U.S. Legislative Compromises Over Slavery, 1820–1854

The institution of slavery was embedded in the U.S. Constitution, and by the early 19th century, it had become a critical problem that Americans needed to deal with but couldn't bring themselves to resolve.

Whether slavery would be allowed to spread to new states and territories was a volatile issue at various times throughout the early 1800s. A series of compromises concocted by the U.S. Congress managed to hold the Union together, but each compromise created its own set of problems.

These are the three major compromises that kicked the can of slavery down the road, but kept the United States together and essentially postponed the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820

Engraved portrait of politician Henry Clay
Henry Clay. Getty Images

The Missouri Compromise, enacted in 1820, was the first real legislative attempt to find a solution to the issue of slavery.

As new states entered the Union, the question of whether those states would allow the practice of slavery (and thus come in as a "slave state") or not (as a "free state") arose. And when Missouri sought to enter the Union as a slave state, the issue suddenly became enormously controversial.

Former President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) famously likened the Missouri crisis to "a firebell in the night." Indeed, it dramatically showed there was a deep split in the Union which had been obscured up to that point. Legislatively, the country was more or less evenly divided between people who wanted slavery to continue and those who did not: if that balance was not maintained, the slavery issue would need to be resolved right then, and the white people in control of the country were not ready for that.

The compromise, which was partly engineered by Henry Clay (1777–1852), maintained the status quo by continuing to balance the numbers of slave and free states, by setting a east/west line (the Mason-Dixon line) which confined slavery as an institution to the south.

It was far from a permanent solution to a profound national problem, but for three decades the Missouri Compromise seemed to keep the slavery crisis from entirely dominating the nation.

The Compromise of 1850

After the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the United States gained vast tracts of territory in the West, including the present-day states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The slavery issue, which had not been at the forefront of national politics, came to great prominence once again. Whether slavery would be allowed to exist in the newly acquired territories and states became a looming national question.

The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills in Congress which sought to settle the issue. The compromise contained five major provisions and established California as a free state and left it up to the Utah and New Mexico to decide the issue for themselves.

It was destined to be a temporary solution. Some aspects of it, such as the Fugitive Slave Act, served to increase tensions between North and South. But it did postpone the Civil War by a decade.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Engraved portrait of Senator Stephen Douglas
Senator Stephen Douglas. Stock Montage/Getty Images

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the last major compromise that sought to hold the Union together. It proved to be the most controversial: it allowed Kansas to decide whether it would come in to the union as slave or free, a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise.

Engineered by Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) of Illinois, the legislation almost immediately had an incendiary effect. Instead of lessening tensions over slavery, it inflamed them, and that led to outbreaks of violence—including the first violent actions of abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859)—that led the legendary newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811–1872) to coin the term "Bleeding Kansas."

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to the bloody attack in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol, and it prompted Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), who had given up on politics, to return to the political arena.

Lincoln's return to politics led to the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. And a speech he delivered at Cooper Union in New York City in February 1860 suddenly made him a serious contender for the 1860 Republican nomination.

Limits of the Compromises

The efforts to deal with the issue of slavery with legislative compromises were doomed to failure—slavery was never going to be a sustainable condition in a modern democratic country. But the practice was so entrenched in the United States that it could only be resolved by a Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.