What Was the Missouri Compromise?

Part of a series of half measures that attempted to balance the interests of slave and non-slave states, the Missouri Compromise was a Congressional enactment that seemed opportune at the time. However, it only solidified the growing divide between the northern and southern parts of the U.S., which was becoming increasingly defined by stances on the matter of slavery. This divide would in turn erupt into the Civil War.

Slavery was well on its way to becoming an explosive issue in the U.S. by the early 19th century. Some American slaveholders made enormous amounts of wealth, and some of those wealthy slaveholders, including Thomas Jefferson, started having second thoughts about owning so many slaves in a country that had fought a war for the sake of individual liberties. According to the terms of the Constitution, Congress was able to abolish the U.S.’s Atlantic trade in slaves 25 years after ratification – and Jefferson’s government took action on that clause. In 1807, Congress passed, and President Jefferson signed into law, an act that banned the importation of slaves into the U.S. Though the slave market had received a check internationally, domestically the demand for slaves on Southern plantations increased as a result of the ban, and interstate slave trading became highly lucrative. This development, along with a process of slavery abolition in Northern states that had begun shortly after the American Revolution, and the banning of slavery in the territory that comprised Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, meant that by the early 1800s, American slaveholding states were mainly in the southern part of the country. Importantly, passage of the Northwest Ordinance had shown that the federal government had the authority to regulate slavery in U.S. territory – but how far that sway extended throughout the country was a matter of contentious dispute.

That dispute became even more heated as the U.S. found itself expanding to the west, fueled by Jefferson’s inking of the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon in 1803. The dilemma as to where, if anywhere, to permit slavery in new territories being admitted as states, was the dilemma that the Missouri Compromise would eventually seek to solve. Missouri had been the second state out of the Louisiana-Purchase territory to apply for statehood, which it did in 1818. The catch was, the Missouri territory already allowed slavery (more than 10,000 slaves were already in the area), and its leaders wanted a slave state, which immediately set them in conflict with many northern political figures. The situation was on a knife edge: at the time of Missouri’s application for statehood, there were 22 senators from free states and 22 senators from slave states.

In this event, however, a sort of escape valve emerged, potentially offering a solution to the brewing tension. Shortly after Missouri lodged its application, Maine also applied for statehood – as a free state. Yet Southern, slave-state senators then began a campaign to prevent Maine’s admission, and tension escalated quickly. From the anti-slavery side, too, politicians were making moves, among them New York Congressman James Tallmadge Jr., who tried to insert an amendment into Missouri’s statehood bill that would institute a general ban on slavery within Missouri and emancipate the children of slaves there at the age of 25. A speech Tallmadge gave in February 1819 in defense of his amendment received international attention, even being translated into German, but although it passed the House, the Senate rejected it, additionally voting to allow slavery unhindered in Missouri.

The temptation of ambiguously allowing Missouri to enter as a slave state and Maine as a free state was too strong to resist. After Congress re-convened in the latter part of 1819, the Missouri Compromise began to take shape. The eventual deal, which made Speaker of the House Henry Clay famously known as “The Great Compromiser” and was signed into law by President James Monroe in March 1820, did indeed preserve the balance of power in the senate by bringing Missouri into the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. In addition, the Missouri Compromise laid down a rule that banned slavery in new U.S. territories north of the line of latitude at 36 degrees, 30 minutes, with Missouri, of course, as an exception since it was north of that line. The rest of the territory of the Louisiana Purchase effectively became free territory, thanks to this compromise.

But slaveholders could set their sights on plenty of territory south of the compromise line of latitude. It was this type of pro-slavery westward expansion that brought significant numbers of American settlers to Texas – and in 1845 the territory became a slave state, thanks to the effective legitimization of Southern slavery which the Missouri Compromise had allowed.

Though the compromise had enhanced the precedent set by the Northwest Ordinance in clarifying the federal government’s power to regulate slavery in new states, the slaveholding interests – who arguably had the most to lose from an expansion of that power – frequently questioned its legality. This controversy demonstrated the inadequacy of the compromise itself, to the point where the Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which brought the territories of Kansas and Nebraska into existence and allowed the local populations in each territory to decide on whether or not to allow slavery within their respective jurisdictions.

Eventually, the Supreme Court dissolved the Missouri Compromise’s entire predication of federal authority to regulate slavery. In 1857, the partisan divisions over slavery that the compromise had accentuated went on full display in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott was an enslaved African American who had claimed freedom by having resided in Illinois, which was part of the territory declared free by the Missouri Compromise. The nation’s highest court ruled against him, declaring not only that Scott wasn’t a U.S. citizen, but also that the federal government couldn’t regulate slavery in federal territories. The decision was, in essence, a judicial repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Some have argued that the Missouri Compromise, though deeply flawed, nonetheless delayed the Civil War. Though that may be true, it is also believed that a federal law that allowed for free and slave states alike to increase territory and thereby strengthen their rivalry with each other, inevitably meant that each side of the slavery dispute gained more and more resources, with which they could contemplate and eventually wage war. Though in the strict sense of timespan, the Missouri Compromise may have postponed the resort to military hostilities between North and South, it may also have made war more likely.

Let’s wrap things up with a review question to see what you remember:

Which of the following did not spark the dispute that led to the Missouri Compromise?

  1. Maine’s application to join the Union as a free state
  2. James Tallmadge Jr.’s proposed amendment to make Missouri a state on condition that slavery would be banned there.
  3. The fact that, by 1818, slavery was already being utilized in Missouri
  4. The division of the U.S. Senate into 22 senators from free states and 24 senators from slaveholding states.

The correct answer is D.

Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: January 14, 2021