The Missouri Compromise was a legislation that was passed on March 3, 1820, in Congress, amidst rising tensions over the issue of slavery. The law stated that Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, to maintain the balance of power between North and South in the Senate. The law also banned slavery north of the 36º 30’ parallel. This was enforced until 1854 when the Missouri Compromise was repealed.
The date marks a historic moment for the United States, and as such is not a public holiday.
The divide on slavery issues
In 1818, Missouri applied for statehood within the Union, wanting slavery to be allowed in its new state. This would make it the first state West of the Mississipi River, and allowing slavery in the new territory would deepen the divide that was already so prominent in the nation regarding the issue of slavery.
The Northerners, abolitionists, were opposed to slavery in any new states as it would disturb the balance that existed between free and slave states. Southerners, on the other hand, believed that new states should have the freedom of choosing whether they would allow slavery or not.
In February of 1819, Northern Representative James Tallmadge introduced two amendments to Missouri’s request which imposed restrictions on slavery in the new state. The Southern representatives did not let this pass on the Senate. However, at the time, the Senate was split evenly at 11 states for each section, and accepting Missouri as a slave state would give the South an advantage.
Maine and Missouri
After the stalemate in the Senate, Missouri applied for statehood again at the end of 1819. At the same time, Maine also petitioned for statehood as a free state. Speaker of the House Henry Clay suggested that Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state, on the condition that Maine was to be admitted as a free state. In February 1820 a new part was added to the joint statehood bill which, Missouri excepted, prohibited slavery on all new lands north of the imaginary line of 36º 30’ latitude that ran along Missouri’s southern border.
The bill was then passed on March 3, and signed by President James Monroe on March 6.
Although the compromise eventually resolved the issue with Missouri, it did not help with the question of slavery and whether this institution would be part of the United States’ future. At the same time, no side was truly happy with the compromise, as the South thought it gave Congress too much power by allowing it to make laws that restricted slavery, and the North being against the fact that the compromise permitted new states to allow slavery.
With the period of Westward Expansion, the debate on whether slavery should be extended to new states was still a dividing issue in the country.
In 1854, during the admission of Kansas and Nebraska as states, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, stating that it was the settlers of new states’ decision whether to allow slavery or not. This essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery in the region north of the 36º 30’ parallel. This led to controversy and violent confrontations, and to the emergence of the Republican Party with Abraham Lincoln as its leader.
In the Dred Scott v. Stanford case of 1857, the Missouri Compromise was ruled unconstitutional, and it was decided that Congress should not have the power to prohibit slavery in any state. This was one of the catalysts for the American Civil War.