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Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859

Compromises over Slavery

Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was struck in 1820 to maintain a balance of free and slave states in the Senate.

The Missouri Compromise, 1820

The Missouri Compromise regulated the balance of free and slave states and prevented the spread of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase above the 36°30′ latitude line.
The Missouri Compromise was a compromise passed through Congress that helped maintain the balance of free and slave states in the Union. It simultaneously established restrictions on the spread of slavery.

The need for the compromise arose in 1819. Missouri had applied for statehood two years prior, and Congress was prepared to pass legislation allowing Missouri to draft a state constitution. In February 1819 New York representative James Tallmadge added an antislavery amendment to the bill. The amendment prevented the expansion of slavery in Missouri. It also provided for the emancipation, or the process of granting freedom, of all enslaved people at age 25.

Tallmadge's amendment experienced mixed success. It passed the House of Representatives but did not pass the Senate. This was because the North held more seats in the House, while the Senate was evenly divided between antislavery and proslavery states.

Congress did not resolve the debate over Missouri's statehood until it reconvened in December 1819. During the congressional recess, Maine had also petitioned for statehood. The Senate passed a bill that permitted Maine to enter the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Additionally, an amendment added by Illinois senator Jesse B. Thomas prevented the spread of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase above 36°30′ latitude—Missouri's southern border.

The bill passed both houses on March 3, 1820, with the help of Kentucky senator Henry Clay. Maine became a state on March 15. Missouri, however, would not join the Union until August 10, 1821, nearly a year and a half after the Missouri Compromise. Its admission was delayed because of a provision in its state constitution that infringed upon the rights of African Americans and people of mixed race.

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 permitted California to enter the Union as a free state, established New Mexico and Utah as territories with the right to determine whether to allow slavery, passed a Fugitive Slave Act, and abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 welcomed California as a free state and allowed the Utah and New Mexico territories to decide the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty.
Though the Missouri Compromise temporarily settled issues regarding the spread of slavery, it was not a permanent fix. Tensions between proslavery and antislavery factions came to a head nearly 30 years later.

Texas entered the Union as a slave state in 1845. The United States also gained extensive territories from Mexico in 1848 following the Mexican-American War (1846–48). The question of how to manage the spread of slavery in these areas reemerged in December 1849 when California petitioned for statehood as a free state.

Early attempts at compromise between proslavery and antislavery factions were ineffective. President Zachary Taylor prevented the passing of any legislation regarding slavery, choosing instead to leave the matter to the judicial branch.

Nevertheless, the tide began to turn in the late summer of 1850. Zachary Taylor died just over a year into his term as president, and Millard Fillmore took office. This gave Kentucky senator Henry Clay the opportunity to devise the Compromise of 1850.

Clay's compromise sought to appease both sides of the debate, giving and taking from each. His compromise ultimately consisted of five parts:

  • California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
  • Texas ceded its claim to sections of the New Mexico Territory. In exchange the United States paid Texas's $10 million war debt.
  • The territories of New Mexico and Utah were permitted to settle the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty. This meant their legislatures could decide by vote whether to allow slavery in their territories.
  • The slave trade was officially abolished in Washington, D.C., the country's capital. This that meant enslaved workers could no longer be bought or sold in the district, although slaveholders could retain their existing enslaved labor force.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act placed the issue of how to deal with runaway slaves in the hands of the federal government instead of the states.

The Compromise of 1850 went into effect in September 1850. The compromise delayed the secession of the Southern states from the Union. Both New Mexico and Utah voted to permit slavery, and though California was officially a free state, many of its elected representatives were proslavery.

Like the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 was only a temporary fix on the issue of slavery. Future use of popular sovereignty would prove unsuccessful in the Kansas Territory. At the same time, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act infuriated Northerners and further fueled antislavery sentiments.