Missouri Compromise of 1820

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The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a watershed moment in the history of sectional conflict between the American North and South. Since the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution, the question of balance between slave and nonslave states had been at the forefront of American politics. An advantage in number meant greater power in the House of Representatives and Senate. The land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 threatened to upset this fragile stability. Though northern senators and representatives had allowed Alabama to enter the union as a slave state in 1819, they balked at the notion of granting Missouri the same privileges. Missouri’s location west of the free state of Illinois played a key role in this resentment, as northern congressmen feared it would block the future establishment of free states in the West. In an attempt to remedy this situation, New York Representatives James Tallmadge and John W. Taylor proposed separate bills, each calling for the gradual emancipation of slavery in the Missouri territory.

Not surprisingly, the bills met fierce resistance from southern congressmen, and neither made it through the Senate. Even those Southerners who hoped for the eventual abolition of slavery opposed the legislation in the name of sectional balance. In January 1820, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky offered a different solution. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, while Maine would be admitted as a free state, maintaining parity at 12 states apiece. Also, in order to appease Northerners who feared the inhibition of westward expansion, slavery was thereafter prohibited in any area above the 36' 30" parallel, or Missouri’s southern border. Congress enacted the plan during the first week of March.

The compromise proved to be a temporary one, as it met fierce opposition during two important disputes in the 1850s. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the compromise and again allowed states to choose slavery. In 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney declared the Missouri Compromise an unconstitutional overreaching of congressional authority in his majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Though it successfully delayed outright war, the Missouri Compromise established a precedent central both to federalism and the continued antagonism between North and South—that the federal government could regulate a state’s role in legalizing or banning slavery.

Robert Heinrich

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Abolition; Admission of New States; Clay, Henry; Louisiana Purchase; Missouri Compromise of 1820; Slavery; States’ Rights; Taney, Roger Brooke; Three-Fifths Compromise