Missouri Compromise (1820)

This map shows the affects of the Missouri Compromise


Prior to Missouri's application to enter the Union as a slave state, tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups were at an all time high. At this time, the Union consisted of twenty-two states, eleven free and eleven slave. Missouri's request to enter the Union as a slave state in 1819 created an upset between the delicate balance of free states and slave states. The Tallmadge Amendment was a proposed bill that would allow Missouri to enter as a free state, and gradually emancipate the state's current slaves, but was not passed. The ultimate compromise to keep the peace between the opposing groups allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, but also allowed Maine to enter as a free state. Due to the controversies between the opposing groups, an amendment was passed that established a boundary between free and slave states in the remaining Louisiana territory, that was unopposed until the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On March 15, 1820, Maine became the 23rd state in the Union, and the 12th free state. On August 10, 1821, Missouri became the 24th state in the Union, balancing the number of free and slave states. Three years later in the Dred Scott case, the compromise was deemed unconstitutional, on the grounds that Congress did not have the right to prohibit slavery in the regions.

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James Tallmadge, Jr.

Controversy Over Tallmadge Amendment

Although slavery was well-established in the Missouri territory, Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York proposed a bill to allow Missouri to enter the Union as a free state, prohibiting the further introduction of slaves to the area, and allowing for the gradual emancipation of current slaves. The proposed limitation to the extension of slavery sparked protests in the South, as well as igniting northerner's support over the moral and political issue. Until this point, every state that had entered the Union had more or less entered in pairs of one free state and one slave state. The eleven free states and eleven slave states in the Union meant that there was also a balance between the political power held by the North and the political power held by the South. The proposed amendment, which would eliminate slavery, would give more power to the North. However, if the state of Missouri was allowed to enter as a slave state, the South would hold more power over the North. Due to the divided feelings over the Tallmadge Amendment, it was denied.

"further introduction of slavery be prohibited...and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years"
-Tallmadge's proposal for the amendment

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Missouri Territory formerly Louisiana

The Compromise

Northerners argued that Congress held the power to prohibit slavery in a new state while Southerners countered that new states held the same rights as the original thirteen states, and were therefore free to chose for themselves if they were to be slave or free states. Around the same time that Missouri applied to enter the Union, Maine also applied for admission into the Union. Maine had previously been the northern part of Massachusetts, and was thus a free state. Southern representatives argued that if the North blocked the admission of Missouri as a slave state, then they would block the admission of Maine as a free state. However, Maine's request to join the Union provided a solution to the growing conflict between the North and South. The Senate agreed to combine the proposed applications into one, allowing the admission of both Missouri and Maine as slave and free states, respectively. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois proposed an amendment that prohibited slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri. The Senate adopted the Thomas Amendment, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay guided the bill through the House.

Thomas Jefferson

Sectionalism and Nationalism

The agreement that was reached in allowing both Missouri and Maine to enter the Union created nationalistic feelings towards a county which was growing in both size and strength. The compromise appeared to be a happy resolution between the divided North and South. However the debate over the issue before reaching the agreement sectionalized the country in ways that the citizens' pride could not repair. The debates over allowing Missouri to join the Union enflamed a power struggle between the Northern free states and Southern slave states. Both sections of the country were fighting for control over the political power in the country. Neither region wanted the other to have more control over the fate of the country then the other region. While the Missouri Compromise was a mutual agreement between the two diverging regions, both sides found flaws with the compromise. The Southerners criticized it because it allowed Congress to make laws regarding slavery. Northerners criticized it because it allowed the expansion of slavery in parts of the country. These contrasting political viewpoints set in motion a power struggle which would reach its climax in the form of a civil war.

"At this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the death knell of the Union."
-Jefferson to John Holmes on the Missouri Compromise (April 22, 1820)