Until 1818, the United States had consisted of ten free and ten slave states. The government admitted Illinois as the eleventh free state in 1818. Southerners then expected that Missouri would become the eleventh slave state, thereby maintaining the balance between free states and slave states in Congress. However, New York Congressman James Tallmadge amended the Missouri statehood bill to require Missouri to gradually free its slaves, a bill that passed the House. Southerners, perceiving a threat to their power, blocked the bill’s passage in the Senate. As arguments raged, Alabama was then admitted to the Union as a slave state. With 11 free to 11 slave states, Missouri’s status became crucial to the delicate balance.


Debate over the issue led to the Missouri Compromise, passed in March 1820, by which Missouri was admitted as a slave state, balanced by Maine’s admission as a free state. The rest of Louisiana territory was divided prohibiting slavery north of latitude 36° 30’. The compromise preserved the fragile balance of power between slave and free states in Congress. The map below shows the division of free and slave states after the passage of the compromise.

Missouri Compromise


After the Mexican War, the issue of slavery arose once more in 1850, when California asked to join the Union as a free state. This would upset the balance between free and slave states. Angered by the idea, southerners made threats of secession. Many in congress understood that if the South did break away from the United States, a war would almost certainly follow. To preserve peace, a new compromise that would balance the power of free and slave states had to be negotiated.

I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American.... I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.... There can be no such thing as a peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility.... I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe....
Sen. Daniel Webster


John C. Calhoun (left) Henry Clay (center) Daniel Webster (left)

Several days before introducing a bill containing compromises, Henry Clay knocked on the door of the home of Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Clay knew he had to have Webster's help in getting his bill passed by the Senate.

WEBSTER: This is a surprise. What can I do for you?

CLAY: We have had our differences. But I know we agree that the Union must be saved.

WEBSTER: You are absolutely right. The problem of slavery is tearing our nation apart. We must do everything possible to keep the split from becoming wider.

CLAY: I think my compromise bill is the answer.

WEBSTER: Mr. Clay, how can you possibly satisfy both pro-slavery and antislavery people in this argument over the new territories we gained in the Mexican War? Now I wonder whether we would have been better off without those new lands. We must not let the North and South fight a war over those Mexican acres!

CLAY: Don't worry, Mr. Webster. There will be no war if people listen to me. I propose that California be admitted as a free state and the New Mexico territories be organized with no limit on slavery. How does that balance strike you?

WEBSTER: Isn't that going too far with the pro-slavery people?

CLAY: No. We know that slavery won't be profitable in the Southwest because the geography and climate make plantations impossible. I tell you, Mr. Webster, slavery will not exist in New Mexico.

WEBSTER: Then why not be honest and say that?

CLAY: By not barring slavery from the Southwest we will please the Southerners and make them feel as if they have won something.

WEBSTER: I see. Go on.

CLAY: We will put an end to the slave trade in the city of Washington but will allow slavery to continue here.

WEBSTER: I wish we could do away with slavery here in the capital of the United States. It makes such a bad impression on visitors.

CLAY: One more thing we can offer the South, Mr. Webster, is a stronger fugitive slave law. The federal government can do more to return runaway slaves to their owners.

WEBSTER: Will people like our colleague from New York, William Seward, agree? You know how violent some Northerners can get. And the abolitionists get even more violent than most!

CLAY: Perhaps they won't like it, but after all, the abolitionists are a small minority.

WEBSTER: Small, perhaps; but certainly vocal. Is that your whole package?

CLAY: We'll offer to pay Texas to give up its claim to New Mexican lands, which should quiet both sides in that dispute. Well, what do you think, Mr. Webster?

WEBSTER: I need more time to think about your plan, Mr. Clay, because I am not sure about every one of your suggestions. But I promise you this: I will support the general idea of your compromise.

The scene shifts to the tense Senate chamber in early March, 1850. A historic debate was under way. Well-known senators from different parts of the country and with different points of view took part. Senator Calhoun was so old and ill that he wrote out his remarks and had a colleague deliver them. Calhoun sat and listened.

WEBSTER: I speak today not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. I speak for the preservation of the Union.

CALHOUN: How can this Union be saved? Not by crying Union, Union, this glorious Union. You Northerners, you attackers of the South, are always talking about the Union. If you loved the Union, you would not be destroying the Constitution. Never forget that the Constitution was written for both the North and the South. Our property in slaves deserves as much protection as your property in land and factories.

WEBSTER: I don't completely disagree with Senator Calhoun. True, many in the North feel that slavery is wrong, but all should respect the Southern way of life and Southern property. Fugitives should be returned quickly, and Northern legislatures should mind their own business and let the South pass its own laws about its slaves.

CALHOUN. Too many Northerners do not want to mind their own business. The abolitionists are out to destroy the Southern way of life. If they keep up their agitation, they will force the South out of the Union. They will drive us to secession.

WEBSTER: I never want to hear that word secession! The very sound of it fills me with pain and sadness. This Union must never be dissolved-never!

CALHOUN: Then how can the Union be saved? Give the South simple justice without compromises because we have nothing left to surrender. What do we want? We want to take our slaves into the territories, reduce the tariffs that destroy our economy, and preserve the sovereign powers of each state. Is that too much to ask?

SEWARD: Senator Calhoun does not want a compromise, and neither do I. Free Americans must not surrender one foot of land to the slave masters. Gentlemen, examine our Constitution carefully. Nowhere does it say that land in the territories must be held open to slavery. Even if the Constitution said such a thing, we would be duty bound to ignore it. There is a higher law than the Constitution-the law of God. Slavery is an abomination before the Lord!

CLAY: We need not call upon God to make our territories free. All the land taken from Mexico will be free because slavery cannot exist in the geography and climate of that area. Why then should we hurt Southern pride and talk about slavery in New Mexico? Silence about slavery will not hurt the North.

SEWARD: The Senator is wrong. He should go back and study his history books! Slavery can exist anywhere!

CALHOUN: The key point is that we must provide for equal rights in the territories. We must protect the rights of the South. I propose a constitutional amendment to provide for a balance of power between two equal sections, North and South. Each will have a president with a veto. Only when such a division is made will the South be protected from the growing power of the North.

WEBSTER: The North will never agree to such an amendment.

CALHOUN. We will not submit to tyranny. If you in the North refuse to grant the South its just rights, then the states should separate and go their own ways in a peaceful manner.

WEBSTER: Peaceful secession? Sir, we will never see that miracle. It is impossible for our Constitution and government to disappear quietly. If secession occurs, I see, as plainly as I see the sun in heaven, a war that I cannot describe. No matter how hard we try, we cannot separate peaceably. Our duty is to work to keep our nation together and to preserve the Constitution and all the links that make up the golden chain of our United States of America.

CLAY. Please, gentlemen, we must compromise our differences.


California is admitted as a free state
Utah and New Mexico are admitted as new territories with no federal limitations on slavery
In the District of Columbia slave trade is banned
New Fugitive Slave Law makes it a criminal offense to help a slave escape, and allows slave owners to hunt for run away slaves anywhere in U.S.
I believe from the bottom of my soul that this measure is the reunion of the Union. And now let us disregard all resentments, all passions, all petty jealousies, all personal desires, all love of place, all hungering after the gilded crumbs which fall from the table of power. Let us forget popular fears, from whatever quarter they may spring. Let us . . . think alone of our God, our country, our conscience, and our glorious Union; that Union without which we shall be torn into hostile fragments, and sooner or later become the victims of military despotism, or foreign domination. . . .
Henry Clay
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