The Missouri Compromise: Disagreement and Compromise in the United States

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From the very beginning of the United States there was disagreement and compromise. From whether they should revolt against England to who should lead the country. From its onset, the country was destined for disagreement and compromise as it is governed by a democracy. This system lends itself to compromise as not everyone can get their way. With compromise there are situations where no one wins, as the compromise does more harm than good. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 is an example of both sides believing they got what they wanted but looking back it was a compromise that benefitted no one. It is crucial to understand and learn from the past to ensure the same mistakes are not made twice. To understand the Missouri Compromise, one must know what the compromise was and where it came from, what its immediate impact was on the country, and what its legacy was and where it went wrong.

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By the year 1820 the United States had finally finished their wars with England and were able to focus on their internal improvement. The country had grown immensely from the Revolutionary war to 1820, with the Louisiana Purchase doubling the size of the country by itself. With this new land came the discussion of what laws the land would fall under, most notably whether it would be a slave state or a free state. As much of the land that was purchased was already owned by European countries that had allowed slavery, the states were admitted as slave states.[1] As time went along the conversation of the morality of slavery became a bigger issue and the debate over free vs slave states became more advanced. This debate began to separate the country into the north and the south, as slavery was more prominent in the agriculturally driven south. This tension in the country began to boil over leading to the Missouri Compromise.

Another big factor leading to the Missouri Compromise the decline of the Federalists in 1815.[2] With this there remained only one strong political party, the Republicans, which president James Monroe believed would lead to more cooperation and political unity. However, with no political party to disagree with, the Republicans began to disagree with each other over issues such as whether they were a northerner or a southerner[3]. Instead of bringing the country together as on political party, it separated the country into two factions, the north and the south.

Both the separation between the north and south on the issue of slavery and the disagreement within the Republican party boiled over with the Missouri Compromise. Missouri was purchased as part of the Louisiana purchase and was a territory that allowed slavery. By 1820 there was 10,000 slaves in Missouri making up about 15 percent of the population.[4] Congress required at least 60,000 people to apply for statehood and by 1818 Missouri was at that number. With the slave population making up such a large portion of the overall population it was almost assumed that it would be admitted as a slave state.

When the bill came forward for Missouri to be admitted as a slave state it met unexpected opposition. James Tallmadge Jr. from New York proposed his own bill to admit Missouri as a free state on the grounds of his own disdain for slavery.[5] Tallmadge Jr. stated in his bill and provided, that the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited, except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been fully convicted; and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years.[6] This opposition came as a surprise as many in Congress assumed the bill for Missouri to be a slave state would pass without opposition, as the state had a very large slave population already. When this bill was presented it immediately had a ripple effect, dividing members of Congress down a geographic line. Northern Congressmen banded together to support this opposition of slavery whereas the southern Congressmen banded together in support of slavery.

While this debate was fueled by the aversion to slavery for some, others were more concerned with the political ramifications of admitting Missouri as a slave state. These ramifications stemmed from Article One, Section Two of the Constitution, also known as the three-fifths clause. This article stated that in states where slaves were owned, they counted as three fifths of a person regarding number of Congressmen as well as the number of votes in the Electoral College.[7] This led to the south having many representatives due to men that were forced to live in the south against their will. While this was something that had been debated in the years prior to the Missouri Compromise, with slavery coming to the forefront, it too came forward. Those opposed to the three fifths clause did not wish to remove it from the Constitution but did not want it to impact the west as well as the south.

On top of the political representation argument, those opposed to slavery being allowed in Missouri also brought forward Constitutional issues. Those opposed to slavery brought forward a section of the Constitution which stated that states must provide a republican government which they argued Missouri did not have when it introduced slavery and thus they were going against what the founding fathers would have wanted.[8] Those in favor of slavery argued that the Constitution relinquished any restrictions on slavery in new states. They argued that the citizens in Missouri had the right to establish slavery if they so choose.[9]

As the debates raged on it became clear that the tipping point in the argument was the unequal distribution of slave versus free states. To counter this, it was proposed that Maine be admitted to the country as a free state. The bill was agreed upon on March 5, 1820 and was signed by president James Monroe on March 6, 1820. On top of deciding Missouri would become a slave state and Maine a free state, the compromise also created an imaginary line of which slavery would not go north of. The 36 30′ parallel was the line that was agreed upon that would not be crossed by slavery. While this ended the debate over Missouri it did little to help the country in the long run. With both the short-term impact and the historical analysis of the compromise it is clear to see there were flaws.

