Study Guide

Missouri Compromise Analysis

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  • Rhetoric

    The Missouri Compromise…doesn't exactly have any rhetoric or rhetorical devices.

    It wasn't intended to convince anyone of anything, or to take a stand on an issue. The Compromise was intended to set down in law the decisions made after all of the stand-taking and persuasion had already happened.

    Because of that, the Compromise is a fairly straightforward accounting of the end result of all that debate. It lays down the conditions under which Missouri would enter the Union, how its State Constitution would be constructed, and how the U.S. would handle the introduction of slave and free states going forward. All of the rhetoric was filtered out and we're left with just the results.

  • Structure


    The Compromise is conveniently broken down into sections by topic, as was the fashion at the time. (But remember that the fashions of 1820 also includes such gems as dresses that look like nightgowns and generally looking uncomfy all day.)

    It was, ultimately, a bill, and so each section was carefully crafted with an eye for legal language in order to avoid misinterpretation of the will of Congress. They vary in length, and there are eight sections total. (Psst: the really good stuff is in the last section.)

    Generally speaking, the Compromise progresses in a natural way: it opens with the recognition of the state and the overall goals of the bill, delineates the state boundary, establishes the details of the constitutional convention, sets limits on the state government, and then throws in a nice division of the U.S. to boot.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1

    The opening section, which serves as an intro to the bill. This section simple declares the purpose of the bill: the introduction of the territory of Missouri with its own right of self-determination.

    Section 2

    Section 2 handles to most basic issue at hand: just where exactly is Missouri, anyway? It sets the boundaries of the state, generally falling upon natural boundaries such as rivers.

    Section 3

    Section 3 is set up to provide structure for the upcoming Missouri Constitutional Convention, apportioning representatives from various districts of the soon-to-be state. It also sets a date for the convention to convene.

    Section 4

    Section 4 empowers this convention with the authority to draw up a state constitution, to be agreed upon democratically by the representatives duly elected for each district. It provides for the convention to provide its own structure and its own meeting place.

    Section 5

    Section 5 simply states that the state of Missouri shall have a single representative in the House of Representatives until a proper census can be taken in order to provide for the proper number of seats.

    Section 6

    Section 6 mandates that certain lands and taxes be set aside for certain purposes. Take a deep breath, guys: this is the boring part.

    First it says that a certain plot of land in every town should be set aside for the purposes of a school. Second, that water rights are maintained by the state in all cases except for sale or lease of more than ten years, which would require Congressional approval. Third, that a portion of the revenue from sales of land must be set aside for the construction and maintenance of roads and canals. Fourth, that a certain amount of land be set aside for the purposes of a state capitol. Fifth, that a portion of the state's land would be set aside by the President for the purposes of higher education. The fifth clause also mandates that the sale of land and taxes levied upon such sales and lands would be the sole authority of the United States, and not Missouri.

    Thrilling stuff, eh?

    Section 7

    Section 7 mandates that the state constitution, upon ratification within Missouri, must be sent to Congress for approval before statehood could be granted.

    Section 8

    Section 8—a.k.a. The Super-Important Section—declares a geographic restriction on the ownership of slaves at just north of the Texas border.

  • Tone

    A Formal Bill

    The tone of the Compromise is at once straightforward and incredibly dense. (Hemingway this ain't. Sorry.)

    This was pretty important, because the Compromise was a lawful bill being passed that granted rights and privileges to an entire state. It was important that the bill be clear in its message, but also cover as much ground as possible. Nobody wanted Missouri to take advantage of its position to draft an outrageous constitution that compromised the Federal government…except some people from Missouri, that is.

    A good example is the bit about the state constitution requiring congressional approval:

    And be it further enacted, That in case a constitution and state government shall be formed for the people of the said territory of Missouri, the said convention or representatives, as soon thereafter as may be, shall cause a true and attested copy of such constitution or frame of state government, as shall be formed or provided, to be transmitted to Congress. (7.1)

    See what we mean about "straightforward and incredibly dense"?

  • Writing Style

    Ye Ole Fashioned Legalese

    The good news? This bill contains only thirty-four sentences. The bad news? Those thirty-four sentences use nearly two thousand words.

    The Missouri Compromise: exposure therapy for people who are scared of run-on sentences.

    Legal language has come a looong way since 1820, but at the time this was the fashion in which such bills would be written. (Don't worry, guys: other prose from the time period is way more accessible. Don't let this doc keep you away from reading Austen.)

    The lengthy, unambiguous style was meant to eliminate any room for abusing the good will of Congress in granting Missouri the right to self-determination.

