The Slavery Debate Between 1820 and 1850


The Missouri Territory acquired the statehood in 1819 and this event has laid a foundation for the new conflict over slavery issue between North and South. Congress was concerned with the issue that South would gain a representational advantage and, as a result, slavery expansion would never be stopped. Numerous efforts have been done to stave off the conflict between North and South over slavery issue in the period 1820 – 1850. Compromise of 1820 has balanced the number of free and slave states. The Fugitive Slave Act, as a part of Compromise of 1850, has declared harboring slaves as federal offense. The Nullification crisis of 1830s has ended compromise on both sides and raised an alternative perspective on slavery issue.

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Missouri Compromise of 1820

The conflict over Missouri Statehood has led to a fierce debate between North and South over the slavery issue. Both sides had to decide whether Missouri would be admitted to a Union as a free or as a slave state. If it would be admitted as a slave state, the balance between slave and free states would be upset. The situation had to be resolved and Henry Clay has developed a compromise with three parts: Maine would become a free state, Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, and the rest of territory (Louisiana Purchase) would be free of slavery (Moore, p. 32). The compromise of 1820 has renewed the balance between slave states and free states, however, the debate has not been over yet.

The compromise bill was rejected by the House, however when the bill was considered separately by North and South committees, the bill was passed. Maine became a free state and Missouri gained freedom to adopt constitution without slavery restrictions. It is worth to add that in 1820s the population growth was more rapid in the North, thus Southern states were left with fewer seats in the House. Recalling Missouri application in 1818, South had an opportunity to gain majority in the House. James Tallmadge, representative of New York, was the one to introduce amendment prohibiting slavery in Missouri (Moore, p. 41). Even though the amendment did not pose a slavery ban, it required any slave born in Missouri to become free at the age of twenty-five. This was a significant step towards slavery prohibition. However, the Missouri Compromised was amended within one year. A provision was added in 1821 prohibiting free blacks to enter the state. It was an open discrimination against the citizens of other states; however, taking into account the lack of clear definition of a “citizen”, the provision was accepted.

The conflict over slavery was not only political, but also social. Southerners did not believe that North cared about the well-being of slaves. On the contrary, Southerners were confident that North used slavery issue to resurrect Federalist Party. It is clear that in 1820s Southerners did not even consider the opportunity to end slavery. Shortly after the Missouri Compromise, the pro-slavery arguments were earnestly raised. Those who supported slavery argued that black people were meant by God to be slaves and that citizenship could not be granted to them (Moore, p. 54). Nevertheless, the first part of compromise was followed for many years – states were admitted in pairs (free and slave). In 1950s, however, the Missouri Compromise ended with the admission of California as a free state.

Events of 1822 – 1840

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 has managed to preserve the overall national unity for the next thirty years. Nevertheless, it did not settle the slavery disputes in the regions. For example, in 1822, the slave revolt occurred in South Carolina and in 1826 the American Temperance Society was founded. Five years later Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia. In 1933, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by Garrison and Theodore Weld. In 1937, Elijah Lovejoy, abolitionist, was killed and in 1840, the Liberty Party was formed. While the purpose of the Missouri Compromise was to preserve the national unity, it has completely ignored the slavery issue.

The Nullification Crisis of 1930s

In addition to frequent slave rebellions, the country was experiencing political and economic crisis. South Carolina, a state with a great number of slave revolts, experienced declining cotton prices in 1830s and concerns over the slavery issue have intensified. If previously state supported the economic nationalism, the crisis has turned the state into the aggressive advocate of rights granted to each state (Hamilton, p. 50). In 1832, South Carolina was one out of two states (the second was Mississippi) with the population majority being slaves. The nullification crisis has resulted in the end of compromised between North and South. Within a short period of time, the nullification was spread to the other southern states. South Carolina threatened secession in 1832 and many southern states would follow the example.

Slavery was one of the main issues during the nullification crisis; however, there was not enough support in the North. The abolitionist movement has only started to develop. If South Carolina fulfilled its threat, the Civil War would occur much earlier and the result of it would be different. North was prepared for the war neither ideologically nor economically. Northerners were not concerned over the slavery issue yet, and considered national unity being of primary importance. The annexation of Texas in 1845 has contributed to the discussion of slavery issue on the national level. Admission of Texas as a slave state brought two new Senators to the House and increased the power of South.

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Mexican War and Compromise of 1850

In the result of the Mexican War of 1846-1848, new lands have been acquired by the Union and conflict over slavery issue has intensified again. In the result of acquisition, Southern politicians denounced the new lands and insisted on slavery expansion. The conflict came to a resolution when California decided to become a free state. When Zachary Taylor, Louisiana slaveholder, was elected into the House, South hoped to get more support; however, he supported the belief that western territories have the right to be free (Hamilton, p. 12). All of these events have led to the secession issue in 1849.

In 1850, the map of slavery was redrawn for the second time. The slavery issue became a hot topic when California applied as a free state. Henry Clay has drafted another compromise under which California would become a free state while the rest of territory (acquired from Mexico) would determine its own slavery status (the right to decide was granted to inhabitants). New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada became free states. The slave trade has been also abolished in District of Columbia, even though the slavery was permitted (Hamilton, p. 16). The Compromise of 1850 has destroyed the balance created by the Compromise of 1820.

To restore the balance, the Fugitive Slave Act has been passed. The purpose of this Act was to require citizens to assist fugitive slaves with recovery. The Act denied a jury trial right to fugitives and failed to end a slavery debate as well. Slaves who found a new home in the North had to flee to Canada because the new law was a disaster to them. Many blacks were captured and returned to slavery even though they lived in free states. Moreover, the free blacks could be caught as well as sent to the South. The Compromise of 1850 has denied all rights of black population. The Fugitive Act has led to the increased efforts of abolitionists to end slavery. The famous Railroad has become very active and the issue of slavery has been brought before the whole nation. The Compromise of 1850 did not restore the balance, it was effective only in short-term. At the same time, the nation became more divided on the slavery issue.

The Pre-Civil War Time

Some historians argue that the Compromise of 1850 has delayed the American Civil War for at least ten years. This time was enough for North to grow wealthier and more populous. The Whigs collapsed and Republican Party gained domination in the North. Other historians point out that Compromise has worsened the relations between the South and the North and has laid a foundation for the future conflicts. It cannot be denied that the time between Compromise of 1850 and Civil War outbreak was beneficial for the North – the region became more industrialized, had more railroads, launched steel production, and opened new factories. By the time of the war, North was more supplied, equipped , and had a better-armed force. From historical perspective, both Compromises as well as Nullification crisis had rather a positive result because they gave the North more time to prepare to war both ideologically and economically.

Works Cited

Moore, Glover. The Missouri Controversy, 1819–1821. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964.

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