Common wisdom dictates that “A good compromise leaves everyone mad.” If this is true then few compromises were greater than the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Missouri Compromise was a last-ditch effort to save the Union from splintering between states that allowed slavery and states that forbade it. Former President Thomas Jefferson knew that such compromises would not last long, calling the Compromise of 1820 “a fire bell in the night.” Forty years later his prophetic words would be proved right.
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MAINE AND MISSOURI The seeds of the Missouri Compromise were laid in 1819 when the future state of Missouri applied for statehood. Missouri intended to allow slavery within its borders, a fact that threatened the pre-existing numerical balance between free and slave states in the Union. A joint statehood bill maintained the balance by admitting Maine to the Union as a free state in exchange for admitting Missouri as a slave state.
HENRY CLAY Henry Clay was nicknamed The Great Compromiser and is often viewed as essential to the passage of the Missouri Compromise. As a powerful Speaker of the House Clay promoted the tit-for-tat exchange of Maine for Missouri. Clay used his skills as a parliamentarian to pass this agreement in the House and send it to the Senate for final ratification before Southern Representatives could debate it further.
SENATOR JESSE B. THOMAS Clay is called the Great Compromiser, but he did not actually propose the major provisions associated with the compromise. Illinois Senator Jesse B. Thomas proposed that all territories north of latitude thirty-six thirty would be free states. This resolution passed in the Senate but would have died in the House had it not been for Clay’s aforementioned political talents.
THE TALLMADGE AMENDMENT The Tallmadge Amendment was a controversial amendment to Missouri’s petition for statehood, proposed by New York representative James Tallmadge. Tallmadge proposed that slavery should effectively be banned in Missouri by mandating that slaves already in the state should be emancipated at age 25 and that no new slaves could be imported. Representative Thomas Cobb of Georgia stated on the House floor that Tallmadge had: “kindled a fire...which seas of blood can only extinguish.” The Tallmadge Amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate, leading to a deadlock in Missouri’s statehood application until the new Congress convened in late 1819.
KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT The Missouri Compromise lasted until 1854 when Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas blew it up with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Kansas-Nebraska Act explicitly did away with the ban on slavery north of latitude thirty-six thirty. Instead, the act Douglas shepherded through Congress would allow each state to decide the issue of slavery in its borders, a principle known as popular sovereignty. Abraham Lincoln notably challenged this principle in his Peoria Speech, given in the same year.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively undid the Missouri Compromise, but a mere three years later it was declared unconstitutional.
Missouri’s brutal slave laws lasted from before its founding as a state up until the Civil War itself.
Watch this video for a primer on the wider political context of the Missouri Compromise:
There are many videos of renditions of Lincoln’s Peoria speech. Here is one, an excerpt from the speech, that highlights Ol’ Abe’s rhetorical gifts:
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