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Did the Missouri Compromise Merely Delay War?

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) John Van Atta, The Brunswick School; (Claim B) Dan Monroe, Millikin University

Suggested Sequencing

Issue on the Table

Was the Missouri Compromise a prudential move of political statesmanship and compromise that achieved much, given the political realities of the time, or did it merely delay a conflict that could only be solved by war?


Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Claim A

During the pre–Civil War era, numerous political compromises mitigated the conflict over slavery and preserved the fragile union between North and South. There is no better example than the Missouri Compromise of 1820. At that time, most national politicians recognized the art of agreement by mutual concession as necessary, not only for union but also in the regular practice of republican governance.

The problem of slavery had threatened the Union from the beginning. That threat potentially worsened when new states joined the Union, especially the addition of western states, as slavery expanded into that region. At those moments, the sectional balance between North and South might stand in jeopardy because the states on each side, slave and free, wanted as much representation in Congress as possible. When the Missouri crisis began early in 1819, little hope of compromise existed. The Missouri Territory had applied for admission as a slave state, which would make a total of twelve slave states in the Union against eleven free. Then, on February 13, antislavery New York Congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment that would have required the new state’s constitution to ban any further entry of enslaved persons within its borders and mandate that all born there after 1819 become free at age twenty-five years. That would assume congressional authority not only to influence the shaping of territorial government in the West before to statehood but also to direct social and economic development afterward as well. Adopting that principle would have threatened the westward expansion of slavery. Proslavery southerners saw these developments as unacceptable limitations on slavery and on southern congressional power.

Antislavery northerners supporting Tallmadge insisted that Congress had every right to deny Missouri’s application if it would not accept these conditions and looked toward prohibiting slavery as a prerequisite for all further states west of the Mississippi. Proslavery southerners replied that the Union consisted of equal states, each with freedom to decide whether to allow or prohibit slavery.

The issue also stimulated considerable interest outside of Washington. As one proslavery writer declared in the May 21, 1819, issue of the Richmond Enquirer, “If we should unfortunately fail in support of our principle, the certain effect will be to make all the territory west of the Mississippi, and north of latitude 36, a Yankee country, governed by the sniveling, sanctimonious doctrines in politics and religion which, as a Virginian, I early learned to abhor.” Antislavery northerners reacted with equal ardor. In November 1819, a Philadelphia editor touched on a core reason why his readers cared so much about the Missouri question: “[B]ecause they look to the western territories as the future home of themselves and their children.” In addition to principles of moral rightness or government policy-making, “their own individual happiness and interests” lay at stake.

The ability of early-republic congressional leaders to compromise would finally prevail, however. Hope appeared on February 16, 1820, when the Senate proposed to admit Maine as a free state in return for Missouri’s entrance on its own terms, but in the House, the anti-Missouri majority still refused. The next day, Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois introduced the key element: With admission of Missouri as a state, a line at thirty-six degrees, thirty-minutes latitude would be established, banning further introduction of slavery to the northwest. Despite the House majority’s continuing resistance, bargain making behind the scenes, including President James Monroe’s subtle efforts, led to a breakthrough. Finally, on March 2, 1820, the Thomas Amendment passed by a paper-thin margin in the House of ninety votes to eighty-seven. Only a few northerners had defected, but these votes mattered critically. “The Constitution is a creature of compromise,” as one northerner, James Stevens of Connecticut, explained. “It originated in a compromise; and has existed ever since by a perpetual extension and exercise of that principle; and must continue to do so, as long as it lasts.”

The Missouri Compromise consisted of three simple elements: Missouri admitted as a state without restriction on slavery, Maine admitted as a free state no longer part of Massachusetts, and a ban on the introduction of slavery north of the line established at thirty-six degrees, thirty-minutes latitude. Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky rearranged the provisions into two separate parts and drove both through with the help of the minority of representatives who supported the whole. The bill then went to the president’s desk, where Monroe waited to sign it.

Who got the better of the deal? Looking at the map, antislavery forces received the largest territorial share, that is, everything north of thirty-six degrees, thirty-minutes latitude, minus Missouri itself. But most southerners accepted that division because few regarded the area to the north of the line as promising for plantation-style agriculture, which was the basis of the slave economy. The compromise line would also establish a more formal division between “North” and “South,” free states and slave states, making more likely an eventual acquisition of further territory to the southwest—with the growth of King Cotton.

Apart from all that, the slave states got what they wanted most: state self-determination and, with that, a temporary repulsing of antislavery nation-building designs for the West. As for slavery, the North conceded that no federally mandated emancipation would occur in new states, because the power to ban slavery applied only in territorial development. The compromise also continued the practice of admitting new states in twos for sectional parity, the entry of Maine with Missouri keeping voting power balanced in the Senate. For the next three decades, the question of the westward expansion of slavery would be understood to have been settled through the Missouri Compromise.

