The Missouri Compromise

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What were the obstacles faced during the Missouri Compromise of 1820?

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Since the 1790s, there had been a rough numerical balance between slave states and states where slavery was either dying out or outright illegal. This balance, seen as politically important because of representation in the Senate, had been achieved by admitting slave and free states in equal numbers. In the early nineteenth century, this became a bigger issue, as slavery was rapidly expanding in economic importance, and Americans moved west in large numbers. As some of the territories in the old Northwest Territory—where slavery had been banned by the Northwest Ordinance—applied for statehood, they threatened to upset what became seen as a delicate and politically important balance.

When Missouri, part of the Louisiana Territory applied for admission to the Union, it precipitated a heated debate, one that began with the so-called "Tallmadge Amendment," authored by New York Representative James Tallmadge, providing for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new territory. This led to a fierce debate over whether slavery would be allowed not just in Missouri but in the Louisiana Purchase as a whole. Southerners claimed that the Constitution did not allow for the territorial restriction of slavery, while antislavery Northerners, emerging as a political force for the first time, argued the opposite.

The debate over Missouri was "resolved" by a compromise, the first of several sectional compromises engineered by Kentucky Representative (and later senator) Henry Clay. Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, while Maine came in as a free state. As for the question of slavery in the Louisiana Territory, the institution was outlawed in the region north of the southern border of Missouri: the 36°30′ latitude line. The compromise temporarily addressed the political issues surrounding Missouri's admission, but it exposed an emerging fault line in American politics that would eventually lead to disunion and civil war.

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As the young nation continued to grow and expand, the balance of slavery and antislavery states shifted. This was tested with the Louisiana Purchase. This vast area of land was seen as a pathway for the growth of slavery. Obviously, the Southern slave states buckled down to fight for slavery and the free Northern states saw this as a catastrophic scenario for the future of the abolitionist movement. Missouri petitioned for statehood in 1818 and the argument of whether it would be a slave state or not. Tensions rose in congress as the North demanded Missouri be admitted as a free state to keep the balance of power in the country.

One of the first obstacles was simply being admitted as a state. James Tallmadge, a representative of New York, proposed an amendment that would eventually abolish slavery in Missouri, which was seen as a compromise to admitting Missouri as a slave state. The Senate struck down the amendment and the bill failed.

The second obstacle was in 1819 when Henry Clay proposed allowing Missouri as a slave state but adding Maine as a free state. Congress finally settled on and passed an amendment that would ban slavery North of a certain line.

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As the United States expanded following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the issue of slavery became a growing point of contention. In the North, states began banning slavery in state constitutions. In the South, slaves were in increasingly high demand. As more anti-slavery sentiment grew in the free states of the North, pro-slavery sentiment grew in the slave states of the South. As more people began to move to the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, the issue arose of admitting those territories as states.

With Missouri growing in population and applying for statehood, the big question was whether or not slavery would be permitted. To complicate issues, there was a balance of power in the US Senate between free and slave states. While free state senators hoped to eventually place a national ban on slavery, slave state senators hoped to protect the institution of slavery through federal legislation—or at the very least prevent its being banned.

Aside from maintaining a balance of power in Congress between free states and slave states, the Missouri Compromise aimed to resolve similar issues in the future regarding the rest of the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. This was established at the 36-30 latitude line. Slavery would be banned in areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of this line, while it would be permitted in areas of the Louisiana Purchase south of this line.

After much debate and a series of close votes in the House and the Senate, the Missouri Compromise was developed. The Missouri Compromise allowed for the admission of Missouri as a slave state, while simultaneously admitting Maine as a free state (the admission of both at the same time through the same piece of legislation also caused some consideration and debate). The admission of one free state and one slave state ensured that the balance in the U.S. Senate would be preserved. The Missouri Compromise also established the 36-30 latitude line as the border between territory where slavery would be permitted and territory where slavery would be banned.

On March 6, 1820, President Madison signed the Missouri Compromise into law. The Missouri Compromise would remain in effect until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The Missouri Compromise was an attempt by the United States government to deal with the growing issue of slavery. It would delay the outbreak of conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, but ultimately would fail to entirely prevent it.

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