Slave States and Free States – Compromise and Debate

essential Question

What were the arguments over slavery when adding new territories to the union? What were the solutions?

The State's Rights Doctrine

The State's Rights Doctrine was a belief supported by many Southerners before the Civil War. The Doctrine said the U.S. Constitution was an agreement among the states and so the states could block the actions of the federal government. Some believers of the Doctrine, like John C. Calhoun, even believed the states were free to secede (withdraw) from the Union and become independent again. During many of the debates over slavery, the South often hinted or directly stated they would secede from the U.S. if slavery was attacked. So many compromises were made to prevent the South from seceding. However, each compromise made both the North and South more and more unhappy until this tension exploded in the Civil War.

Compromise and Debate

Activity 1: Compromise and Debate Stations

Read the following stations and complete a flow map to sequence the compromise and debates over slavery. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Civil War Build Up Stations.docx

Missouri Compromise, 1820


Missouri asked for statehood as a slave state, threatening to upset the balance in Congress between slave and free states.


Henry Clay came up with the Missouri Compromise which admitted Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state preserving balance in Congress. It also outlawed slavery in the future anywhere north of Missouri’s southern border.

Wilmot Proviso, 1846


Proposed outlawing slavery in any territory the United States might win in the Mexican War. Slaveholders were against it, as they said slaves were property and the Constitution gave equal rights to all property holders. The proposal angered the South

Compromise of 1850


California and Texas asked to be admitted as a state. Some Southerners wanted to make California two states, with the southern half allowing slavery and the northern half outlawing it, but most Californians wanted a free state. Letting California in as a free state would tip the balance in Congress to the anti-slavery side, and Southerners were afraid Northerners might use this advantage to abolish slavery. On the other hand, Southern states wanted Texas in the Union because then there would be a majority of slave states in Congress


Henry Clay suggested the compromise. California would be a free state and Congress agreed not to outlaw slavery in the rest of the territories (denying the Wilmot Proviso). Also, Congress had to promise a stronger fugitive slave law. The decision increased tensions between the North and South

Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854


Nebraska and Kansas wanted to become states.


Allowed popular votes in Nebraska and Kansas to decide if each would be a free or slave state (popular sovereignty). It also replaced the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The decision increased tensions in the North and South

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857


Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom because he had lived in a territory where slavery was illegal


The Supreme Court ruled against him, saying slaves, and all African American were not citizens of the United States. The decision increased tensions between the North and South

Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1858

The Problem

Douglas was the Democratic senator from Illinois, and Lincoln was his republican challenger. In a series of debates throughout Illinois, they discussed the expansion of slavery, Dred Scott, and the future of the Union. Lincoln argued against the expansion of slavery, but not for abolishing slavery outright. Douglas argued for popular sovereignty or allowing the population of a state to decide its own laws by voting. The debates increased tensions between the North and South

Discussion Questions

  • What is the common cause that most of these debates over slavery have in common? Why?

  • Overall, who was benefiting the most from the Compromises? The South, North, or neither? Why?

Extension Activity