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

The institution of slavery was embedded in the U.S. Constitution, and it became a critical problem to be dealt with by Americans in the early 19th century.

Whether slavery would be allowed to spread to new states and territories became a volatile issue at various times throughout the early 1800s. A series of compromises enacted in 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 kept the United States together and essentially postponed the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise

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 the new states would be slave or free arose. And when Missouri sought to enter the Union as a slave state, the issue suddenly became enormously controversial.

Former President Thomas Jefferson 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.

The compromise, which was partly engineered by Henry Clay, balanced the numbers of slave and free states. It was far from a permanent solution to a profound national problem. For three decades the Missouri Compromise seemed to keep the slavery crisis from entirely dominating the nation.

The Compromise of 1850

After the Mexican War, the United States gained vast tracts of territory in the West, including present-day California, Arizona, and New Mexico. And 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. And it did postpone the Civil War by a decade. But the compromise, which contained five major provisions, 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.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

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. And it proved to be the most controversial.

Engineered by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the legislation almost immediately had an incendiary effect. Instead of lessening tensions over slavery, it inflamed them. And led to outbreaks of violence that led the legendary newspaper editor Horace Greeley 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, 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.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a classic case of legislation having unintended consequences.

Limits of the Compromises

The efforts to deal with the issue of slavery with legislative compromises was probably doomed to failure. And, of course, slavery in America was only ended by the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.