The Missouri Compromise of 1820

Teacher Guide by Richard Cleggett

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Missouri Compromise of 1820 Lesson Plans

Student Activities for The Missouri Compromise of 1820 Include:

In this teacher guide, students will be able to explain and analyze the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In addition, students will be able to connect the compromise to the debate of slavery and what effect it had on the institution of slavery itself. By analyzing and explaining this compromise, students will gain a broader understanding of how early America attempted to deal with the difficult questions surrounding slavery, how the stage would be set for future negotiations on the issue, and how slavery played a role in the eventual Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Timeline of Events Leading up to Missouri Compromise

In this activity, students will create a timeline of major events that preceded the Missouri Compromise of 1820. By analyzing and understanding what events led to the compromise, students will be able to explain how the U.S. government created it, as well as why the compromise was necessary. Teachers may pre-select events to be discussed, or students may choose their own. By examining the evolution of the slave question in early America, students will also be able to better put the Missouri Compromise in a more holistic historical context.

Example Timeline: Major Events Leading to the Missouri Compromise of 1820

Independence is Achieved The United States wins its independence from Great Britain after eight years of fighting. It is a tremendous victory, as the U.S. and Great Britain sign the Treaty of Paris of 1783. However, the question of slavery is left essentially unresolved.
Louisiana Purchase Under president Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. purchases the Louisiana territory from France for $15 million dollars. Effectively, the land acquisition doubles the size of the United States. In addition, questions of slavery's expansion also come to light.
Slave Trade Set to End Also under Jefferson, law is passed that the slave trade is to end. The resolve is first put forth upon winning independence, and Jefferson extends, and solidifies, the decision by ending the transfer and sale of slaves in the United States forever. The underground slave trade market still thrives, however.
War of 1812 Ends War with Great Britain ends with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815. Although there is no clear winner in the Treaty, the U.S. declares it a victory as they solidify their control of the Northwest territory in the Ohio River Valley. In addition, slavery is banned in the territory.
Debate Heats up on Slave and Free State Balance As settlers head west, the debate over expanding slavery into newly added states heats up. Some argue that states should be allowed to expand their slave economies, while others fear increased slave state control in Congress. A compromise is needed to settle the debate.
Missouri Compromise Passes After much debate, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 passes Congress. The compromise calls for the initiation of Missouri as a slave state, and Maine as a free state to maintain the slave and free state balance in Congress. Furthermore, slavery is banned above the dividing line, while it remained legalized below it.

Extended Activity

Have students create a timeline beginning with the Missouri Compromise and ending with the Civil War. Students should concentrate on major legislative attempts to solve the question of slavery, including the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Fugitive Slave Law, and Compromise of 1850. This will allow students to better understand how instrumental the compromise was in ultimately delaying the Civil War and how the U.S. attempted to solve the slave question.

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Proponents and Opponents

As with any new piece of legislation, there were supporters and people who opposed the Missouri Compromise. Have students research those who supported the compromise, as well as what it called for, and those who opposed it and why. Students will be able to analyze and synthesize what points in the compromise were debated on, agreed on, and also what points were heavily debated. This will also give further insight as to why the compromise was so highly debated and why it was eventually agreed upon.

Using a T-Chart storyboard, students will compare and contrast the viewpoints from both the proponents of the compromise as well as the opponents. In addition, it will give students a deeper understanding of political debate and compromise, as well as a better understanding of how early American politicians viewed and debated the issue of slavery.

Proponents of the Compromise

Why it Worked For those that supported the Missouri Compromise, they saw it as essential to solving the question of slavery in the new territories. Supporters argued that it kept the balance of free and slave states. In addition to this, it also was instrumental in postponing further debate and arguing over the question of slavery in newly added states.
Belief of States’ Rights Proponents of the compromise saw it as a preservation of states' rights. Those who supported it, believed it upheld the idea of states' rights and states' ability to determine how they would function, whether that be free or slave. The idea of states' rights was fundamental to many who opposed federal control of the institution of slavery. The compromise upheld Missouri's ability to determine its own future and legislation.
Fears Proponents of the compromise feared that federal control over the question of extending slavery was dangerous. Early American politicians still held fears over an all-too-powerful federal government, and felt that the compromise was instrumental in preserving states' rights. In addition, they feared that their economic and political stronghold in slavery was threatened.
Who Supported It Ultimately, slave states supported the compromise, as did free states. Henry Clay was instrumental in implementing the compromise, and both sides saw it as a way to skirt around the question of slavery in new territories. In addition to this, it was supported by those who sought to preserve the Union, as well as to further construct state and federal powers.

