The Spread of Slavery and the Missouri Compromise

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Spread of Slavery and the Missouri Compromise

As territories were settled and applied to Congress for statehood, Congress had to debate whether each one would be a slaveholding state or a free state. The issue was representation in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. Slaveholding states generally voted as one bloc in Congress; naturally, they wanted new states to be slave states so that new senators and representatives would vote with their bloc. For the same reason, free states did not want slavery to spread any farther than it already had. Up to 1819, the balance of power in the Senate had been maintained evenly, with eleven free states and eleven slaveholding states. However, there was an imbalance in the House, where states were represented on the basis of the total population.

Because southern representatives in the House were all white men, and because the most powerful interests in their states were large slaveholders (many of the representatives themselves owned slaves), they all favored slavery. In other words, congressmen from slaveholding states represented the slaves for the purpose of head count only; southern representatives actually voted against the slaves’ interests. Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery because of this overrepresentation of white southern interests. (Northern representatives were also all white men, but many of them opposed slavery.)

In 1819, Missouri applied for statehood; its population then included about 10,000 African slaves. Congressman James Tallmage of New York pointed out that Missouri was in violation of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which had banned slavery in all U.S. territories. He proposed admitting Missouri to the Union on condition that it adopt a plan for the gradual phasing out of slavery. Southern representatives, seeing this as a threat to slavery throughout the United States, reacted violently. Henry Clay eventually worked out the Missouri Compromise, which maintained the balance of power in Congress by admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The Missouri Compromise also banned slavery in the territory north of Missouri’s southern boundary (excluding Missouri itself) at latitude 36 ̊30’. The Missouri Compromise silenced the divide over the issue of slavery for the moment, but it solved nothing; it was only a palliative. The deep division over this issue would continue to haunt American society for many decades.

During this era, voting rights began changing. States began to amend their constitutions, dropping the requirement that voters own property. This nearly doubled the number of eligible voters between 1836 and 1840. At the same time, some southern states revoked the voting rights of free African-American men, turning suffrage into a “whites only” privilege.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Early 19th Century Practice Test

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