Missouri Compromise (1820)- Origin Story, Consequences & Facts

Missouri Compromise

Missouri Compromise Origin Story and Consequences | Image: loc.gov

The 1820 Missouri Compromise was a bill enacted by the U.S. Congress designed to help resolve the tension between the North and South over the issue of slavery. The sectarian conflict had to do with the admission status of two new territories – Missouri and Maine. As a result of the bill, Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave-holding state. However, Maine gained admission as a free state. Below is an explanation of the origin story, consequences and major facts about the Missouri Compromise (1820):

Origin Story of the Missouri Compromise (1820)

About a decade after the dust from the American Revolution and the War of 1812 had settled, the United States of America was cast into a different form of battle – a battle of ideas and morality.

The nascent country saw itself gradually torn apart by the menace of slavery. Lines were drawn between the largely antislavery North and the pro-slavery South. The issue reached a crescendo when the Missouri Territory in the west (an area part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803) applied to join the Union in 1817.

It was business as usual when Congress drafted the legislation that would allow Missouri to come into the Union. However, on February 13, 1819, a wrench was thrown into the work of Congress. Representative James Tallmadge from New York insisted on inserting a couple of amendments into the bill.

James Tallmadge Jr.

Representative James Tallmadge Jr. from the State of New York

Rep. Tallmadge, a Jeffersonian Republican, wanted the bill to include antislavery amendments. He rallied his fellow politicians (primarily Northern lawmakers) to vote in favor of an amendment that would prevent Missouri from coming into the Union as a slave state.  Tallmadge also wanted Missouri to free all slaves (born in the territory) once they attained the age of 25. As at that time, the number of slaves below the age of 25 in Missouri stood at about 20,000.

The South was not prepared to lose that number of slaves. All hell broke loose in the House. Southern politicians were enraged and there was a huge outcry. The debate between the two sides – North and South- was fierce.

The debate in Congress was no longer a case of party affiliations; the issue was now a sectional conflict – Northern Republican Democrats versus Southern Republican Democrats. The latter felt that their largely agrarian economy will be threatened if the North succeeded in outlawing slavery. As for the North, their argument laid in injecting morality into the interpretation of the Constitution. In the North, slavery was simply a horrific practice that went against everything that the nascent nation stood for.

As a result of the North’s majority in the House of Representatives, the Tallmadge amendments to the bill got approved. However, Tallmadge failed to secure the necessary vote to get it passed in the Senate.

Why Did the North Support the Tallmadge Amendments?

First and foremost, the North rallied behind New York Rep. Tallmadge because they saw slavery as morally wrong and distasteful practice – a practice that should have no place anywhere in America. The idea behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in itself frowned at a non-egalitarian society. Hence, virtually all the states up North had gradually outlawed slavery and emancipated blacks, following the American Revolution. With this egalitarian morality, anti-Missouri sentiments spread all across the North.

Furthermore, the Federalist Party was hoping to use the Tallmadge amendment to revitalize their soon-to-be-defunct party. The Federalist leadership was, therefore, the most critical of Missouri’s admission into the Union as a slave state.

On the other hand, the anti-Federalists and Republicans in the North were a bit skeptical. Those politicians tried not to associate themselves with undertakings that were championed by the Federalists, regardless of how important those causes were. Instead, they preferred striking a compromise with the South.

Reasons behind the South’s Opposition to the Tallmadge Amendments of 1819

Down South, politicians believed that capitulating to the Tallmadge amendment would set a bad precedent that could result in the Southern states losing their vital labor – slaves. Southerners had for decades come to rely heavily on slaves to tend to their largely agrarian economy. Besides, their economy was not as diversified and mechanized as the North’s. To the South, taking away slavery was tantamount to shutting down their economy.

They also believed that the Tallmadge amendments would embolden the North to gradually take not just their slave-holding statuses, but also the immense state rights that they enjoyed.

1819 Deadlock in Congress

With these two competing views, the Union, which was still in its infancy, risked getting torn apart. Lines were drawn in the two legislative houses: North versus South; free states versus slave-holding states.

With the Congress in a deadlock, it was decided that the issue be tackled after Congress reconvenes in December 1819.

The Compromise of 1820

Henry Clay

House Speaker Henry Clay was commonly called “the Great Compromiser”

After the House reconvened, the first order of business was Maine’s request to join the Union. The bill to admit Maine was quickly passed in the Senate.  The Southern states tried to thwart Maine’s effort to gain statehood.

Kind courtesy to the extensive dialog Henry Clay had with politicians on both sides of the aisle, a Compromise was struck. To maintain balance, it was decided that Maine be admitted into the Union as a free state and Missouri would come in as a slaveholding state, without any restrictions whatsoever.

