Today In Western History: New Mexico Prohibits Slavery

May 25, 1850

New Mexico adopts a new constitution, one that prohibits slavery.

In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the United States created a provisional government that lasted until 1850.  Although Mexico had officially ceded the territory when the war ended in 1848, the territorial boundaries were somewhat ambiguous.  

It wasn’t a smooth path to statehood for the territory as it had made this request earlier in the year using a constitution that permitted slavery, and while it was initially approved, it fell apart and died when Texas laid claim to the same territory.  The proposed state boundaries were to extend as far east as the 100th meridian West and as far north as the Arkansas River, thus encompassing the present-day Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and parts of present-day Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, as well as most of present-day New Mexico.  In addition, slaveholders were worried about not being able to expand slavery to the west of their current slave states if this boundary was accepted.

On September 9, 1850, the Congressional Compromise of 1850 was accepted and this stopped the early 1850 bid for statehood from going any further. On the other hand, other provisions of the Compromise organized both New Mexico and neighboring Utah Territory, and also firmly established the previously disputed western boundaries of the State of Texas that are still in place.

The status of slavery during the territorial period provoked considerable debate, much of it hotly con-tested and acrimonious. The granting of statehood was up to a Congress sharply divided on the slavery issue. Some (including Stephen A. Douglas for the Democrats) maintained

Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He won the Lincoln- Douiglas Debates but lost the election.
Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He won the Lincoln- Douglas Debates but lost the election.

that the territory could not restrict slavery, as under the earlier Missouri Compromise, while others (including Abraham Lincoln for the 

Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President
Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President.  He lost the Lincoln- Douglas Debates but won the election.

Republicans) insisted that older Mexican Republic legal traditions of the territory, which abolished black, but not Indian, slavery in 1834, took precedence and should therefore be continued. Regard- less of its official status, actual slavery was rare in antebellum New Mexico and Black slaves never numbered more than about a dozen.

As one of the final attempts at compromise to avoid the Civil War, in December 1860, U.S. House of Representatives Republicans offered to admit New Mexico as a slave state immediately. Although the measure was approved by committee on December 29, 1860, Southern representatives did not take up this offer, as many of them had already left Congress due to imminent declarations of secession by their states.  

In the middle of the Civil War, Congress made an effort to sort things out.  They passed the “Arizona Organic Act“, which split off the western portion of the then 12-year-old New Mexico Territory as the new Arizona Territory, and abolished slavery in the new Territory on February 24, 1863, As in New Mexico, slavery was already extremely limited, due to earlier Mexican traditions, laws, and patterns of settlement. The northwestern corner of New Mexico Territory was included in the newly established Arizona Territory until it was added to the southernmost part of the newly admitted State of Nevada in 1864. Eventually Arizona Territory was organized as the State of Arizona.



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