What Was the Missouri Compromise?
Today we want to go over the Missouri Compromise. What we mean by that- We’re talking about a compromise that was reached politically in the admission of Missouri as a territory to eventually form a state. As our country grew and spread westward, there was the constant question of slavery entering in. The whole idea was that America was sectionally divided North and South. This North/South sectionalism showed itself as new states, new territories, were brought into the union.
The question was: Would they be allowed to form a state government and write a state constitution that permitted or forbade slavery? Now, the way this was fought out was, basically, each state was allowed to send representatives to the House of Representatives on the federal level based on population. The north was more populous, therefore, they would have more representation.
They’d already come up with the Three Fifths Compromise, which said that in the Southern states, they could count three out of every five slaves for the purposes of representation. They also had to count those three out of every five for purposes of taxation. That was the compromise. You get taxed on more of your population, but you also get representation from your population. That solved (sort of) the situation in terms of the House of Representatives.
On the side of the Senate, each state got to send two representatives, no matter the size of the state. Big state, small state, all got two. Most of the power in terms of power struggle was localized in the Senate. What the South sought to do was protect its institution, which was necessary, they felt economically, because of their large-scale manufacturing of cotton and tobacco and their need for a large workforce.
They wanted to protect that. What they sought to do was to have an equal number of states that were pro-slavery to those that were anti-slavery. That way, the representation in the Senate, because they all get two, would be equal. Recently, just prior to this, in 1819, Alabama had been admitted as a state, as a slave state. With the admission of Alabama, the number of slave states and free states had once again been brought to equality.
They were the same number. With that equilibrium, they were happy. Missouri was about to come in. As Missouri was about to come in, that would suddenly tip the balance pro-slavery. There would now be one more slave state then there were non-slave states. There was a big battle over that. Do we want to allow the Southern pro-slavery group to have more power and more representation than those of us from the Northeast who were here originally, the original colonies that were anti-slavery? What are we going to do?
Well, at about the same time Missouri was seeking admission, Maine was seeking admission. Maine would absolutely come in as a free state. Well, here we go. All politics, it says, is based on lies and compromise. There is a lot of truth in that, certainly on the compromise side. If we’re going to have political things happen and people have to share power, some people have to give up something and give something in order for people to work together.
This compromise said, “At the same time that Maine comes in as a free state, we’ll admit Missouri as a slave state and keep the balance there. They’ll still be the same number of states representing in the Senate, the free side as well as the slave side.” With this added stipulation, that in the territory west of Missouri and above the parallel line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes, north of that and west of Missouri would be considered free.
If any of those areas, those territories, got organized into states, they would automatically come in as free states and could not be considered for the pro-slavery side. That was sort of the compromise worked out. Maine comes in, Missouri comes in, and then from the parallel, which is the southern border of Missouri, and West of the state 36 degrees, 30 minutes, and north would be considered slave-free.
There were other stipulations put in there that would encourage Northerners to return runaway slaves, that would basically help protect the institution of slavery, and tradeoffs that way. Basically, all of this was just stopgap. Thomas Jefferson said, “Look, we are deeply divided as a nation. If we can’t come together on this question one way or the other, it’s going to lead to division and war.” It did, finally, in the 1860s.
They kept limping along as best as they could with this compromise. It’s part of a political power struggle, because of the North and South sectionalism. The admission of Alabama as a state made the number of free and slave states equal. They admitted Maine as a free state at the same time as Missouri as a slave state to keep the number equal. This number is critical here, this 36 degrees, 30 minutes being the boundary.
Everything north of that and west of Missouri and the Louisiana Purchase would be considered forever after free. Henry Clay is an important name to remember in this regard. The Great Compromiser, he was speaker of the house and helped cobble a lot of this stuff together, trying to make people- Look, let’s work together. Let’s find equality. Let’s find an answer.
The Missouri Compromise, as Thomas Jefferson said, was merely a temporary stopping point. They prolonged the inevitable. This question of slavery versus freedom would not be decided until the 1860s in our bloody civil war, which finally answered that question in favor of freedom. This has just been a brief overview of the Missouri Compromise.