Henry Clay and the Missouri Compromise of 1820

Start Your Free Trial To Continue Watching
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
Start your free trial to take this quiz
As a premium member, you can take this quiz and also access over 8,500 fun and engaging lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Get access today with a FREE trial!
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute to get started. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
  1. 0:05 A Delicate Balance of Power
  2. 3:23 The Missouri Compromise
  3. 5:36 Lesson Summary
Show Timeline
Taught by

Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In 1819, Missouri applied for statehood, threatening to tip the balance of senatorial power in favor of the slave states. Find out how Henry Clay resolved the matter for the next 30 years.

A Delicate Balance of Power

In 1819, there was an equal balance of free and slave states
Equal Free Slave States Map

In the early part of the 19th century, the 'Old Southwest' region of the United States - that is, the area west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Ohio River - expanded to include what we now call the Deep South, and few Americans questioned that this was a good thing for the nation. There was more land for growing cotton, and access to the waterways was protected. In 1812, when James Madison was president, Louisiana became a state. To avoid confusion, the land that had formerly been called the Louisiana Territory was renamed the Missouri Territory. Next in office was James Monroe, under whom Mississippi, Illinois and Alabama were added to the Union without controversy. But then, in 1819, Missouri applied for statehood, and the so-called 'Era of Good Feelings' skidded to a halt.

In 1819, the nation contained 11 free and 11 slave states, creating an even balance in the U.S. Senate. Imagine being a U.S. senator at that time. How would you feel when Missouri - which seemed to be a little more northern than southern on the map - applied to become a slave state? Your feelings, of course, might depend on your opinion of slavery. They all knew that a new slave state would tip the balance of power in favor of the South. But the state had chosen slavery for itself, and that kind of autonomy was extremely important. Did Congress even have the authority to control this kind of decision? Of course, Northerners recognized that if a new slave state were added, the new senators would vote to expand slavery into all of the unorganized Western territory, and this was totally unacceptable to those who wished to see slavery at least contained, if not abolished. Southerners could see that if they lost this battle, the Northern senators would only admit more free territory until they had enough votes to amend the Constitution and outlaw slavery completely. Obviously, making a decision on this issue would have far-reaching consequences. To say the debates were heated is an understatement.

In the Missouri Compromise, a line was drawn on the map to decide future slave and free state issues
Slavery Line Map

So why was slavery suddenly an issue when plenty of other Southern states had been added in recent years? It's never easy to pinpoint historical cause and effect, but there were a number of contributing factors. For one thing, during the two-party system of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, there had been politicians from both North and South in both political parties, and the nation had pressing foreign issues until 1815, so you might say they just had other things to worry about earlier. Then, in 1817, New York passed a law that gradually emancipated all of its slaves, giving momentum to the abolition movement in the North and creating some worry in the South. All of these factors probably contributed, but don't forget the human factor. Are your most pressing political concerns the same ones you had a few years ago? Then, as now, the political concerns of the electorate were constantly shifting, even when old issues were unresolved. So, back to the original question: why was slavery all of a sudden the issue in 1819? It was just time.

The Missouri Compromise

Enter Henry Clay, a congressman from Kentucky. He proposed admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine (which had always been part of Massachusetts) as a free state. Besides resolving the immediate issue of maintaining balance in the Senate, he further proposed drawing a line across the map to determine the slave issue for states that were carved out of this territory. Anything above 36°30' would automatically be free; anything below 36°30' could choose slavery. The Missouri Compromise was accepted in 1820, and two years after applying, Missouri finally became a state in 1821.

Unlock Content Over 8,500 lessons in all major subjects

Get FREE access for 5 days,
just create an account.

Start a FREE trial

No obligation, cancel anytime.

Want to learn more?

Select a subject to preview related courses:

People are saying…

"This just saved me about $2,000 and 1 year of my life." — Student

"I learned in 20 minutes what it took 3 months to learn in class." — Student

See more testimonials

Did you like this?
Yes No

Thanks for your feedback!

What didn't you like?

What didn't you like?

Congratulations! You've reached the last video in the chapter.
Start the Next Chapter
Create your Account

Sign up now for your account. Get unlimited access to 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more.

Meet Our Instructors

Meet all 53 of our instructors