There were two very big issues that came about as a result of the Missouri Compromise. The furthering of sectionalism and the debates surrounding the Mexican American war were both fueled by this compromise. Furthermore, both issues contributed to the divide that was the Civil War. Some historians argue that this compromise prolonged the time of peace before the Civil War, the issues that this compromise brought forth were evident.

Sectionalism occurs in many countries but was extremely present in the early 1800’s in the United States. Sectionalism was the excessive regard for one’s region of the country more so than for the country as a whole. In the context of the United States this was the regard for either the north or south. This divide came about as a result of differing lifestyles with the south being a more agriculturally driven place whereas the north was industrialized. Also included in this divide was the slavery issue, as the north opposed slavery and the south relied upon it for their survival. The Missouri Compromise heavily impacted this division between north and south as it pitted the two against each other on an issue that was their core difference. On top of this issue the Missouri Compromise also created a line that geographically divided the north and south. The 36 30′ parallel was a line that prevented slavery from crossing north, but it was also seen as a line that divided the two ways of life.[10] Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Congressman John Holmes his concerns regarding a line dividing the country. In the letter he wrote …but 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.[11] The fear that Thomas Jefferson expressed to his friend would ultimately come to fruition as the imaginary line agreed upon to limit slavery was for the most part the dividing line for Civil War which would occur 40 years later.

The other piece of American history where the Missouri Compromise had a big impact was the Mexican American war. In the early parts of 1946 the United States went to war with Mexico in the hopes of gaining a large piece of land. By winning the war the United States was hoping to acquire what would become Texas, California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado.[12] The abolitionists in the north were very opposed to the war as they viewed it as an attempt by the south to expand slavery. After the United States won the war, they expanded the country geographically by almost 100 percent, but this raised the question of what to do with the newly acquired land.[13] The south wanted it to be slave territory whereas the north wanted it to be free. The south saw this new territory and the expansion of slavery as a guarantee that slavery would continue to survive. The north saw the war as a conspiracy that would allow slavery to spread throughout all of the United States. This debate led to another compromise; the Compromise of 1850.[14] This debate and need for a new compromise highlights the failure of the Missouri Compromise as the issue could have been decided before it became an issue. Instead of coming to a decision on the slavery issue, the Missouri Compromise just postponed the decision by allowing both sides to admit a state and keeping the division between slave and free states even.

Both sectionalism and the Mexican American war highlighted the divide between the two parts of the country. By not addressing the slavery issue and instead just compromising, the issue was just postponed and later developed into the Civil War. As previously stated some historians believe that the Missouri Compromise helped postpone the Civil War, but the other side of the debate is that by addressing the issue earlier it might not have led to a war and could have been decided in Congress.

The Missouri Compromise came about as a result of two differing opinions clashing with no middle ground in sight. Both sides viewed their way of life as better and essential, and refused to give ground in negotiations. They ultimately agreed upon a solution that benefited neither party and instead prolonged the issue, which only affected the country later in history. Sectionalism became very prevalent, and the sides disagreed over the Mexican American war. The compromise was ultimately overturned on two separate occasions, only highlighting its ineffectiveness. Had the issue of slavery truly been addressed, perhaps the Civil War could have been avoided. Instead neither side wanted to lose the negotiations, and, in the end, no one won.

[1] Linda Thompson.The Louisiana Purchase. New York: Newbridge, 2006.

[2] Richard Holbrook Brown.The Missouri Compromise: Political Statesmanship or Unwise Evasion?Boston: Heath, 1964.

[3] Ibid

[4] George Dangerfield.The Awakening of American Nationalism 1815-1828. Prospect Heights (Ill.): Waveland, 1994.

[5] Ibid Pg 110.

[6] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 15th Congress, 2nd Session,1170

[7] Sean Wilentz. “”Jeffersonian Democracy and the Origins of Political Antislavery in the United States: The Missouri Crisis Revisited.””The Journal of the Historical Society, no. 3 (2004): 375-401. doi:10.1111/j.1529-921x.2004.00105.x.

[8] Joseph J. Ellis.American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

[9] Elizabeth R. Varon.Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

[10] Adam Rothman.Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[11] Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes. April 22, 1820. Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia.

[12] PBS LearningMedia. Accessed April 21, 2018.

[13] Ibid

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The Missouri Compromise: Disagreement and Compromise in the United States. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved February 7, 2023 , from

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