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When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, debates over slavery and how to count slaves for purposes of legislative representation and tax apportionment threatened to derail an agreed upon new constitution. The Three-Fifths Compromise resulted and while it led to the ratified Constitution, the issue of slavery continued to be a major issue of tension between the North and South. In 1820, those tensions intensified when Missouri sought admission to the Union. The Missouri Compromise was the solution that pushed civil war back several decades.
The Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise was an effort by the United States Congress to address slavery and create balance between the slaveholding and free states. Congress struggled with the issue for some time starting in 1819, when the Missouri Territory applied for statehood. The Missouri Territory had been part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Spanish and French sanctioned slavery in the Louisiana territories prior to the sale, and Louisiana, the first state carved from the Louisiana Purchase, was a slave state when it entered the Union. If it were admitted, Missouri would throw off the eleven to eleven balance between slaveholder and free states. On February 3, 1819, New York Jeffersonian Republican Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. proposed two amendments to Missouri’s application for statehood, providing:
“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 with in 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 debates in the two chambers of Congress pitted the northern restrictionists against anti-restrictionists from the south. To further the Tallmadge Amendment in the House, a fellow House member, proposed splitting Tallmadge’s amendments into two separate votes and, despite a 101 to 81 northern advantage in the House, the House voted 87-76 in favor of the further migration into Missouri and 82 to 78 on emancipation at age twenty-five. But the three days of debate prior to passage have been described as “rancorous” and “fiery” and “blistering,” with rhetoric such as “which seas of blood can only extinguish” and “If a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so!” When the House passed bill made it to the Senate, the Senate rejected both parts, 22-16 and 31-7, respectively.
The Congressional debate on admitting Missouri continued for a year, until Maine (which was part of Massachusetts) sought statehood. The agreed upon deal was to admit Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state- states would be admitted in pairs to keep the balance. The Senate linked the two bills for Missouri and Maine and Senator Jesse B. Thomas from Illinois introduced a compromise amendment, which excluded slavery from remaining lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36◦, 30’ parallel.
The measure passed the Senate but faced resistance in the House by Northerners who wanted Missouri to be a free state. Speaker of the House Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser,” divided the Senate bills and on March 3, 1820, the House voted to admit Maine as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and made free soil western territories north of Missouri’s southern border, excluding Missouri. The debate did not end in 1820, however.
When Missouri submitted its new constitution, it excluded “free negroes and mulattoes” from the state. Clay again saved the matter, approving an act of admission that the exclusionary clause would “never be construed to authorize the passage of any law” that impaired the privileges and immunities of any United States citizen. Referred to as the Second Missouri Compromise, it helped save the Union for several decades.
The Missouri Compromise was a necessary action to avert continued battles over the balance of power in Congress. However, Thomas Jefferson predicted the peace gained by the Missouri Compromise could not last, writing to a friend:
“[B]ut 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.”
The Missouri Compromise helped to issue a “reprieve” as Jefferson noted, and for the next three decades, the issue continued to be debated, but the balance of power remained, until the admission of California as a state in 1850 with no offsetting 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. Civil war would come four years after Dred.
Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is in the process of writing a book on the seventeen Chief Justices. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.
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