The Missouri Compromise: The Civil War Bandage

Have You Ever?

It is your first day at your dream job. You worked very hard to gain this position and are excited about all the doors that have opened for you. However, you soon realize that higher-ups in the company discriminate against employees who belong to minority groups, including women and Black individuals. Your values do not match up with your company’s, but you are unsure if you should speak up or quit. This is your dream job after all, and it provides good pay and endless opportunities. But you believe everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status, or race. What should you do? Do you compromise your moral values to further your professional career, or do you give up this position because you refuse to work for a company that doesn’t share your same basic values?

Here’s Why

When Americans decided to expand west, the nation was divided on what should be done about slavery in these new states. Despite not wanting to permit slavery in new states, the Northern states compromised with the Southern states on this matter to only allow slavery in states in a particular location. Similar to you, the Northerners had to choose between following their own values despite the consequences and compromising their morals to avoid these consequences, and they chose the latter.

The Missouri Compromise

In 1820, Congress passed a law allowing Missouri to be admitted to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It banned slavery, however, in the rest of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36º 30’ parallel. The Missouri Compromise remained in effect until 1854 when it was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The History

In 1818, the Missouri Territory first applied for statehood. If Missouri was allowed into the Union, it would become the first state west of the Mississippi River to permit slavery. This caused significant debate in Congress. Like the nation, Congress was divided into pro- and anti-slavery camps. Northern state legislators were opposed to the extension of slavery into new territory. Because the nation contained eleven free and eleven slave states, they also worried that adding Missouri as a slave state would tip the balance in favor of supporters of slavery. On the other hand, Southern state legislators believed that new states should be granted the ability to choose whether or not to allow slavery within their borders, just like the original thirteen states did.

Representative James Tallmadge of New Jersey suggested that an amendment be created to slowly phase out slavery in Missouri once it is granted statehood. While the amendment passed in the Northern-majority House of Representatives, it failed in the equally divided Senate. 

The following year, Missouri again petitioned to join the Union as a slave state. Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, proposed that Congress admit Missouri to the Union as the slave state, while also admitting Maine as a free state. In 1820, the Senate added an amendment that prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36º 30’ parallel, which was located along Missouri’s southern border. The bill passed in both houses by March, and it was signed into law by President James Monroe a few days later.

So What

Although slavery had been a contentious issue in the United States for decades, it had never been so prominent and threatening as it was during the Missouri Crisis. Both sides recognized that the Compromise was not an answer to the slavery question. It was a temporary solution to avoid the imminent conflict that took place decades later in the Civil War. However, the Missouri Compromise highlights that even for Northern lawmakers, who are often remembered for their anti-slavery stance, keeping the union together and maintaining their own power were higher priorities than ending slavery. Ultimately, it was more of a triumph for slavery supporters than a compromise to avoid war.

Over the next few decades, tension and conflict grew between free and slave states. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise. This law permitted these two territories to make a decision on the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty, meaning that the settlers would choose for themselves. Three years later, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court upheld slavery in U.S. territories and denied Black people citizenship. The Court proclaimed the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, asserting that Congress did not have the authority to abolish slavery in the territories. Eventually, the North and South’s vastly different views on the moral issue of slavery led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Think Further

  1. Was the Missouri Compromise a success or a failure? Explain your reasoning.
  2. Do you think the Missouri Compromise was a necessary step, or did the law just push off the inevitable war to come?
  3. There are many issues today that lawmakers and the public are deeply divided on. Are there any that you think could benefit from a compromise approach? Are there any that you think it would be wrong to compromise on? 

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  1. History.com Editors. “The Missouri Compromise.” History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/abolitionist-movement/missouri-compromise
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Missouri Compromise.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Missouri-Compromise
  3. Ushistory.org. “The Missouri Compromise.” U.S. History Online Textbook, https://www.ushistory.org/us/23c.asp
  4. “The Missouri Compromise and the dangerous precedent of appeasement: American Art in Context.” Smarthistory.org, https://smarthistory.org/seeing-america-2/the-missouri-compromise/#:~:text=Despite%20its%20name%2C%20the%20Missouri,was%20a%20victory%20for%20slaveholders