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Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a young democracy that had just come into the world and was looking to prove itself as the face of a new age of liberty and equality. It was named America, and it was full of the high idealism of independence, apple pie, and bald eagle-patterned boxer shorts. This young upstart was looking towards a bright future—a move away from the dated oppression of the Old World monarchies and the construction of that classic, shining City on a Hill.
It was a nice fairy tale…if you were a wealthy, white land-owning male.
For everyone else, it was a bunch of nice-sounding ideas that translated to life being more or less unchanged between British and American rule. (Cue the sad trombone noise.)
In 1819 the U.S. was growing out of its diapers into a toddlerdom that included, rather than screetching requests for more Froot Loops and endless repetitions of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, the Manifest Destiny drive westward. The U.S. was a very advanced toddler.
Immigrants continued to come over in droves, and people were settling further and further west, until those settlements became cities, and then those cities started thinking "Hey, I want a piece of the Federal Government pie," and applied for statehood. And this was all well and good for the most part, with everyone just trying to get their own slice of the beta-testing American Dream.
But then Missouri came along and mucked it up for just about everyone.
See, there was a problem with all of this, and it was a problem that the U.S. had been putting off since the earliest proposals of its federal government. To no surprise to anyone with a knowledge of Things That Were Super Messed Up In American History, that problem was slavery.
Lots of (good) people were uncomfortable with slavery, lots of people didn't care, and lots of people made all sorts of crazy rationalizations as to why owning another human being was perfectly moral so long as that human being wasn't white. It was the hot button issue of its day, and to say it was divisive is an understatement comparable to saying "Mount Everest Is A Pretty Tall Hill."
Basically the entire economy of the South hinged on the institution of slavery, so even if you found the idea of slavery morally repellant—well, you didn't have a whole lot of choice in the matter if you wanted to maintain the status quo.
Ultimately, that was all the Missouri Compromise was about. Nobody wanted to rock the boat, nobody wanted to be that guy who accidentally destroyed the Union by forcing the slavery issue. Nobody was ready for that conversation to happen. Well, except the slaves of course. They had rather understandably passionate ideas about what these rich old white dudes could do with their status quo, and just exactly where they could shove it.
But slaves couldn't vote, and only legally constituted 60% of a person anyway. Wow. History sure is depressing.
So onto this stage of eggshells entered Missouri, eager to become the twenty-third state. Up until this point, there had been a sort of equilibrium that had formed between Northern non-slave holding states and Southern slavery states. But Alabama had just been allowed to enter the Union, and so adding Missouri was seen as unfairly tipping the scales towards the pro-slavery faction.
Let's be clear that it wasn't outright stated in these terms. Anti-slavery groups said that new states didn't have the same self-determination rights as the older states, and so were subject to laws passed by these older states. Pro-slavery folks claimed that every state had the right of self-determination. These were all theoretical arguments employed in order to dance around the issue: everybody knew what this was about.
But coming out in the open and just discussing it like that? Why, they might even have to confront the issue! No, U.S. legislators decided. Better we just sort of try to work this out, and let the next Congress deal with this whole "slavery" business.
So they did—rather than address the issue at heart, the Northern and Southern powers sought a compromise.
This proved to be quite a bit more difficult than you might imagine, but there was one powerful asset on the side of the status quo, and his name was Henry Clay. Clay at the time of the Missouri Compromise was nearing the peak of one of the most successful (and slimy) political careers in U.S. history.
In an attempt to pacify both the pro and anti-slavery factions, Clay drew up a compromise: Missouri would be allowed into the Union and given the rights of self-determination and its own state constitution (a.k.a. they got to keep slaves)…as long as the northern portion of what was Massachusetts could be made into a new state of Maine, also with the right of self-determination and its own state constitution (a.k.a. they were a non-slave state).
That was pretty straight forward, but it wasn't enough to seal the deal.
An additional amendment was made to the Compromise that required a line be drawn through the Louisiana Territory purchased from France (so: virtually all of the continental U.S. west of Missouri and north of Texas). This line divided the U.S. in half along slavery lines. Any new states formed south of this border could be slave-holding states, and any state formed north of it could not.
So everyone was happy now, right? The country was divided in half like the baby from the story of King Solomon …but everyone was happy?
Yeah, not quite.
The compromise almost fell apart a bunch of times and the process of keeping it intact dragged on into 1821, necessitating a Second Missouri Compromise in which the compromises of the Compromise were further compromised.
Ultimately, the Missouri Compromise is how the U.S. avoided dealing with slavery for another thirty years until the Compromise of 1850…by which point the battle lines were set and the American Civil War was virtually inevitable ten years later.
Because the Missouri Compromise is a huge neon sign that essentially screams, "Address the dang elephant in the dang room."
Especially because the elephant in question is "slavery" and the room is "the U.S.A."
If you learn one thing about the history of the U.S. of A, it's that slavery has cast a shadow over virtually all political activity in the country's history. Even since the institution has been abolished, its legacy continues to have a lasting impact on the economic, social, and political makeup of America. It was a very bad thing that spawned a lineage or more very bad things.
The Missouri Compromise was America's first real attempt at addressing the slavery issue. To put it bluntly, this translated into an emphatic rallying call to…well, not address the slavery issue. In fact, the Missouri Compromise is perhaps the perfect example of how democracy can have great success, and yet still totally fail.
See, the Compromise as a compromise was phenomenally successful. The fact that Clay and others could hammer out a political solution to this incredibly divisive issue is a credit to the peaceful and legal processes of our democratic system. Nobody liked the Compromise…but it kept the wobbly wheels of slavery spinning for another thirty years, which was all Congress was interested in anyway.
And that was exactly the problem with the Missouri Compromise.
From its outset, there was never any consideration of how to face the fundamental realities of slavery in the U.S. Nobody wanted to risk their political neck for a bunch of powerless (and voteless) slaves. Congress wanted to maintain the familiar and (for them) safe status quo, and they made the slaves pay for it.
This may all sound like a moldy old story out of a dusty history book, but in today's world the danger of democratic institutions ignoring serious problems is just as real as in 1820.
Example? Sure thing. How about the 1980s AIDS crisis: AIDS was known to be affecting a bunch of Americans, but its reputation as the "gay disease" and a callous disregard for the welfare of gay people by the Reagan administration let the disease reach epidemic proportions before the White House acknowledged that the disease even existed…much less pass any policies to actually address the issue.
That same fundamental issue at play in the Missouri Compromise is still with us to this day, and though the faces are new and the plight of victims have changed, there's still a very real threat that those in power will hold on to the status quo far longer than is helpful, or moral.
But that's the thing with history: we're only doomed to repeat it if we forget it. If we study documents like the Missouri Compromise, we're reminded that stalling on life-or-death issues only leads to more death, pain, and suffering.
So tuck into the Missouri Compromise, get prepared to be a wee bit depressed by American history, and then get ready to take an early (or late) New Years resolution to stop putting off until tomorrow what can be accomplished today.
Straight from the source.
The History Channel's Take
A quick and dirty overview of the causes and results of the Compromise.
Slavery in America
Basically, everything was horrible.
Smithsonian Map of Slavery's Expansion
An interesting exploration of how slavery came to consume nearly half of the U.S.
Khan Academy's Missouri Compromise Video
How did the Missouri Compromise lead to the Civil War? Um, in a big way.
Tom Richey's Overview of the Missouri Compromise
One AP U.S. History teacher's overview of the Missouri Compromise. Mr. Richey seems like a nice guy.