Opponents of the Compromise

Why it Could Not Work Many opposed the compromise as well. Opponents of the compromise saw it as legislative recognition of the spread of slavery, which many deemed dangerous. Moreover, founders believed the slave question would solve itself, and slavery would die out. The compromise then helped preserve slavery and its expansion, and, therefore, the idea that slavery was acceptable.
Belief in Congressional Power Opponents of the compromise initially believed that the power to determine whether a new state could hold slavery fell into the hands of Congress. Many believed Congress, being part of the federal government, should hold this power. Although this contradicted the idea of states' rights, opponents believed that the federal government should have final say in the future of slavery's extension.
Fears Opponents of the compromise feared that the compromise itself upheld the idea that slavery should, and could, extend into newly added states. Furthermore, they feared that the slave power would increase in Congress, something that would imbalance the free and slave representation in Congress. If the slave power were to become more powerful than it was, free states felt as though their voices would weaken.
Who Opposed It Opponents of the compromise mainly consisted of Northern politicians who feared that the extension of slavery would further preserve it. James Tallmadge of New York even proposed an amendment that would forbid slavery in Missouri, yet it was ultimately shot down by a Senate vote. Free states initially did oppose the compromise, yet eventually supported it on the basis that it preserved a balance in Congress.

Extended Activity

Have students create a grid storyboard on proponents and opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This will allow students to compare and contrast the arguments made both for and against the Missouri Compromise, as well as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In addition, students will also gain a better understanding of the evolution of arguments made for and against slavery, as well as how/why it should or should not be expanded into new territory.

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Missouri Compromise - Who Got What Graphic Organizer

The Missouri Compromise was indeed a compromise; both sides got something out of the bargain, but neither side got everything they wanted.

Using a grid storyboard, students will outline and define the major points of the Missouri Compromise and how it satisfied both the North and the South. By analyzing and explaining each point of what the compromise called for, students will be able to explain and analyze its attempt to solve the question of slavery and its expansion. This activity will also solidify students’ understanding of what made up the compromise, as well as how it addressed the problems and concerns of both free and slave states.

NORTH/ FREE STATES Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Maine is added as a free state. Previously, the land had been a part of Massachusetts. This satisfies those opposed to the expansion of slavery as well as the "slave powers" in Congress. A major provision of the Missouri Compromise was that slavery was not to exist above 36° 30' N. This satisfied the North, since slavery would not be able to expand past this imaginary line drawn across the Louisiana Purchase. For the northern free states, New York Senator James Tallmadge proposed an amendment banning slavery in the Louisiana territory. In addition, Senator Rufus King also argued Congress had the power to determine whether or not a new state could have slavery.
SOUTH/ SLAVE STATES For the southern slaveholding states, Missouri is added to the Union as a slave state. Although it exists above the dividing line, the addition of Missouri as a slave state provides balance to the Union in terms of free and slave states, and representation in Congress. To satisfy the South, it was agreed that slavery could expand and exist below the dividing line drawn across the Louisiana Purchase. This ensured some expansion of slavery for the South, including future states such as Texas and Arkansas. For the southern slave advocates, Maryland Senator William Pinkney held the belief states should be able to decide the nature of whether or not they are slave or free. Ultimately, Senator Henry Clay will devise the Missouri Compromise, ending the debate.

Extended Activity

Have students compare and contrast the Missouri Compromise with that of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act negated the Missouri Compromise, so students will be able to compare and contrast both acts. Furthermore, it will allow students to connect the two acts, in particular how both pieces of legislature attempted to solve the question of slavery as well as its extension into newly acquired U.S. territories.

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Short and Long Term Effects of the Missouri Compromise Spider Map

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an important piece of legislation that affected settlement and views on state and federal rights. Beyond the immediate problems solved or postponed, the Missouri Compromise influenced future legislation and debate over slavery.

In this activity, students will use a spider web to branch out other acts, compromises, and court cases that ultimately resulted from the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This will allow students to centralize the compromise, and see what long and short-term effects it had on the nation and question of slavery. Additional topics that are not included in the example below are the Lincoln-Douglas debates or thematic ideas like popular sovereignty.



The Wilmot Proviso, put forth by congressman David Wilmot, proposed that slavery should not exist within the acquired territory won in the Mexican-American War. Many argued this violated the Missouri Compromise that slavery could not exist above the 36° 30' line. Ultimately, the Wilmot Proviso eventually lead to the Compromise of 1850.


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 further attempted to solve the question of slavery into newly added states. In fact, the act itself repealed the Missouri Compromise, overturning its dictation of where slavery could and could not exist. It gave way to popular sovereignty, ending the agreed principle that slavery could not exist above the 36° 30' line.


