This Day in History: 1820

On March 6, 1820, President James Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise (also called the Compromise Bill of 1820) into law. The bill sought to make even the number of slave-holding states and free states in the nascent nation. It allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state while Maine joined as a free state. What's more, the bill prohibited portions of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36-degrees-30-minutes latitude line from engaging in slavery.

Monroe, who was born into the Virginia slave-holding planter class, strongly supported states’ rights, but let Congress bicker over the issue of slavery in the new territories. He then closely examined any proposed legislation for its constitutionality. Although he realized that slavery ran contrary to the values written into the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, he, like fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, feared abolition would rip apart the country they had fought so hard to create.

Passage of the Missouri Compromise contributed to the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" over which Monroe presided. In his second inaugural address, Monroe bullishly stated that although the country had endured its share of growing pains, no serious conflict had cropped up that was not solved peacefully between the federal and state governments.

Alas, the Missouri Compromise didn't go far enough to address the underlying tensions caused by the slavery issue. The conflict that arose during the bill’s drafting portended how the nation would eventually split along economic, ideological, and territorial lines during the Civil War.

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