What was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and What Did it Do?

Background of the Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was a result of the Founding Fathers not answering the question of slavery.

The founding fathers chose to instead put the question off. They did so because they failed to see eye to eye and needed to ratify the Constitution.

By failing to answer this question once and for all, the Founding Father unintentionally set up a conflict between slave states and free states that would lead to the American Civil War.

The Constitutional Convention

Before the Constitutional Convention, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The articles had several flaws, chief among them was the lack of central authority. The Articles did not allow the federal government to tax the states. They also lacked a central executive figure.

When the Founding Fathers met to draft the new Constitution, they quickly ran into an issue: slavery.

Southern delegates wanted to allow slavery in America while Northern delegates felt it out dated. The delegates decided to compromise and to allow slavery where it existed. However, when it came to the question of slavery’s expansion, they left the question unresolved. This created an issue when new states wanted to join the Union, whether as a slave state or as a free state.

King Cotton and the Growth of Slavery

Southern way of life in the 17-19th century in America was built off of slavery. The institution was central to the economy. When the North industrialized during the 19th century, the South continued to double down on slavery.

The Cotton Gin

This had to do with the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin made picking cotton much more profitable. Before the invention of this simple machine by Eli Whitney, cotton had to be separated by hand. However, this new invention made it much faster and cheaper to pick cotton. Slave states were invigorated by this invention.


At the same time that the cotton gin was revitalizing the slave trade in the South, another event across the Atlantic Ocean would also fuel this institution. Industrialization.

Industrialization in Britain began in the textile industry. For the first time clothes were being made in factories instead of by hand. This meant that goods could be made faster and cheaper. This increase in productivity lead to an increase in demand for cotton. This demand was met by the Southern United States.

To fuel Britain’s desire for more and more cotton, the South expanded the slave trade and continued to use slave labor, coupled with the cotton gin.

These factors combined to make the South more entrenched in this wicked institution. The South began to identify with the idea of a slave state. The two became so interconnected that the South began to identity with slavery and even tried to justify it’s existence.

A Culture of Slavery

As the demand for cotton and slaves grew in the South, Southerners began to become more and more defensive over it’s existence. Southerners tried to use the Bible and Christianity to justify the existence of such a cruel, unfair system.

By using religion to justify slavery, the people of the South became strongly attached to their beliefs. They believed that they were in the right and were doing work to help Africans who were abducted, packed into a ship, sent across the ocean, and forces to work for nothing in a slave state.

The attachment of religion and slavery only served to further entrench slavery in the Southern way of life.

What to Do With Slavery?

With slavery so entrenched in the South, the Founding Fathers and subsequent generations of politicians struggled with what to do about this “peculiar institution.”

Northern abolitionists wanted to ban the practice outright. Less “radical” Northerners wanted to stop the expansion of slavery. However, these Americans ran into the same issue as their forefathers had: how to get rid of slavery and keep the Union together.

It was believed for a time that slavery would die out if it could be contained. The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson held this belief. This was the goal of the Northwest Ordinance.

Jeffersonian Containment of Slavery

Jefferson had long struggled with the slavery question. He believed Africans to be inferior to white men, but he still believed slavery to be wrong. However, because of his racist ideology, Jefferson did not believe that slaves could be set free into society.

Jefferson, grappling with this question, said, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Here, Jefferson perfectly sums up the question of slavery in 18th century America, especially from the perspective of a slave state.

President Jefferson would ultimately cause tensions to rise with the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from the French. The president paid a little more than $11 million in 1803 for 828,000 acres of land. This deal secured the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans.

This tension of what to do with slavery came to a boil in 1818.

What Was the Missouri Compromise?

The Missouri Compromise was a compromise that was passed by Congress in 1820.

The legacy of the Missouri Compromise is a complex one that was rooted in the growing sectional tension between North and South over the expansion of slavery into new lands such as the Louisiana Territory during the first half of the 1800s.

The debate over the Missouri Compromise began in 1818 when the territory of Missouri (acquired during Thomas Jefferson’s deal, the Louisiana Territory) wanted admission to the Union as a state. The Missouri crisis probed an enormously problematic area of American politics that would explode in a civil war. Missouri was the first territory west of the Mississippi River to apply for statehood.

The admission to the Union of another state was not an issue in of itself. The issue arose because the question of slaveries expansion into these new states had not been decided.

