The Missouri Compromise

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War
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Missouri Compromise of 1820The period from 1800 until the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 was a tumultuous one in the United States and the world. The slave population in the United States continued to grow and in the 1800 Census there were 893,605 slaves held in bondage. The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe and the oceans of the world. The United States instituted an embargo that was extremely unpopular in New England and the Mid-Atlantic manufacturing states.

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In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. The total land that came to the United States doubled the size of the country and added 828,000 square miles to the country. There was a large population of enslaved Africans made up of a high proportion of recent arrivals from Africa, as Spain had continued the international slave trade.

This was particularly true of the area of the present-day state of Louisiana, which also contained a large number of free people of color. Both present-day Arkansas and Missouri also had some people holding slaves.

As states organized within the territory, the status of slavery in each state became a matter of contention in Congress, as southern states wanted slavery extended to the west, and northern states just as strongly opposed new states being admitted as slave states.

At the urging of President Jefferson, Congress outlaws the international slave trade in an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. Importing or exporting slaves becomes a federal crime, effective January 1, 1808; in 1820 it is made the crime of piracy. The trade had been about 14,000 a year; illegal smuggling begins and brings in about 1,000 new foreign-born slaves per year.

John Randolph of Roanoke warns during the debates that outlawing the slave trade might become the “pretext of universal emancipation” and further warns that it would “blow up the constitution.” If there ever should be disunion, he prophesies, the line would be drawn between the states that did and those that did not hold slaves

States continued to enter the Union with an alternating pattern of slave states and free states. This was done in order to maintain a balance and keep the opponents and proponents of slavery satisfied that their particular interests were being preserved.

The War of 1812 was fought over issues entirely unrelated to slavery but one offshoot of the conflict was the Hartford Convention. With delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and unofficial delegates from New Hampshire and Vermont who met between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815, they made their unhappiness known about New England’s opposition to the War of 1812 and the trade embargoes.

The convention report said that New England had a “duty” to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, a position similar to the later nullification theory put forward by South Carolina. The war soon ends and the convention and the Federalist Party which had supported it fell out of favor. This was especially true in the South although leaders there would later adopt the States’ rights concept for their own purposes.

The events that precipitated the Missouri Compromise began when the territory of Missouri petitioned the Congress to enter the Union in 1818. The admission of Missouri as a slave state threatened the balance of 11 free states and 11 slave states. Three years of debate ensued.

A period of maneuvering began in the Congress when Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York submitted an amendment to the Missouri legislation which would have prohibited further introduction of slaves into Missouri. The proposal also would free all children of slave parents in Missouri when they reached the age of twenty-five. The measure passed in the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate.

Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia threatens disunion if Tallmadge persists in attempting to have his amendment enacted. Southern Senators delay a bill to admit Maine as a free state in response to the delay of Missouri’s admission to the union as a slave state.

Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, proposed a compromise to alleviate the Missouri and Maine admissions. He proposed that Missouri be admitted to the Union as a slave state (which it was on August 10, 1821) and the northern counties of Massachusetts would be admitted as a free state, the State of Maine (which occurred on March 15, 1820).

In the west, slavery would be prohibited north of 36°30′ of latitude, which was approximately the southern boundary of Missouri. Many Southerners argued against exclusion of slavery from such a large area of the country. The restriction of slavery north of the 36° 30′ line of latitude would later be abrogated by the popular sovereignty voting provision of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Many historians say that the Missouri Compromise helped to postpone the outbreak of the Civil War by setting up a free slate-slave state framework for the further expansion of the United States across the continent. But Following Maine’s 1820 and Missouri’s 1821 admissions to the Union, no other states were admitted until 1836, when Arkansas was admitted.

But Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Senator John Holmes of Maine said in part:

…but 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.

Jefferson believed that a country divided by the Compromise Line would only lead to further divisions and eventually the destruction of the country that he had helped to create.

The Missouri Compromise would last until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. By then pitched battles were taking place along the Kansas-Missouri border and the rise of men like John Brown would eventually light the spark of Disunion and Civil War.

Series Navigation<< Free State, Slave State and the Northwest OrdinanceTariffs and the Nullification Crisis >>

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