Study Guide

Missouri Compromise Historical Context

By Henry Clay, Sr.

Historical Context

America the Backwater

In 1820 the U.S. was still a nation wearing Pampers Pull-Ups. America was the annoying little cousin on the global stage—the kid nobody was really interested in playing with, no matter how many shiny toys he had or how big his backyard was.

The Constitution was younger than most members of Congress, the population was just over nine and a half million (the Big Apple just hit the 100,000-person mark that year), and the country was widely disregarded by the rest of the Western World as a tiny, backwater ex-colony. (Source)

Despite this, the U.S. was on the rise, in no small part because of Europeans' preoccupation with killing each other and colonizing foreigners. The U.S. sported the fifth largest GDP in the world and was soaking up immigrants like nobody's business. (Source)

America had beaten the English during the War for Independence, beaten them again in 1812, participated in its first war on foreign soil during the Barbary States War, and had begun to establish itself on the world stage.

This went so far as President James Monroe declaring that anything west of the Atlantic was the United States business, and that Europe had to be content colonizing Africa and Asia (which was more profitable anyway).

Sure, they were just words on paper that went ignored when convenient, but hey: still a bold move for a country younger than most world leaders at the time.

Step One of Establishing a Nation: Ignore Your Founder's Advice

When George "Wooden Teeth" Washington had resigned after his second term as President was complete, he gave a speech that implored U.S. leaders to avoid two things: the power of sectional partisanship, and so-called "foreign entanglements" i.e. alliances and treaties with other nations.

This was sound advice…and was immediately disregarded.

The "foreign entanglements" bit resulted in that pesky Barbary States War, but it also got America the Louisiana Purchase, so probably a net positive. Early America's foreign policy game was pretty on point. It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, but things were definitely getting better (unless you were Native American, Black, or a woman).

But on the domestic front, things weren't quite so peachy.

The country wasn't falling apart or anything: there was too much room for westward expansion for that to be a real threat at this early stage of the game. But the seams were definitely starting to stretch a little.

The biggest source of conflict? Ol' Georgie W. guessed it: partisan politics.

See, the U.S. political system was still finding its way. This was all pretty new, and the political climate was a lot more flexible than it is today. Part of the problem was baked into the U.S. political system from the get-go, during the Constitutional Convention. From its inception, the U.S. was divided between a sort of "big vs little" conception. Half the representatives favored a decentralized central government with states operating almost autonomously, while half favored a more powerful central government with each state given a degree of autonomy but ultimately answering to that central government.

They tried the first way with the Articles of Confederation, since people figured "Hey, we just fought a war to get out from under a king's thumb, no sense inviting in another Big Leader, right?"

And this failed spectacularly.

So the second route was (somewhat reluctantly) taken. That division between states' rights vs federal power (or Anti-Federalists vs Federalists, as they were called back in the day) came to dominate the political landscape. (Source)

This would eventually birth the first political parties: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party (who were basically the Anti-Federalists with a new coat of paint). These two parties bickered like an old married couple at best, and were downright nasty at worst.

And this conflict would eventually come to a head over the other major domestic problem in America: slavery.

Slavery: Best Left to Brew for Seventy Bitter Years

From the outset, slavery was recognized as a problem.

In fact, it was such a massive and divisive problem that it went unmentioned in the Constitution in any capacity (save for the infamously evil Three-Fifths clause, which was strictly for the purposes of population count).

Huh. It seems to us that a huge problem like slavery is exactly the sort of issue you'd want to tackle when first setting down the laws of a nation, but people decided that plugging their ears and chanting "Nyah nyah nyah, I don't hear anything about slavery" was the best course of action.

After all, if the Founding Fathers had tried to forbid or limit slavery, the southern states would have noped right out of this whole "United States" nonsense without a second thought. And if the Founding Fathers had written slavery into law, it would probably have seen no end of trouble and hit that sweet spot of extremely divisive and difficult to remove.

So they pretty much let that one go and settled for a stable unification of the states, patted themselves on the back for a job well done, and (most of them, anyway) retired to their mansions operated and maintained by (you guessed it) slaves.

This didn't make the problem go away, of course. But for the first couple decades it wasn't that big of a problem…unless you were a slave, or someone who cared about human rights. Like we mentioned, the U.S. was pretty busy during this time and nothing was forcing the issue, so everyone was pretty happy to leave well enough alone and not rock the boat.

Then Missouri decided to open up the can of worms…

Missouri Almost Forces Congress to Do Its Job

As the U.S. had grown over the years, there had been an unwritten rule about the transition into statehood. There was a period of being a mere territory, and then if enough people moved to that territory there could be a vote on applying to statehood. It was all very democratic, so long as you were male, white, and owned land.

This had resulted in a fairly convenient system by which Congress (still divided between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans) could admit states at their leisure and maintain a balance between slave states and non-slave states. The fact that this fell entirely upon southern/northern and Democratic-Republican/Federalist lines was entirely coincidental.

Sarcasm. So much sarcasm.

A careful balance was maintained where if a northern, non-slaveholding, largely Federalist state was allowed into the Union, another southern, slaveholding, largely Democratic-Republican state was also allowed. For a while this system was lucky and functioned just fine. (If you look at states by year introduced into the Union, the pattern becomes pretty clear.) (Source)

Wiser heads likely foresaw it would eventually fail, and it didn't take long. Missouri had grown fairly large due to the waves of immigrants coming over from Europe, and was eager to join the U.S. as a state due to the greater privileges afforded to states, not the least of which was an actual say in the governance of the country.

This presented a small problem, though. There wasn't a northern nonslave state to pair with Missouri. Democratic-Republicans thought this all well and good, but the Federalists were understandably none too thrilled at the idea of adding more pro-slavery members of Congress and tipping the scales in the Democratic-Republican's favor.

Elephant In The Room? What Elephant In What Room?

None of these issues were framed as such, of course. Nope: people decided to look at it as yet another states rights vs. federal power showdown, the kind that had been gumming up American politics from their earliest beginning. In fact, the entire conflict only occurred because it threatened to upset the balance between these two factions, not because there was some great moral outrage or because legislators felt that this was where they would take a stand against slavery.

The issue began in November of 1818, when Missouri first sued for statehood, and it dragged on with all the bitterness and mudslinging of early 19th-century American politics. Something had to be done, and it needed to be done soon.

A number of proposed solutions had all been bandied about and fallen flat…but hey hadn't been bandied about by the likes of Henry Clay. Clay negotiated his way through the mess and was given the very cool nickname "the Great Pacifier" for his efforts. Even with this gargantuan push for a solution, the Compromise nearly collapsed numerous times and was only barely scraped back together with a Second Missouri Compromise.

The result was a slave-holding Missouri, a nonslave Maine, recognition of new states' right to self-determination with the small caveat that any state north of an artificial border could not adopt slavery, and any state south of it could.

We're Off to Civil War

This border would ultimately railroad the country on the path towards Civil War, and plenty of people said so, including Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. But for the time being at least, the crisis had been averted and everyone could go back to ignoring the so-called "n**** problem" and continue their daily schedule of scheming how to supplant their pesky political opposition.

You know that little Dutch boy who plugs the hole in the dam with his finger? Yeah, Congress was the Dutch boy, the dam was slavery, and the water behind it was a civil war that would devastate the south and lead to over half a million deaths.

But at least they plugged that hole for a little bit, right?

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