A Power Struggle

This caused outrage amongst Northerners because the territory wanted to be admitted as a slave state. The admission to the Union of Missouri would have upset the balance of power between slave and free states. Northerners wanted to prohibit slavery in this new state. Southerners argued that Missouri should be allowed to choose for itself whether to be a slave or free state and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery and it’s expansion into new states.

The Tallmadge Amendment

With this hotly contested issue being introduced to Congress, Representative James Tallmadge brought fourth an amendment. This amendment sought to end slavery in Missouri. It also sought to make the existing slaves in the state free. The amended bill passed narrowly in the House of Representatives, where Northerners held a slight edge. But in the Senate, where free and slave states had exactly the same number of senators, the pro-slavery faction managed to strike out Tallmadge’s amendment. This debate about the admission of Missouri as a free state only served to make tensions between slave and free states worse.

Henry Clay, The Great Compromiser

A year later in 1819, Missouri tried again to be admitted into the Union. This was when Senator Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, stepped in. This would not be the last time that Henry Clay would attempt to save the Union. He created a bill that admitted Missouri to come into the Union as a slave state. However, to keep the balance of power, the bill also admitted Maine as a free state. The admission of a free state (Maine), helped to satisfy Northerners. The Missouri Compromise also stated that slavery would not exist in any of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36º 30’ parallel.

The House passed the Missouri Compromise that was brokered by Clay in March of 1820 and signed into law by the sitting president at the time, James Monroe. As new states were admitted, a balance was kept between free and slave states until 1850.

What Was the Significance of the Missouri Compromise?

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a compromise that attempted to resolve the slavery controversy between North and South before the American Civil War and the admission of states as either a slave state or a free state.

This compromise showed the brewing tensions and sectional conflict boiling beneath the surface in America.

While the compromise did manage to temporarily answer the slavery question, it left the question unanswered and kicked the can down the road. That question would ultimately be decided during the bloodiest war in American history. However, the tension between slave and free states was temporarily calmed.

Thomas Jefferson summed it up best when he stated that the, “Missouri 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 solution.”

Effects of the Compromise

The compromise increased the tension between North and South.

The deal also raised the question of whether or not Congress had the power to limit slavery. In the opinion of Southerners, Congress did not have the power to do so. They saw the compromise as Congress overstepping it’s authority. The Supreme Court would eventually rule on Congress’ power to regulate slavery.

Erasing the Compromise

The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery North of the 36º 30’ parallel. This would last until 1854, when the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Three years later the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. This was one of the most egregious rulings handed down by the Supreme Court.

The Dred Scott decision was eventually overturned with the passage of the 14th amendment, but the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling had already been done.

Legacy of the Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was initially a success but had negative long-term consequences. This is the complicated history of the deal.

The Missouri Compromise only put the slavery question off and settled for an immediate solution instead of a long-term solution. This would ultimately be seen in the culmination of civil war between North and South.

The Missouri Compromise also fired up Northerners and Southerners and increased sectional tensions between the two groups. These sectional tensions continued to plague the nation as well. As American’s chased Manifest Destiny and began to acquire more and more land, the issue of slavery’s expansion continued to divide the nation. This would be seen with the Compromise of 1850, as well as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas. These pieces of legislation led to the creation of a new political party, the Republican Party, as well as the rise of a future president, Abraham Lincoln.

Finally, when the Missouri Compromise was replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it’s legacy was nearly completely erased. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed slavery north of the line set by the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise was ruled unconstitutional in the Dred Scott case by the Supreme Court as previously mentioned.

The Missouri Compromise did manage to keep the balance between slave states and free states, as well as create the state of Missouri and Maine which have been apart of the Union ever since.

While it is easy to look at the Missouri Compromise today as a failure, it is important to remember, as with all historical events, that for those living at this time, they did not have the perspective that we have. History is not always as linear as it appears when we look back on it and draw lines.

For those living in the 1820s, the Missouri Compromise seemed like a great piece of legislation and they hailed Henry Clay for saving the Union. At the time, the Missouri Compromise seemed like a solution to the slavery problem. However, as we will see in future articles, this was only a bandage that would eventually fall off and leave the Union on the brink of collapse.

2 thoughts on “What was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and What Did it Do?

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  1. Why would Jefferson have called slavery a “peculiar institution” when it has been practiced since Man walked on Earth and continues to this day? It wasn’t peculiar then; it’s not peculiar now. It’s inhumane, but that’s not the same thing.

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