The Missouri Compromise And The Compromise Of 1850


The early 19th century in the United States was a time of profound social and political upheaval, with sectional tensions over slavery looming large. Two significant legislative acts, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, aimed to address these tensions and maintain a delicate balance between the slave and free states. While both compromises sought to preserve the Union, they had different provisions and implications, leading to varying long-term effects. In this essay, we will delve into the distinctive features of these two pivotal compromises and explore how they shaped the trajectory of the nation's history.

The Missouri Compromise (1820)

The Missouri Compromise was the first major attempt by the federal government to grapple with the growing controversy surrounding slavery expansion in the newly acquired territories. Proposed by Henry Clay, the compromise sought to maintain a balance between slave and free states in the Union. The key provisions of the Missouri Compromise were as follows:

  1. Missouri's Admission as a Slave State: Under the compromise, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, thereby maintaining the sectional balance in the Senate between slave and free states.
  2. Maine's Admission as a Free State: To counterbalance the admission of Missouri, Maine was admitted as a free state, ensuring the equilibrium in the number of slave and free states in the Senate.
  3. 36°30' Line of Demarcation: One of the most crucial aspects of the compromise was the establishment of a geographic line, known as the 36°30' line of demarcation, dividing the Louisiana Territory. Slavery was permitted south of this line and prohibited north of it, with the exception of Missouri.

The Compromise of 1850

As sectional tensions continued to intensify, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 to address the ongoing disputes over newly acquired territories from the Mexican-American War. The primary goal of this compromise, also devised by Henry Clay, was to maintain national unity and prevent secession. The key provisions of the Compromise of 1850 were as follows:

  1. California's Admission as a Free State: California was admitted as a free state, upsetting the balance of slave and free states in the Senate and triggering concerns among Southern slaveholders.
  2. Popular Sovereignty in Territories: The compromise introduced the concept of popular sovereignty, allowing the residents of the Utah and New Mexico territories to decide the issue of slavery through popular vote. This decision further fueled tensions as it removed the previously established line of demarcation from the Missouri Compromise.
  3. Stricter Fugitive Slave Law: The compromise strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, compelling citizens to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves. This provision was highly contentious, as it put Northern states in a position to enforce slavery, which they morally opposed.

A Comparative Analysis

Despite their shared objective of preserving the Union and resolving disputes over slavery, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 differed significantly in their approaches and outcomes.

  1. Geographic vs. Popular Sovereignty: The Missouri Compromise relied on geographic divisions to address the issue of slavery expansion, whereas the Compromise of 1850 introduced the concept of popular sovereignty, allowing the residents of territories to decide their own fate. The latter approach ultimately exacerbated sectional tensions and resulted in "Bleeding Kansas," a series of violent clashes over the issue of slavery in Kansas.
  2. Temporary vs. Lasting Solutions: The Missouri Compromise provided a temporary resolution by maintaining the balance of slave and free states at that time. In contrast, the Compromise of 1850 proved to be a temporary patchwork, as the provisions failed to address the underlying tensions. The compromise merely delayed the eventual eruption of the Civil War.
  3. Impact on the Slavery Debate: The Compromise of 1850 did not end the slavery debate but intensified it, especially with the stricter Fugitive Slave Law, which further divided the North and South. On the other hand, the Missouri Compromise managed to contain the issue for a brief period by setting boundaries on slavery expansion.


In conclusion, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 were critical legislative acts in the United States' history that attempted to quell sectional tensions over slavery. While both compromises aimed to preserve the Union, they differed in their approaches and effectiveness. The Missouri Compromise provided a temporary equilibrium, while the Compromise of 1850, with its popular sovereignty concept and strict fugitive slave law, exacerbated tensions and sowed the seeds for further conflict. These compromises serve as important reminders of the challenges faced by a young nation grappling with the moral, political, and economic complexities of slavery.

02 August 2023
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