    A decent example comes from Section 2's discussion of state boundaries:

    That the said state shall have concurrent jurisdiction on the river Mississippi, and every other river bordering on the said state so far as the said rivers shall form a common boundary to the said state; and any other state or states, now or hereafter to be formed and bounded by the same, such rivers to be common to both; and that the river Mississippi, and the navigable rivers and waters leading into the same, shall be common highways, and for ever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said state as to other citizens of the United States, without any tax, duty impost, or toll, therefor, imposed by the said state. (2.2)

    No fuzzy wording; no unclear terms. At once densely packed and comparatively uncomplicated.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Missouri Compromise is a rather unassuming title for one of the formative pieces of legislation that set the U.S. on the track towards Civil War. But ultimately it was about Missouri (at least, in the eyes of Congress).

    Besides, they weren't about to go and name it the "Slavery is Messy and We Don't Want to Fix It Because That Sounds Hard" Compromise…although that's pretty much what it is.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That the inhabitants of that portion of the Missouri territory included within the boundaries herein after designated, be, and they are hereby, authorized to form for themselves a constitution and state government, and to assume such name as they shall deem proper; and the said state, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union, upon an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatsoever. (1.1)

    These lines set the tone for the rest of the Compromise: this is going to be a piece of legislation as efficient as a German engineer and as to-the-point as a New Yorker ordering a breakfast sandwich. No poetry here.

    The opening unambiguously declares what the purpose of this piece will be: the formation of the Missouri territory into a formal state of the Union, capable of its own self-determination with respect to its laws and constitution.

    Nothing about slavery, nothing about dividing the U.S. in half…all those little details would just get in the way of the "states right"' narrative that swirled around the issue of Missouri from 1819 to the Compromise's completion.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    And be it further enacted. (8.1) That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state, contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited: Provided always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labour or service is lawfully claimed, in any state or territory of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service as aforesaid. (8.2)

    APPROVED, March 6, 1820. (9.1)

    The closing lines don't really "close" as much as "drop the bombshell of the division of the U.S."

    It makes sense in the context. This isn't an argument, and it doesn't need a conclusion. It's a dang law. The language is trim where you'd expect it to go on at length, and the language goes on and on and on where you would expect it to be short and snappy.

    The designation of Missouri's geographical boundaries, for example, takes up nearly twenty percent of the whole Compromise. Congress wasn't writing a florid love letter to the people of Missouri: they were writing a highly contentious and potentially disastrous bill that would cement the sovereignty of new states into law.

    Any language not strictly necessary for this task was thrown out the window at the outset.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The Missouri Compromise is a difficult text because the way it was drafted specifically not to address slavery as the central issue at hand. The guys who wrote this doc were super keen not to mention the (morally abhorrent) elephant in the room.

    So the wording is basically wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak—it discusses how many representatives can come from various areas, what rights and privileges certain regions might have, and lengthy descriptions of borders to establish these regions into coherent states.

    In other words, it sounds dry as a Missouri creekbed in August. But when you read a little more closely, the Missouri Compromise becomes a masterwork of skirting the issue.

    Everybody knew what they were doing with all this illusive wording—the issue of slavery was an asterisk that hung over any new state.

    Oh yeah: it doesn't help that in a document of nearly two thousand words, there are fewer than forty sentences.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    United States (1.1, 2.2, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, 6.7, 6.8, 7.1, 8.2)
    President of the United States (6.8)
    Congress (1.1, 4.1, 5.2, 6.3, 6.5, 7.1)
    Indian Boundary line (2.1)
    Missouri Constitutional Convention (3.1, 4.1, 6.1, 6.9, 7.1)
    France (8.2)
    Thirty Six Degrees and Thirty Minutes North Latitude (8.2)
    Slavery (8.2)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Kansas-Nebraska Act
    Dred Scott v. Sanford
    Compromise of 1850

  • Trivia

    If Henry Clay's early career was dodgy, it was nothing compared to his later maneuvers. He likely pulled off what is perhaps the greatest backroom deal in all of U.S. history during the Presidential election of 1824, securing for himself the position of Secretary of State by supporting John Quincy Adams for the presidency. This would cement Andrew Jackson as a bitter enemy for the rest of their lives. (Source )

    Despite Clay being the chief architect behind the Missouri Compromise, the text itself was penned by Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois. Um, thanks Jesse? (Source)

    The borders set down in the Missouri Compromise would result in an odd quirk of U.S. history: Missouri, along with Tennessee, borders the greatest number of other states. Count 'em: Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska. (Source )

    Despite being a sort of tagalong for the inclusion of Missouri into the Union, support for Maine's inclusion as a state went back to the American War for Independence. Though long a part of Massachusetts (as Maine county), the interests of the county went largely ignored in favor of more populous areas. Way to go, Pine Tree State. (Source)

    The basis for the 36 Degree and Thirty Minute placement of the line separating slaves and free states was actually determined over fifty years prior to the Missouri Compromise. In 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned to settle a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Delaware. Their surveying of the land resulted in the Mason-Dixon line, which has served as an unofficial divisor between the North and the South since its establishment. (Source)

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