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Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Missouri Compromise, March 3, 1820

Today in 1820, the United States Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, a bill that was intended to maintain the careful balance between the northern and southern states on the issue of slavery. This compromise and the battles fought over it foreshadowed the events of the next generation.

In February, 1819, there were eleven free states and ten slave states. This balance helped to maintain some civility on the issue of slavery because, while the northern (that is, free) states had a larger population, the southern states could find comfort knowing that, at least in the Senate, they had nearly equal representation. Representative James Tallmadge of New York introduced a bill that month which proposed allowing Missouri, which had been part of the Louisiana Purchase 16 years before, into the Union as a free states.

Opponents of the bill said that the introduction of another free state would throw the Senate out of balance and make pro-slavery voices a permanent minority in Congress. They also claimed that slavery was favored in the area that would become Missouri. Did the federal government have the right to essentially outlaw slavery in the area by decree without the consent of the governed? Southern representatives said no.

In December, 1819, Alabama was brought into the Union as a slave state. This meant that each side now had 11 states to its name. This did nothing to help the Missouri bill, however, and Congress remained deadlocked. 1819 ended with no clear end in site.

The beginning of 1820 saw the first rays of a compromise. By March 3, Congress was ready to vote on a bill that would allow Missouri to become a state with legalized slavery as long as slavery was abolished in the rest of the area of the Louisiana Purchase above the 36th parallel. Also, Maine, which had been part of Massachusetts, was granted statehood. This brought the number of slave and free states to 12 each. The Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act said that the issue of slavery was to be decided by popular vote, not by the actions of Congress.

The compromise, while certainly not a perfect piece of legislation, helped to hold the Union together for thirty more years than may have been possible otherwise.

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