The Missouri Compromise: The Firebell in the Night
And provided also, That the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited . . . and that all children of slaves, born within the said state, after the admission thereof into the union, shall be free, but may be held to service until the age of twenty-five years.1
When presented to the United States House of Representatives on February 13, 1819, these words galvanized one of the most intense and time- consuming debates in the country's brief history. For the next year, the discussion of this Tallmadge Amendment to the Missouri statehood bill over- shadowed all other business before the Congress. More important, this issue set the stage for the next forty years of acrimonious sectional debate that finally culminated in the Civil War. Over the next twelve months, Senators and Congressmen put forth most of the major arguments for and against slavery, and thoroughly debated the issues concerning the powers of Congress to control that institution.
Henry Clay, who was later credited with engineering a compromise solution, wrote to John J. Crittenden on January 29, 1820: "The Missouri subject monopolizes all our conversations, all our thoughts and for three weeks at least to come, will all our time."2 What was the issue and the problem?
Several northern Congressmen, led by James Tallmadge of New York, saw the admission of Missouri as an opportunity to limit the spread of slavery. While abolition of the peculiar institution was not the rabid issue it became in the 1830s and 1840s, there was abolition support in both North and South. The northern states had abolished slavery by this time, and there were numerous southerners who, privately at least, denounced the practice. In these debates, for example, Robert Reid, a Congressman from Georgia, remarked on February 1, 1820, that slavery, "is an unnatural state; a dark cloud which obscures half the luster of our free institutions."3