have an impact on me today. Senator Henry Clay was one of the youngest Senators curiously from Kentucky and loved compromises and got started in 1820 over Missouri and Maine and was still at it 30 years later.

One hundred twenty-six years ago, what was it that Booker T said that day that still resonates and reverberates with me. Deals brokered sustain me and mine still. I suppose that’s what I love about history and storytelling and how a place where you live and who you live with and what you know can so deeply affect you.

The Henry Clay Compromises brokered in 1850 **

Compromise of 1850: Acts

• An Act to amend, and supplementary to, the Act entitled “An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters,” approved February twelfth, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.
• An Act to suppress the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia.
• An Act for the Admission of the State of California into the Union.
• An Act to establish a Territorial Government for Utah.
• An Act proposing to the State of Texas the Establishment of her Northern and Western Boundaries, the Relinquishment by the said State of all Territory claimed by her exterior to said Boundaries, and of all her Claims upon the United States…

Links provided generously by your tax dollars from the Library of Congress, thank you Ken Drexler and reference librarians everywhere who love digging for source documents and scraps of paper otherwise thrown away or disintegrating over a lack of acid free protection.

Compromises made in 1850 if you track old politics and laws and the public space and sentiments were actually 5 pieces of federal legislation that were somehow allowing us to keep all the benefits of owning folks as livestock and property. Inconsequential labor practices sans unions while acknowledging that it may indeed have an impact on our own families and our own lives. How do we we behave when we really don’t care about how folks treat each other and how we treat our own wives, and mothers, and unrelated women & children if they dare misbehave? Wonder if they thought, if we do all these things now in 1850 just right in sequence: it might prevent a Civil War down the road. I mean the one that ensued just 10 or so years later when the Confederacy formed when their interests were not being served. Nothing like 20/20 hindsight and Monday night Quarterbacks..

Over coffee and morning prayer & meditation time, we waxed and waned at the breakfast table over similarities between the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and that great piece of 2021 Texas September legislation that assured that no citizen or stone would be unturned or disrupted in saving babies aka property of the owner a moment over 6 weeks gestation. How is it different when we deputize those who might return the would-be criminals? A citizen’s arrest that would make things morally right and fully engage the public in keeping order and wayward folks in their place.

How today if five generations of my mother’s family were not born or had not found their way to the District of Columbia a swamp and swim away across the Potomac. Would not my life be different? Disallowing anyone to be sold in the District after 1850 while allowing California to be free with admission to the Union seems a bit of a good deal. Did it help Texas too in establishing borders fair and square? Did you know that Ms. Roe of Roe v. Wade was from Texas?

Doesn’t much matter, I suppose whether you’re from California, Missouri, Maine, Georgia, a red or blue state. Doesn’t matter if I have had an abortion or not, or if I could be sold in my great-great grandmother’s hometown or get married or go to school. All of that was a long time ago!

References for your reading and clicking pleasure!

Compromise of 1850

171 years ago…today September 18th

126 years ago, the Atlanta Compromise at the Exposition

48 years ago, my son’s birthday on September 20th with the new Harvest Moon

September 20, 1850. No slave to be brought into the District of Columbia to be sold.

My son was born in North Adams, Massachusetts on September 20, 1974
Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts 1783

My daughter was born in the District of Columbia 1980
My mother was born in the District of Columbia,1927–2009
Her mother was born in the District of Columbia 1908–1982
Her mother was born in the District of Columbia 1884–1912
Her mother was born right around 1850 in the District of Columbia
I was born in New York City in 1954 same as my dad who was born a minute ago in 1916!