Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


The Election of 1820: The Uncontested Race and the Missouri Compromise

The election of 1820 was the last presidential contest in which the ticket ran virtually unopposed.  President James Monroe and his Vice President, Daniel D. Tompkins, won all but one electoral vote, which went to John Quincy Adams.  The only other president elected without opposition had been George Washington in 1788 and 1792.  The Federalist Party ran no presidential candidate and the election effectively marked the end of the Federalist Party.  Monroe’s re-election came in the wake of Congressional debate on Missouri Compromise, which had been passed by the Senate and was still pending in the House at the time of the election.

The Candidate

James Monroe was the Democratic-Republican incumbent in 1820.  In the 1816 election, he had won 68% of the popular vote and more than 80% of the Electoral College. With no real opposition in 1820, he would win 81% of the popular vote and all but one electoral vote.  Monroe was the fifth President of the United States and the last of the “Founding Fathers.”  He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention but then attended the Virginia Ratifying Convention as an anti-Federalist because the Constitution lacked a bill of rights. Virginia voted for ratification by a very slim margin and Monroe later decided to push for the bill of rights after the Constitution was ratified and the nation established.

Monroe was elected as a United States Senator by the Virginia state legislature.  He soon became Senate leader.  Monroe served in the Senate from 1790 until 1794, when he became a United States Minister to France.  Upon his return to the United States, Monroe practiced law and served two separate terms as Governor of Virginia.  He also returned to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and then was sent to Great Britain to negotiate an important treaty that would have extended the Jay Treaty, but President Jefferson refused to submit the Treaty to Congress for ratification.

Monroe was appointed as Secretary of State by President James Madison and took the position on April 2, 1811. Despite never formally resigning as Secretary of State, Monroe also served as Secretary of War from September 1814 until March 1815, thus holding two Cabinet posts simultaneously.  He continued as Secretary of State until 1817, when he began his first term as President.

During Monroe’s first term, one of the topics taking center stage was slavery and what to do with new territories.  Congressional leaders worked to develop what was hoped to be a legislative solution, which came to be known as the Missouri Compromise.

The Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was an effort by the United States Congress to address slavery and create a balance between the slaveholding and free states.  Congress struggled with the issue for some time.  In 1819, Missouri applied for statehood.  Admitting Missouri to the Union as a “slave state” would give the Southern states a numerical majority and more power in Congress. New York  Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. introduced an amendment to Missouri’s statehood application, including restrictions on slavery and its eventual elimination in the state.  The Tallmadge Amendment stated:

“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.”

The Tallmadge Amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate. The debate on Missouri statehood continued for a year, until Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) sought statehood.  Speaker of the House Henry Clay from Kentucky proposed that if Maine became a state, then Missouri should as well.  A solution was developed that states would be admitted in pairs, one slaveholding and one free, to maintain the balance of power.  The Clay solution became known as the Missouri Compromise.

The Missouri Compromise was debated over a period of time, with the Senate passing it on March 2, 1820, before the 1820 Presidential election, and the House debating it much longer, not passing it until February 26, 1821, long after the 1820 election.

On March 9, 1820, Congress had passed a law directing the Missouri Territory to hold a convention for the purpose of organizing a government and drafting a constitution.  At the time of the 1820 Presidential election, there was considerable debate about the electoral votes of Missouri.  If those votes were counted, it would be a conclusion that Missouri had become a state.  Congress therefore passed a law that the Missouri electoral votes would only be counted if they would make a difference in the election, and the President of the Senate read the totals with both Missouri included and excluded.  Given Monroe’s landslide victory, Missouri’s electoral votes had no bearing on the outcome.


The Missouri Compromise served to temper Congressional debate over slavery for the next three decades, until California was admitted as a free state in 1850 with no slaveholding state admitted at the same time.  Effectively overruled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Missouri Compromise was also found to be unconstitutional by the much-denounced 1857 Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that Congress had overreached in its enactment of the Missouri Compromise.  The decision was only the second one in which the Supreme Court found an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.

8 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassualt
    Publius Senex Dassualt says:

    Continuing to learn and loving it. Booyah! Thank you fro a great essay.

    I think we often think of the end of the Federalist party as it failed. But if he step back and think that the Federalists were originally concerned with getting the Constitution ratified and a an effective, strong National government established, they succeeded. Since that was their primary focus the fact that they did not evolve into a Party focused on something may actually be a good result. As noted in Essay 15 they were forced into mimicking the Republican/Democratic party.

    Some wrote off the Democratic party after Nixon, Carter [seen as weak President] and especially Reagan. The Republicans had the upper hand and the pulse of the American people. Then comes Clinton, Bush2 [unpopular and likely unsuccessful wars], and Obama and the Republicans are on the ropes. Some say that Republicans must mimic the Democrats to regain prominence. Perhaps, but then we just have two sides of the same coin.

    Maybe the Republicans real problem is they have not done what they said they would do. We are the Party of smaller government – yet the Administrative State and deficits increased under Bush2. We will protect America – yet we lost civil liberties with the Patriot Act, and unchecked NSA, while gaining how much security? Meanwhile OBama has done the same thing while catering to the Democratic political base. Thus, Republicans have made themselves the unattractive backside of the same political coin. This is where a two party system is failing us.

    We need a Party [any] who 1) puts America first without a) compromising our liberties and b) without vitriolic rhetoric, and 2) re-establishes Constitutional law as the standard for the nation, and 3) will make the Administrative State accountable to the People, and 4) will use Madisonian Politics to effect change instead of Partisan Executive Orders, and 5) will protect the rights of all citizens, not just the politically correct.


  2. Publius Senex Dassualt
    Publius Senex Dassualt says:

    Concerning the Constitution and slavery. Joseph Ellis in Founding Brothers documents the that forming of the US under the Constitution was fragile and uncertain. Many wanted to end slavery, it was recognize by nearly all as a “bridge too far.” Even amending the Constitution with a Bill of Rights was major undertaking. Their solution, which may seem to some as moral or ethical cowardice, was to write the 20 exception into the Constitution.

    I think many hoped that eventually [20 years] slavery would die out everywhere as it had in New England and New York. Unfortunately the fire eaters S. Carolina/Georgia had visions of expanding slavery all the way to Central and South America. Combining their resolve with a rapidly growing abolitionist movement resulted in a two diametrically and irreconcilable positions. The Compromises and legislative actions were valiant efforts, as Lincoln said, “The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    And then there is abortion.



Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] James Monroe, the incumbent, won the 1820 election. Monroe ran without any competition from the Federalist Party, the last time in U.S. presidential elections that a ticket ran without party […]

  2. […] I hope everyone continues to enjoy Constituting America’s 90-Day Study. As the writers traipse though the history of presidential elections, they are about to leave the era of the Founders with the reelection of Founding Father James Monroe in 1820. Did you notice that instead of reading the essays you can also listen to them being read? Here’s the current one. […]

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