Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856. Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.



In 1819, the nation was equally divided between eleven “free states” and eleven “slave states.” This delicate balance of power in government between the North and South kept growing as sectional tensions subdued. Yet it was only maintained by ensuring there was always an equal number of free and slave states in the Union.

When Missouri, a territory that allowed slavery, petitioned Congress for admittance into the United States, it threatened to upset that balance. Congress descended into crisis over the Missouri Question – how, or if, Missouri would join the Union as a new slave state.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Thirty years before the Missouri Crisis began, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlined a three-stage process for territories, as their populations grew, to become official states. Under the laws of the Ordinance, new states would enter the Union with equal status and rights as the original states. The Ordinance also prohibited slavery in the Northwest territories, making the Ohio River the boundary between southern “slave states” and northern “free states.”


Territorial Population Under 5,000:
Congress appointed five officials to run the territory: a governor, a secretary, and three judges. The governor and the three judges made all laws for the territory, but such laws were subject to Congressional approval.


Territorial Population Over 5,000:
The territory could hold elections and form a territorial legislature. The president still appointed the governor and the upper house of the legislature, but the “elected” territorial legislature could now make laws. The territory was also allowed a nonvoting delegate in Congress.


Territorial Population Over 60,000:
The territory could petition Congress for admission as a state. Congress would then draft an enabling bill, authorizing the territory to write a constitution and create a state government. Once Congress approved the state constitution and government, the territory became a state.

States and Territories in the United States, 1819

After Louisiana itself, Missouri was the first territory from within the Louisiana Purchase and entirely west of the Mississippi River to petition for statehood. Until then, the Ohio River provided a clear line to determine if a new state would enter the Union as “free” or “slave.” However, the Missouri Territory, which allowed slavery, had parts lying north of the Ohio River and parts lying to the south of the river.

1819 States and Territories of the United States. Wikimedia Commons.


Missouri Petitions for Statehood

In 1817, Missouri’s population had reached over 60,000. Private citizens and organizations submitted petitions for Missouri’s statehood; however, they were in for an unpleasant surprise when the petitions were submitted before Congress. Three times in 1818, the petition for statehood stalled in Congress.

Missouri Statehood Petition, 1817. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
This is one of several petitions for statehood that circulated throughout the territory and was signed by Missouri residents during the fall of 1817.

Did you know?

Missouri’s “bootheel” is thanks to one man, John Hardeman Walker, a wealthy landowner and influential citizen of New Madrid, MO. The boundaries first proposed for Missouri left his property in the Arkansas Territory. But Walker refused to become an Arkansan and used his considerable power to lobby Congress to keep the southeast region within the new state.