On this day in 1820, President James Monroe signs the Missouri Compromise, also known as the Compromise Bill of 1820, into law. The bill attempted to equalize the number of slave-holding states and free states in the country, allowing Missouri into the Union as a slave state while Maine joined as a free state. Additionally, portions of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36-degrees-30-minutes latitude line were prohibited from engaging in slavery by the bill.
Monroe, who was born into the Virginia slave-holding planter class, favored strong states’ rights, but stood back and let Congress argue over the issue of slavery in the new territories. Monroe then closely scrutinized any proposed legislation for its constitutionality. He realized that slavery conflicted with the values written into the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence but, like his fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, feared abolition would split apart the nation they had fought so hard to establish.
Passage of the Missouri Compromise contributed to the Era of Good Feelings over which Monroe presided and facilitated his election to a second term. In his second inaugural address, Monroe optimistically pointed out that although the nation had struggled in its infancy, no serious conflict has arisen that was not solved peacefully between the federal and state governments. By steadily pursuing this course, he predicted, there is every reason to believe that our system will soon attain the highest degree of perfection of which human institutions are capable.
In the end, the Missouri Compromise failed to permanently ease the underlying tensions caused by the slavery issue. The conflict that flared up during the bill’s drafting presaged how the nation would eventually divide along territorial, economic and ideological lines 40 years later during the Civil War.