The Old Senate Chamber

Missouri Compromise Debate, 1820

Missouri's petition to enter the Union as a slave state in 1819, combined with New York Representative James Tallmadge's proposal to gradually abolish slavery in Missouri, touched off a bitter and extended debate. The slavery controversy focused national attention on the Senate, where free and slave states were equally represented, requiring a compromise to resolve the issue.

This chamber was filled to capacity when the Senate took up the Missouri question on January 13, 1820. Several ladies had seats on the Senate floor, compliments of Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins, a gracious but inept presiding officer barely able to control the tumultuous and heated debate. The public and the press followed the deliberations with intense interest, as northern and southern senators alternately condemned and defended slavery and finally agreed to a compromise offered by Senator Jesse B. Thomas (R-IL) on February 17, 1820. Thomas' proposal formed the basis for the sectional truce popularly known as the Missouri Compromise, in which Congress agreed to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and to bar slavery from all of the remaining Louisiana Purchase lands north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude.

This chamber remained a focus of national attention in the years that followed--an era known as the Senate's "Golden Age"--as the Senate debated and sought to resolve the sectional differences that eventually led eleven southern states to secede from the Union during the winter of 1860-1861.

For further reading: Moore, Glover. The Missouri Controversy, 1819-1821. 1953. Reprint. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1967.