However, before the bill was passed, Sen. Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois introduced a slight modification. Senator Thomas wanted the bill to ban slavery in all areas in the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36°30′.

Henry Clay went ahead to organize separate votes in the Houses. Clay was vital in getting the two sides to compromise and cooperate. Finally, the bill was passed in the Senate on March 03, 1820.

Maine and Missouri were admitted into the Union – as the 23rd and 24th states respectively – on March 15, 1820, and August 10, 1821, respectively.

The reason for Missouri’s admission delay was due to an issue a particular clause in the Missouri Constitution that disenfranchised free Black citizens in the state. After Missouri gave Congress assurances that the clause would be removed, Congress allowed Missouri to join the Union as the 24th state of the United States of America.

The Aftermath of the Missouri Compromise

Missouri Compromise

In as much as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 helped to keep things calm between the North and the South, the bill was a temporary fix to the issue of slavery. The issue continued to fester for the next three decades, culminating in the American Civil War. Undoubtedly, slavery was the most contentious and divisive issue in 19th Century America.

With the completion of the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed in February 1848) allowed the U.S. to acquire new territories. These acquisitions brought back the controversial issue of slavery in the U.S. Congress, as both the North and South debated each other in a bid to win those territories.

California’s admission and the Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850, introduced by Henry Clay, helped to maintain some level of peace between the two sides during California’s admission into the Union. California’s admission as a free state resulted in a 16-15 ratio between the free states versus slave states respectively.

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It stated that states coming into the Union had the right to determine whether or not to come in as a slave state or free state. This principle was called “Popular Sovereignty”.

Some areas in Kansas turned bloody and chaotic. Pro-slave activists and anti-slavery activists clashed. These clashes, which claimed the lives of 200 people, came to be referred to as “Bleeding Kansas” and the Border War. Radical abolitionists such as John Brown and his siblings were ruthless in their attacks on pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. Brown is infamous for the Harpers Ferry Raid that he conducted in October 1859.

Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857

Just a few years before the American Civil War broke out, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a judgment on the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. The Court’s verdict of 1857 stated that Dred Scott could not sue because he was not a citizen of the United States. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and six other justices also ruled that the federal government’s restriction of slavery in new territories was unconstitutional. Hence, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 got scrapped off. In its place came the Popular Sovereignty principle.

From then onward, tensions between the North and the South continued to spiral out of control. In the end, the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, shortly after the swearing-in of President Abraham Lincoln.

Other Interesting Facts About the Missouri Compromise (1820)

Thomas Jefferson quote

Thomas Jefferson’s views on how he felt about the problem of slavery

These ten interesting facts cast more light on the circumstances that prevailed during the Missouri Compromise (1820):

  1. It is worth mentioning that the Senate – as at 1819 – was evenly split between the North and the South. That is, there were 11 free states versus 11 slave states.
  2. The majority of the Federalists in the North who were opposed to slavery did so because they hoped to use it as a platform to inject life into their ailing party. The South was most wary of this. They feared that an up and running Federalist Party would obliterate whatever states’ rights that they enjoyed at that moment.
  3. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was signed into law by President James Monroe on March 6, 1820.
  4. The bill was signed during the 16th United States Congress (March 4, 1819 – March 4, 1821) – the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. The two legislative houses had Democratic-Republican majority. The Senate President was Daniel D. Tompkins while the House Speaker was Henry Clay (1815 – 1820).
  5. President James Monroe wanted to achieve political harmony. Although he achieved some level of strong national identity, his Era of Good Feelings ended up creating friction among Jeffersonian Republicans in the South and the North. There was no vibrant opposition party, hence the Republicans started to fight amongst themselves. Slavery was just one of the issues that caused the huge sectional conflict.
  6. Initially, very few politicians opposed Missouri’s admission into the Union. Thus, there was no major dissent. The issue got out of hand when Maine joined the fray. From then onward, Congressmen from the South sought to use it as a bargaining tool.
  7. James Tallmadge – the antislavery Representative from New York – played an active role in eradicating slavery from his home state in New York. Often times, he faced off with New York Governor DeWitt Clinton – a former Republican – who received immense support from ex-Federalists.
  8. Shortly after Tallmadge put forth his amendments, he took ill. Congressman John W. Taylor took it upon himself to drive home the Tallmadge Amendments. Taylor was antislavery. He initially wanted restrictions in Arkansas Territory. His bill was defeated in the house in February 1819.
  9. The Missouri kept sectional tensions between the North and the South relatively stable for slightly over 30 years.
  10. Prior to 1812, the Missouri Territory was part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was called the Louisiana Territory. The name was changed to avoid confusion with the state of Louisiana which had gained statehood on April 30, 1812.

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