The Missouri Compromise – a summary

Slavery in the newly-established United States did encounter a decline shortly after the end of the American Revolution.  It has been argued that slavery might have eventually died out from lack of necessity.  At this crucial time, however, a young man from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney was on his way to South Carolina to accept a position as a tutor.  Instead, he accepted an invitation from Catherine Greene to visit her Georgia plantation.  While there, Whitney invented the cotton gin.  The year was 1793, and the cotton gin was a key invention in the industrial revolution.  It made the production of short staple cotton profitable and invigorated the need for slave labor to produce it.

North vs South

As the new nation spread westward, the balance of power between slave state and free state became of major concern.  The industrialized North had different needs than the agrarian South, which meant that legislation intended to benefit one side was sometimes detrimental to the other.  Both sides were acutely aware of how important it was to have as much or more power in government than the other in order to safeguard their interests.

When the Louisiana Territory was purchased, concern as to whether territories applying for admission to the United States were slave or free grew.  The territory stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to beyond the Canadian border.  It included all or part of what would become fourteen states as well as a small portion of Canada, with the Mississippi River as its eastern boundary.  Both sides of the slavery issue knew that dividing the territory into states, and determining whether each of those states was free or slave was crucial to the balance of political power.

Henry Clay

Henry ClayIn 1820, the Missouri Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for statehood to the union as the 24th state. Admission would mean that there would be twelve slave states to eleven free.  In an effort to keep the peace in Congress, Henry Clay (pictured), a senator from Kentucky, proposed the Missouri Compromise in which Missouri would be allowed to enter as a slave state and the state of Maine would enter the Union as free soil. To help maintain the balance of power, as states were admitted to the United States, the Missouri Compromise stipulated also that no slavery would be allowed in the Louisiana Territory north of a boundary set at 36 degrees 30 minutes, line of demarcation that formed Missouri’s southern border, with the exception of the state of Missouri itself.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 held good for 34 years until the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, by which each new state was allowed the right to decide the issue of slavery by right of sovereignty.  The concept of states’ right would become yet a battle cry second only to abolition.  It would increase tension and become the cause of those who supported the South, but not slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act left the two new states with the decision to vote on which side to take, slavery or free soil.  Supporters of both sides of the issue flocked to Kansas and four years of intermittent violence ensued.  Border Ruffians from across the state line in Missouri crossed into Kansas, attacking opponents of slavery before fleeing back to the safety of Missouri.  After such an attack on Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856, abolitionist John Brown led his own series of attacks against slavery supporters and peace-keeping forces alike.  Known as “Bleeding Kansas”, in 1858 Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state.

Three years later the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

American SlaveryKat Smutz

Read more about slavery in the US in American Slavery: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.

See also article on Henry Clay.