Claim B

On February 15, 1819, James Tallmadge stood in the well of the House of Representatives and delivered a rousing speech in favor of two amendments to the Missouri admission bill that, if accepted, would have gradually abolished slavery in Missouri, prohibiting the growth of what Southerners called “the peculiar institution.” Tallmadge’s restrictions passed the House with a sectional majority but were blocked in the Senate, necessitating an eventual compromise. Thomas Jefferson believed the ensuing debate, on the question of slavery and its expansion, foretold the end of the Union, because it was a seminal and grim moment that portended sectional division and conflict. And of course, Jefferson was right. The debate that Tallmadge triggered eventually produced a fratricidal civil war.

From the inception of the American republic, slavery was acknowledged as a moral conundrum, an inconsistency in a nation founded on natural rights. In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned the king for the slave trade, which he characterized as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” In his notes on the constitutional convention, Madison declared that the true divide between the states was not size, or big versus small; instead, it was slave versus free, which he considered a sectional division, North versus South. In the debates, southern delegates extracted concessions on slavery that were subsequently enshrined in the Constitution as their price for Union, specifically the three-fifths rule, the twenty-year extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and the Fugitive Slave Clause. Later, some northerners deemed the establishment of equal representation in the Senate a proslavery clause, because northern states dwarfed southern states in population yet were limited to the same two senators. Because the prevailing sentiment at the time of the Constitution was that slavery was a moribund institution, these slavery concessions were considered unexceptional (though there was opposition to them at the time, notably by Pennsylvania delegate, Gouverneur Morris).

Throughout the early 1800s, northern politicians lamented the electoral advantages that the South enjoyed thanks to these slavery compromises within the Constitution, clauses that gave the South a significant political edge. In the decades after ratification, the South came to dominate the federal government. Although northern states didn’t want to count slaves at all—even though they counted children, women, poor whites, and free blacks who could not vote—the South was entitled to more congressional seats thanks to counting three-fifths of the enslaved population toward representation that translated into more electoral votes. Moreover, those electoral votes helped elect Thomas Jefferson president in 1800. Not a single northern political figure had been elected president since John Adams; it was the age of the Virginia dynasty. Other key institutions of the federal government, including the judiciary and leadership posts in the Congress, were staffed by southerners. Tallmadge’s passionate outburst against another slave state reflected growing northern discomfort with the effects of these constitutional compromises, which privileged the South and slavery, at the expense of the North and freedom. It seemed to many that the country was effectively governed by the “Slave Power,” a phrase from the period, which meant the tiny minority of wealthy southern planters who had large slave workforces and seemingly outsized political influence.

Tallmadge argued that slavery should not be allowed to pollute the region west of the Mississippi, the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, and that the country faced a stark choice: a bright future as prosperous farmers settled the vast and virginal territory from which slavery had been excluded or a dark, tragic destiny in which slavery’s expansion ensured the prolonged existence of an immoral institution and eventual disunion. In Tallmadge’s opinion, Congress had often attached restrictions to territories when they petitioned for statehood, restrictions that had to be met before those territories were permitted to join the Union as states. Hence, it was perfectly permissible to attach antislavery amendments to the bill that admitted Missouri to the Union. Tallmadge also noted the obvious contradiction of a natural-rights republic tolerating slavery and even the expansion of slavery. “If you allow slavery to pass into Territories where you have the lawful power to exclude it, you will justly take upon yourself all the charges of inconsistency.” Tallmadge insisted, “We ought to fix its limits.”

The southern reaction to the Tallmadge restrictions was volcanic. Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia promised disunion and condemned Tallmadge for starting “a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.” The threat, indeed, the promise of violence, hung in the atmosphere throughout the Missouri Crisis and never completely dissipated, lingering until the very opening of civil war. Southern congressmen advanced two principal arguments in response to Tallmadge: that Congress had no power to restrict slavery in the territories, and that slavery was an institution that actually benefited black Americans. The latter claim eventually grew into the positive good argument, that slavery was nothing for which to apologize, that it profited both races.

As Jefferson foretold in his gloomy 1820 letter to John Holmes, there was no middle ground in this fundamental divide, and once introduced and separated by a geographical line, the Union was doomed. As Lincoln later stated, either slavery was morally wrong and ought to be restricted or slavery was morally right and ought to expand. The Union cracked upon the political system’s failure to find a lasting compromise on a question about which, ultimately, there could be no compromise.

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes. April 22, 1820.

Primary Sources (Claim B)

Congressional debates. February and March, 1820.

Suggested Resources (Claim A)

Forbes, Robert P. The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Hammond, John Craig, and Matthew Mason, eds. Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Kornblith, Gary J. Slavery and Sectional Strife in the Early American Republic, 1776–1821. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2010.

Knupfer, Peter B. The Union As It Is: Constitutional Unionism and Sectional Compromise, 1787–1861. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Mason, Matthew. Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Dangerfield, George. The Awakening of American Nationalism, 1815–1828. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Moore, Glover. The Missouri Controversy, 1819–1821. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1953.

Van Atta, John R. Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

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