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Standard 5.0 History

Topic C. Conflict between Ideas and Institutions

Indicator 5. Analyze factors affecting the outcome of the Civil War

Objective a. Analyze government policies regarding slavery, such as the three-fifths clause, the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850


From the writing of the Constitution until the Civil War, the issue of slavery played a central role in, and eventually dominated, national politics. Congress struggled to balance the interests of free states and slave states in order to preserve the order necessary to tend to the other affairs of the nation. A central issue as the nation expanded was Congressional representation. A series of compromises ensured that neither slave states nor free states could dominate the Congress and force their policies on the rest of the nation.

During the drafting of the Constitution, Northern and Southern states disagreed how enslaved people would be counted for the purposes of taxation and representation. Southerners wanted enslaved people to be counted fully so that they could gain as many votes as they could in the House of Representatives. Their northern counterparts argued that enslaved people were property and therefore should not be counted for representation, although some favored counting them for taxation. The three-fifths compromise settled the dispute by requiring that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of both taxation and representation.

The issue of representation and slavery was quiet for many years but rose again when Missouri applied for admission to the Union in 1820. The South wanted Missouri admitted as a slave state, while the North wanted it admitted as a free state. During the debate, Maine (which was then a part of Massachusetts) applied for admission as well. Henry Clay brokered a compromise in which Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state and Maine would enter as a free state, thus preserving the balance of power in the Senate. The compromise also stipulated that slavery would be banned from the Louisiana Territory north of the 36 degrees 30 minutes parallel. (The Missouri Compromise was ultimately overridden by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.)

Although the Missouri Compromise temporarily resolved the question of representation, sectional tensions continued to increase. The application of California to join the Union as a free state in 1850 and the possibility that the rest of the lands won during the Mexican American War might follow suit prompted yet another crisis. This time, issues other than Congressional representation made the debate even more complicated and bitter. Southerners were angry that Northern states regularly ignored the 1793 fugitive slave law and refused to help them recover runaway slaves. Northerners considered the presence of the slave trade in the national capital disgraceful. The Compromise of 1850, again proposed by Henry Clay, addressed each of these issues. California was admitted as a free state, and the new territories of New Mexico and Utah would be slave or free as determined by popular sovereignty. A new, more vigorous fugitive slave law was enacted, and the slave trade – but not slavery – was outlawed in Washington, D.C.

On each of these occasions, compromise averted a national crisis, but the solution was only temporary.

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