“This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.

I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”

- Thomas Jefferson upon hearing of the Missouri Compromise (1)

The Missouri Compromise

When Missouri petitioned to become a state in 1819, it stirred up a controversy in Congress over slavery.
The Constitution had banned any discussion of slavery in Congress until 1808, but since then the country
had grown increasingly divided over the issue. The South had grown wealthy through slavery and insisted
on their right to own slaves. The North was increasingly against the practice of slavery.

At the time, exactly half of the states in the country allowed slavery and the other half banned it.
Prior to 1819, free states and slave states had mostly been admitted into the Union in equal numbers.(2)
This maintained an shaky political balance in the government. Since there was an equal number of slave
and free states, southern states could block any anti-slavery bills proposed by free states.(3)

Southerners feared that if Missouri was admitted as a free state, then the South would no longer be able
to block any anti-slavery laws. Missouri was the second state founded within the Louisiana Purchase,
and the first one who lay almost entirely west of the Mississippi River. Northerners pointed out that up to
this point all states north of the Ohio River on the east side of the Mississippi River had outlawed slavery
and they wanted this line to extend west of the Mississippi. Otherwise, what would keep slavery from
spilling across the new Louisiana territory?(3)

New York Representative James Tallmadge even proposed an amendment to the statehood bill that said
Missouri could only join the United States as a free state. All current slaves in Missouri, under this bill,
would be freed.

This proposal was popular in northern states where many began to strongly protest the idea of slavery in
western territories. After the Second Great Awakening, many Americans felt that the abolition of slavery
was a moral and spiritual matter. "Many towns sent petitions...to Congress condemning slavery as immoral
and unconstitutional."(4) The House of Representatives voted to approve the amendment, but southern states
in the Senate managed to gather enough votes to prevent the amendment from being passed.
The government was now deadlocked over the issue of slavery in Missouri.

For months, the government was caught in a fierce disagreement of the issue of state rights. Southerners were
outraged at the Tallmadge Amendment. They believed that Congress had no right to ban slavery in a state.
Only the people of the Missouri could decide whether or not to permit slavery, and Missouri had applied to
enter the Union as a slave state.

Northern states objected on the grounds that slavery was immoral and unconstitutional. They felt that Thomas
Jefferson's guarantee in the Declaration of Independence that "all men were created equal" was the very backbone
of the government created by the U.S.Constitution. By permitting slavery to continue in the Western lands,
slave states were "attempting to rewrite the explicit letter of the Constitution as well as to [corrupt] its spirit.(4)"

For weeks, Congress argued over the issue and tempers began to flair. Thomas Cobb from Georgia warned the
North that if they "persist[ed]...the Union [would] be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which waters of the ocean
cannot put out which only a sea of blood can extinguish." (3)

Tallmadge responded in a speech to Congress in 1819, calling United States slavery "the most cruel and debasing
[system that] the world ha[d] ever witnessed." In response to Southern threats of secession or civil war, Tallmadge
replied by saying "Sir, if dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much
threaten must come, I can only say, let it come!" (5)

Finally, statesman Henry Clay from Kentucky proposed a three part compromise to settle the dangerous situation:

1. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state

2. Maine - which had recently applied to become a state - would enter the Union as a free state.
This kept the balance between free and slave states equal in Congress.

3. Taking an idea from Illinois Senator Jesse B. Thomas, in "the rest of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36º30' parallel
(which ran along Missouri's southern border) slavery would be prohibited forever." (1)


This proposal, now known as the Missouri Compromise, was intended to prevent Civil War--in the end, it only postponed
the conflict.



1. "EDSITEment--National Endowment for the Humanities: An Early Threat of Secession: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Nullification Crisis" Accessed at <http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=658> on April 26, 2007.

2. Drewry, Henry; O'Conner, Thomas, America Is , 1995, Glencoe, Macmillian/Mc-Graw-Hill, New York, NY

3. Hart, Diana, History Alive: The United States, 2002, Teachers Curriculum Institute, Palo Alto, CA

4. Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. 2005. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York pg. 226

5. "Tallmadge's Speech to Congress, 1819" Accessed on April 26, 2007 at <http://www.wadsworth.com/history_d/templates/student_resources/0030724791_ayers/sources/ch09/9.3.tallmadge.html>
From Annals of Congress, Fifteenth Congress Second Session, V.1 (1819). Washington: Governmental Printing Office, 1855. 1203-1205.