The Dred Scott case would also be a major effect of the Missouri Compromise. Scott, a slave who was brought to free territory, sued for his freedom. He was denied, although many argued his enslavement in free territory violated the principles of the Missouri Compromise.


In terms of short term effects, the Missouri Compromise did postpone the heated debate over slavery's expansion into newly-added states and territories. Diplomatically, it was a constitutional and democratic postponing of the eventual Civil War over the issue, and helped quell the major debates over slavery as an institution.


Ultimately, the Missouri Compromise helped postpone the Civil War. The question of the extension and preservation of slavery would inevitably be answered by the American Civil War forty years later. The compromise is one of the first stepping stones to answering the debate over slavery and its extension.


Using the Missouri Compromise as a precedent, politicians based their compromise in 1850 off of what the Missouri Compromise established. Namely, it was an extension of trying to preserve the balance of free and slave states, as well as the balance of slave and free powers in Congress.

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map on one topic included in their spider map of the Missouri Compromise. Students should utilize the same idea (what events, legislation, etc.) that stemmed from their centralized idea. This will give deeper understanding to just how instrumental the Missouri Compromise, as well as their selected topic, had on big ideas like the extension of slavery, and slavery as an institution itself.

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The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of early America. This land acquisition provided space for settlers and huge economic opportunities in agriculture and raw materials. The new land also caused a great deal of debate among Congress about what would be permitted in any new states joining the Union, particularly the institution of slavery.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was instrumental for several different reasons. The compromise itself settled, for a time being, the dispute on where slavery should and could exist in the recently acquired Louisiana Territory. It called for slavery not to exist above the 36° 30’ latitudinal line. The exception to this was Missouri, which entered the Union in 1820 as a slave state under the compromise. In addition to Missouri, Maine also entered the Union as a free state (which was previously part of Massachusetts) to balance the number of free and slave states in the nation. This was meant to bring an equality to the slave and free states, along with balance in Congress.

Other issues were soon raised. Many questioned the ability of Congress to determine where slave and free states should exist. Some argued that newly created states should have the freedom to choose how their state would enter the Union. On the other side of the scale, politicians and citizens alike argued that slavery should not be allowed to expand with new territory altogether. Regardless of this, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would remain law until it was negated in 1854 by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Still, the compromise itself is instrumental in understanding the evolving and highly-debated topic of the nature of slavery in the United States, including its expansion, balance of free and slave states, and the overall institution itself.

Essential Questions for The Missouri Compromise of 1820

  1. What events led to the Missouri Compromise of 1820?
  2. What major figures were involved in the creation and ratification of the compromise?
  3. How does the Missouri Compromise of 1820 highlight the growing divide between the slave power and free states?
  4. How did the Missouri Compromise balance free and slave states, namely in terms of congressional representation?
  5. How does the compromise help set the stage for future debates and negotiations in regards to the expansion and preservation of slavery?
  6. Why can we consider the Missouri Compromise a success? A failure?

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•   (English) The Missouri Compromise of 1820   •   (Español) El Compromiso de Missouri de 1820   •   (Français) Le compromis du Missouri de 1820   •   (Deutsch) Der Missouri-Kompromiss von 1820   •   (Italiana) Il Compromesso del Missouri del 1820   •   (Nederlands) De Missouri Compromis van 1820   •   (Português) O Compromisso de Missouri de 1820   •   (עברית) הפשרה מיזורי של 1820   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) وتسوية ميزوري 1820   •   (हिन्दी) 1820 के मिसौरी समझौता   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Миссури Компромисс 1820 г.   •   (Dansk) Den Missouri kompromiset 1820   •   (Svenska) Missouri kompromiss 1820   •   (Suomi) Missourin kompromissi 1820   •   (Norsk) Missouri Kompromiss 1820   •   (Türkçe) Missouri'nin 1820'deki uzlaşması   •   (Polski) Kompromis Missouri z 1820 r   •   (Româna) Compromisul Missouri din 1820   •   (Ceština) Missouri kompromisu 1820   •   (Slovenský) Missouri kompromis z roku 1820   •   (Magyar) A Missouri kiegyezés 1820   •   (Hrvatski) Kompromis u Missouriju iz 1820   •   (български) Мисурийският компромис от 1820 г.   •   (Lietuvos) Misūris kompromisas 1820   •   (Slovenščina) Missourijski sporazum iz leta 1820   •   (Latvijas) Misūri Kompromisa of 1820   •   (eesti) Missouri kompromiss 1820