South Carolina - Antebellum Key Events - The Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°-30' North, except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. Prior to the agreement, the House of Representatives had refused to accept this compromise and a conference committee was appointed.

The United States Senate refused to concur with the amendment, and the whole measure was lost. During the following session (1819-1820), the House passed a similar bill with an amendment introduced on January 26, 1820 by John W. Taylor of New York allowing Missouri into the Union as a slave state. In the meantime, the question had been complicated by the admission in December of Alabama, a slave state (the number of slave and free states were now becoming equal), and by the passage through the House (January 3, 1820) of a bill to admit Maine as a free state.

The Senate decided to connect the two measures, and passed a bill for the admission of Maine with an amendment enabling the people of Missouri to form a state constitution. Before the bill was returned to the House, a second amendment was adopted on the motion of Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, excluding slavery from the Missouri Territory north of the parallel 36°-30' North (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.

These disputes, involving as they did the question of the relative powers of Congress and the states, tended to turn the Democratic-Republicans, who were becoming nationalized, back again toward their old state sovereignty principles and to prepare the way for the Jacksonian-Democratic Party nationalistic element that was soon to emerge as National Republicans, elements of which then evolved into the Whig Party during Andrew Jackson's presidency.

In an April 22 letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the division of the country created by the compromise line would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union:

"...this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper."

Congress's consideration of Missouri's admission also raised the issue of sectional balance, for Congress was equally divided between slave and free states, eleven each. To admit Missouri as a slave state would tip Congressional balance in favor of the slave states. For this reason, it was agreed that Maine would enter the Union as a free state. The people of Dedham, Massachusetts were against the compromise and sent a petition to Senator Edward Everett addressing their grievance. Everett presented the petition on the floor of the Senate on April 6, 1854.

On the constitutional side, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was important as the first precedent for the congressional exclusion of slavery from public territory acquired since the adoption of the Constitution, and also as a clear recognition that Congress has no right to impose upon a state asking for admission into the Union conditions which do not apply to those states already in the Union.

Following Maine's 1820 and Missouri's 1821 admissions to the Union, no other states were admitted until 1836 when Arkansas became a slave state, followed by Michigan in 1837 as a free state.

The 1857 Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, (known as the Dred Scott Decision) ruled the first Compromise unconstitutional (while ratifying the second Compromise's proposition that persons of African descent could not be U.S. citizens), inflaming antislavery sentiment in the North and contributing to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

There was now a controversy between the two houses not only on the slavery issue, but also on the parliamentary question of the inclusion of Maine and Missouri within the same bill. The committee recommended the enactment of two laws, one for the admission of Maine, the other an enabling Act for Missouri without any restrictions on slavery but including the Thomas amendment. This was agreed to by both houses, and the measures were passed, and were ratified by President James Monroe respectively, on March 5 and on March 6 of 1820.

When the question of the final admission of Missouri came up during the session of 1820-1821, the struggle was revived over a clause in the new constitution (1820) requiring the exclusion of "free negroes and mulattoes" from the state. Through the influence of Henry Clay, an Act of admission was finally passed, upon the condition that the exclusionary clause of the Missouri constitution should "never be construed to authorize the passage of any law" impairing the privileges and immunities of any U.S. citizen. This deliberately ambiguous provision is sometimes known as the Second Missouri Compromise.

Although not explicitly intended to do so, it could (and would) be interpreted to indicate that blacks and mulattos did not qualify as citizens of the United States. This had a direct relationship with the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.

The provisions of the Missouri Compromise forbidding slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°-30' North were effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.


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