Study Guide

Missouri Compromise Themes

By Henry Clay, Sr.

  • Federal Sovereignty

    The Missouri Compromise went out of its way to make sure that the supremacy of the Federal government wasn't compromised in any way by the new state. After all, that was supposedly the whole point of Congress creating a fuss over the addition of Missouri.

    First and foremost in the minds of Congress was the need to not upset the carefully constructed authority of the federal government of the states…because that would harken back to the Articles of Confederation. Nobody wanted that, not even the staunchest states rights advocates at the time.

    Questions About Federal Sovereignty

    • How might Missouri's introduction into the Union have threatened the Federal government?
    • Why might Congress have mandated the usage of certain revenues for various public services?
    • Was Congress successful in maintaining Federal sovereignty, or was it compromised?

    Chew on This

    Congress was eager to expand the Union, but was super-careful in doing so. It was necessary to ensure that the fundamental integrity of the Supremacy Clause wasn't undermined by the right of self-determination by new states.

    Section 7 of the Missouri Compromise (mandating Congressional approval for Missouri's constitution) was arguably the most important factor of the Compromise's place in U.S. history: It set a legal precedent that allowed the federal government to retain all final say on state constitutions.

  • States' Rights

    While the Missouri Compromise was super-concerned with maintaining the power of the Federal government, it was ultimately about ensuring states' rights.

    In fact, the states' rights issue was what people insisted the Missouri Compromise was all about. The drafters transformed what was clearly a slave vs. free state issue into one of federal vs. state power. The history of this struggle in the U.S. is fairly one-sided in favor of the federal government…but here at least the states' rights folks gained some headway.

    Questions About States' Rights

    1. Why was the issue of Missouri's statehood cast in the light of states' rights?
    2. Do you think the Compromise favored states' rights over federal rights, vice versa, or was fairly balanced?
    3. Which argument is more compelling: that new states should be subject to Federal oversight, or that new states should have the same right of self-determination as the original thirteen?
    4. Do the arguments for states' rights still apply today?

    Chew on This

    While in the short run it seemed that the Missouri Compromise favored the federal government fairly heavily, the precedent for self-determination would later be used by the Supreme Court to rule that the Federal government had no right to interfere with a new state's fundamental right for self-determination.

    Despite the ground made by the Missouri Compromise towards securing state rights, this was only a hiccup in the slow and steady march toward a United States in which Federal power would trump state rights in pretty much every way.

  • Compromise

    It should come as no shock that perhaps the single most fundamental theme of the Missouri Compromise is, well, compromise.

    While the majority of this compromising was between factions within Congress, it was also between the federal and state government. The Feds gave a little in granting state status and in allowing self-determination, while Missouri gave a little in allowing Congress final say on the content of their constitution.

    Questions About Compromise

    1. How evenly distributed were the compromises between state and federal powers? Which side came out on top?
    2. Was it necessary that the federal government make any compromises at all?
    3. How might Missouri have responded to stricter demands by the federal government?
    4. How was the compromise both a great success and an enormous failure?

    Chew on This

    The compromises between state and federal power within the Missouri Compromise represent one of the great successes of the American system of checks and balances, allowing state and federal power to coexist within the rule of law.

    The imbalance in bargaining power between the state of Missouri and Congress resulted in a slightly lopsided series of compromises. The Federal government won out, despite making numerous concessions to the state of Missouri.