The Missouri Compromise

Henry Clay, Creator of the Missouri Compromise
Painting of Henry Clay. Public Domain. Source: Northern Illinois Library Lincoln Digitization Project.

Background of the Missouri Compromise

In 1819, the Missouri territory applied to be admitted to the union as a slave state. Despite meeting the necessary requirements for statehood, their request was denied by the northern dominated House of Representatives. Before their application, there were an equal number of free and slave sates (eleven each). Adding Missouri as a slave state would have upset the balance of power in favor of the slave states.

The House then passed the Tallmadge Amendment that stated that children of slave parents born in Missouri would gain their freedom at the age of 25. In addition, no one would be allowed to bring new slaves into Missouri once it gained statehood.

Southerners were extremely upset by these actions. Economically, they relied on slavery to produce cotton and other crops. They saw these moves by the northern states as a threat to their way of life. Further, their was the belief that if Missouri was not allowed to have slavery, it would be forbidden in any other new states trying to join the union. The South controlled the Senate and blocked the Tallmadge Amendment when it came up for a vote. The result was a Congressional deadlock until Speaker of the House Henry Clay came up with the Missouri Compromise.

Components of the Missouri Compromise

The Compromise consisted of three main provisions:

  1. Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave state.
  1. Maine would be admitted at the same time as a free state in order to maintain the balance between free and slave states.
  2. Slavery would be declared illegal north of the 36o30' parallel west of Missouri. As the text of the Compromise stated:
    [I]n all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state, contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited: Provided always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labour or service is lawfully claimed, in any state or territory of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service as aforesaid.
    The act was made into law in 1820.

    Effects of the Compromise

    The Missouri Compromise was very important at the time of its passage. It saved the United States from dealing with the divisive issue of slavery at a time of economic difficulties brought on by the Panic of 1819. The slave states and southerners were in favor of the compromise because it did not forbid prospective states that were not in the Louisiana Purchase from becoming slave states. Northerners were also pleased with the law because slavery would be contained in the southern part of the nation. Further, the balance between free and slave states remained the same as before the compromise.

    However, as would become obvious throughout the coming decades, the issues of slavery and sectionalism would not go away. Thomas Jefferson at age 77 was still alive at the time of the compromise and could see the coming storm averted only for a short time. He stated in a letter to William Short in 1820 that the "Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm...I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it much." Source: Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson Papers.