Compromises over Slavery and Statehood

In an effort to appease both the Northern region and the Southern region of the United States, Congress found itself in the midst of what seemed like a constant state of compromise. Leading up to the Civil War, a number of acts and official compromises were drafted to balance the number of Free states and Slave states admitted into the union.

The first of these balancing acts came in the form of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In the legislature, a compromise is a decision that two sides come to after they’ve both agreed to give certain things up. As part of the Missouri Compromise, two states were admitted into the union:

Missouri and Maine. To maintain balance, Maine was admitted as a free state, while Missouri entered as a state that allowed slavery. The Compromise also created what we now refer to as the 36°30′ line; this line of latitude (meaning east to west) established that no state above the line could be a slave state. Even though Missouri fell above this 36°30′, it was still entered as a slave state under the Compromise. The free states were thus: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and what is today Michigan and Wisconsin. The slaveholding states included: Maryland, Virginia (including present-day West Virginia), Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and the Florida Territory.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the union as a free state. So as not to ignore the slaveholders of the time, this compromise also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, under which men, women and children escaping from slavery had to be returned to bondage even if they had escaped to freedom. Two more future states, Utah and New Mexico, were entered into the union as territories, and they were told they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery. Finally, the Compromise of 1850 banned the slave trade in Washington, D.C.

The hotly debated Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 completely repealed, or reversed, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in the sense that states could decide if they wanted to uphold slavery within their own borders or not. It did not matter if a state fell above or below the 36°30′ line; if the state wanted to uphold slavery, it could. The act also determined that Kansas and Nebraska could use what is known as popular sovereignty to decide how they wanted to proceed, either as a free state or a state that permitted the enslavement of men, women, and children.

Popular sovereignty is the idea that the people, speaking through their elected representatives, should have the power to decide the fate of their state. Four territories were therefore free to choose: The Utah Territory, the New Mexico Territory, the Kansas Territory, and the Nebraska Territory.