Missouri Compromise

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The United States in 1820. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the unorganized territory of the Great Plains (dark green) and permitted it in Missouri (yellow) and the Arkansas Territory (blue).

The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36° 30' North except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. There were many bitter debates sharply emphasizing the sectional division of the United States. The compromise was repealed in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and played an instrumental role in leading up to the American Civil War.

This compromise was viewed in its day as one of the most important attempts to try to avoid the American Civil War. However, it lasted only four years. The view that the anti-slavery faction and Northern states stood in outrage against the slave owning Southern states merely reduces the complexities involved to a simplistic good versus bad formula. Unfortunately the Missouri Compromise lacked ongoing popular support and merely delayed the war between the North and South. The Kansas Nebraska Act that replaced it actually hastened the day when brother fought brother for the soul of the United States as the land of the free.


Missouri applied for statehood in 1819 and the debate over slave states and free states began. Northerners were against slavery; they were of the opinion that it was immoral and unjust. The Southerners, on the other hand, found slavery acceptable and commonplace. Many Southern slaveholders had moved to Missouri territory and wanted it admitted to the Union as a slave state.

There were eleven slave states and eleven free states when Missouri applied for statehood. Admitting Missouri either way would upset the balance and give control of the Senate to the majority. A resolution was proposed by New York Representative John Tallmadge in February. The resolution suggested once Missouri became a state no more slaves could be transported over the border. It further stated all children of slaves born in Missouri after its admission would be granted freedom at age 25. This proposal passed the House of Representatives but was rejected by the Senate. Congress adjourned and the dissension continued.

During the following session (1819-1820), the House passed a similar bill with an amendment introduced on January 26, 1820 by John W. Taylor of New York, allowing Missouri into the union as a slave state. In the meantime Maine (part of Massachusetts at the time) applied for admission as a free state.

The Senate decided to connect the two measures, and passed a bill for the admission of Maine with an amendment enabling the people of Missouri to form a state constitution. Before the bill was returned to the House, a second amendment was adopted on the motion of Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, excluding slavery from the Missouri Territory north of the parallel 36° 30' N (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.

Impact on political discourse

These disputes, involving the question of the relative powers of Congress and the states, tended to turn the Democratic-Republicans, who were becoming nationalized, back again toward their old state sovereignty principles and to prepare the way for the Jacksonian-Democratic Party nationalistic element that was soon to emerge as National Republicans, elements of which then evolved into the Whigs during Andrew Jackson's Presidency.

In an April 22 letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the division of the country created by the Compromise line would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union:

...this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

On the constitutional side, the Missouri Compromise was important as the first precedent for the congressional exclusion of slavery from public territory acquired since the adoption of the Constitution, and also as a clear recognition that Congress has no right to impose upon a state asking for admission into the Union conditions which do not apply to those states already in the Union.

Following Maine and Missouri's admissions to the Union in 1821, no other states were admitted until 1836 when Arkansas became a slave state, followed by Michigan in 1837 as a free state.

Second Missouri Compromise

There was now a controversy between the two houses not only on the slavery issue, but also on the parliamentary question of the inclusion of Maine and Missouri within the same bill. The committee recommended the enactment of two laws, one for the admission of Maine, the other an enabling act for Missouri without any restrictions on slavery but including the Thomas amendment. This was agreed to by both houses, and the measures were passed, and were ratified by President James Monroe respectively, on March 5-6, 1820. When the question of the final admission of Missouri came up during the session of 1820-1821, the struggle was revived over a clause in the new constitution (1820) requiring the exclusion of "free negroes and mulattoes" from the state. Through the influence of Henry Clay, an act of admission was finally passed, upon the condition that the exclusionary clause of the Missouri constitution should "never be construed to authorize the passage of any law" impairing the privileges and immunities of any U.S. citizen. This deliberately ambiguous provision is sometimes known as the Second Missouri Compromise. Although not explicitly intended to do so, it could (and would) be interpreted to indicate that blacks and mulattos did not qualify as citizens of the United States. This had a direct relationship with the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.

The 1857 Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruled the first Compromise unconstitutional (while ratifying the second Compromise's proposition that persons of African descent could not be U.S. citizens), inflaming antislavery sentiment in the North and further contributing to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.


The provisions of the Missouri Compromise forbidding slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36° 30' N were effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Each state entering the Union would be able to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. The slave and free states remained divided. The Civil War was inevitable and the repeal of the compromise was one of the main reasons.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benton, Thomas Hart. Historical and legal examination of that part of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott case, which declares the unconstitutionality of the Missouri Compromise Act. Buffalo, NY: W.S. Hein, 2003. ISBN 9781575887319
  • Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. The South and three sectional crises. Walter Lynwood Fleming lectures in southern history. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. ISBN 9780807106716
  • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. The Bedford series in history and culture. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. ISBN 9780312128074
  • Forbes, Robert Pierce. The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery & the Meaning of America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. ISBN 9780807831052
  • Rodgers, Ned, Ralph Phillips, Leon Ishmael, Greg Heimer and John Rodgers.Documents of Destiny. Just the Facts Learning Series. Thousand Oaks, CA: Goldhil Video, 2003. ISBN 9781585657612

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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