Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: An Early Threat of Secession: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Nullification Crisis

A We The People Resource
Created July 18, 2010


The Lesson


Henry Clay, author of the Missouri Compromise.

Henry Clay, author of the Missouri Compromise.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” This question of English author Samuel Johnson strikes at the core of the slavery controversy in the American quest for self-government. Americans affirmed their independence with the ringing declaration that “all men are created equal.” But some of them owned African slaves, and were unwilling to give them up as they formed new federal and state governments. So “to form a more perfect union” in 1787, certain compromises were made in the Constitution regarding slavery in hopes that they would eventually be able to wean themselves off the “peculiar institution.” This settled the slavery controversy for the first few decades of the American republic.

This situation changed with the application of Missouri for statehood in 1819. It changed the political landscape so dramatically that when former president Thomas Jefferson heard about the enactment of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, he wrote, “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”

There had always been differences between northern and southern states, the former more commercial and the latter more agrarian in outlook and livelihood. But no difference was so potentially divisive as the South's insistence on the right to hold slaves and the North's growing aversion to it. The newly acquired territory to the West, resulting from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, brought the issue of the extension of slavery to a slow boil in 1819. Both sides, North and South, were concerned about the balance of power in the Senate being disrupted by the admission of new states carved out of the Louisiana Territory. The legislative and rhetorical interventions of Kentucky Representative Henry Clay, a slaveowner who worked for gradual emancipation and colonization, were crucial to averting a sectional division of the American union.

When Maine requested admission as a free state in 1820, Congress agreed to a compromise where Missouri was permitted to come into the union with a constitution of its own choosing, which meant no restriction regarding slavery. In addition to Maine's admission in 1820 as a free state and Missouri's eventual admission as a slave state (in 1821), Illinois Senator Jesse B. Thomas suggested that in the balance of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36º30' parallel (which ran along Missouri's southern border) slavery would be prohibited forever. The Missouri Compromise thereby maintained an equal number of free and slaveholding states in the American union. But it proved only a temporary settlement of the slavery controversy. Another territorial dispute, involving Texas and Mexico, would later stoke the fires of sectional conflict over the spread of slavery into the western territories.

But slavery in the territories was not the only issue dividing North and South. The question of tariffs (or taxes) on foreign imports proved so volatile that one state tried to nullify an act of Congress and threatened to secede from the Union. South Carolina saw tariffs imposed by the national government on foreign imports not for general revenue purposes, but to help domestic, manufacturing industries located mainly in the North. With depressed cotton prices and reduced foreign demand for raw goods from the South, the 1828 and 1832 tariffs eventually provoked South Carolina to desperate measures.

Flags were flown at half-mast in Charleston, South Carolina, and throughout the South there was talk of boycotting northern goods. By 1832, when Congress passed a new tariff bill that did not lower tariff rates enough to please the southern states, talk turned openly to nullification. South Carolina went so far as to call a state convention that declared the Tariff Acts of 1828 and 1832 "null, void, and no law, nor binding upon" the state. Whereupon President Andrew Jackson rebuked South Carolina and threatened to invade the state. When Congress passed his 1833 “Force Bill,” which empowered the military to collect the tariffs, the now Senator Henry Clay fashioned yet another compromise that revised the tariff to South Carolina's satisfaction. This kept the tariff on the books and South Carolina in the Union.

After completing this lesson, students will gain a better understanding of how the controversies over slavery's expansion and federal tariffs further entrenched the dividing line between northern and southern interests.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Missouri Compromise of 1820 attempt to settle the debate over the future of slavery in the growing American republic?
  • How did the Nullification Crisis a decade later demonstrate the widening divide between northern and southern states?

Learning Objectives

  • Use a map of the Missouri Compromise to understand the geographical changes it brought to the U.S. and why the changes provoked a debate over the expansion of slavery in the U.S.
  • Explain how the proposed admission of Missouri as a state threatened the Senate balance between free and slaveholding states
  • List the main provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820
  • Highlight the basic economic differences between the commerce of the North and the South
  • Describe South Carolina's application of the theory of nullification and explain the compact theory of federal government upon which it is based
  • Articulate President Andrew Jackson's understanding of the federal government's supremacy over the states


1. Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was the product of a struggle in Congress for regional control of the national, legislative process. Southern states had lost majority influence in the House of Representatives because of their slower growing population as compared with the northern states. This led to an effort by slaveholding states to maintain equal representation in the Senate with free states as the nation added territories and hence new states to the Union. When Missouri asked to enter the Union as a slave state 1819, New York Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr. added a proviso that would ban the importation of slaves into the state and would free slaves born after Missouri's admission at the age of 25. Southerners in the Senate blocked Tallmadge's amendment, with Georgia Representative Howell Cobb predicting that if Tallmadge insisted on his amendment, "the Union will be dissolved!" To which Tallmadge replied, “If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, I can only say, let it come!”

The impasse was finally resolved the following year when Maine requested entry as a free state. Illinois Senator Jesse B. Thomas offered an amendment that produced the Missouri Compromise. In addition to Maine's admission in 1820 as a free state and Missouri's eventual admission as a slave state (in 1821), Thomas suggested that in the balance of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36º30' parallel (which ran along Missouri's southern border) slavery would be “forever prohibited.” While Henry Clay became known as “the Great Compromiser” for his work on the Missouri Compromise, he was more instrumental in the 1821 compromise that actually brought Missouri into the Union as a slave state than in the 1820 Compromise, where Senator Thomas laid out the famous Mason-Dixon Line separating free states (and slave state Missouri) from slave states.

2. Federal Tariffs and Nullification

South Carolina's attempt to nullify federal tariffs she deemed unconstitutional was not the first time a disgruntled state considered rejecting specific federal laws. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, which countered the federal Alien and Sedition Acts, maintained that the federal government was a compact of sovereign states and could only act according to powers specifically delegated by the states. Any broad interpretation and exercise of federal authority beyond the express grant of authority could therefore be considered null and void by individual states. In late 1814, five New England states also showed they could find enough reasons to complain of federal actions that appeared to favor one section of the Union over another. The Hartford Convention, called in response to the War of 1812 and its associated economic measures, debated (but rejected) secession from the United States and recommended amendments to reduce what they saw as a disproportionate southern influence in the Congress.

The Tariff of 1828 was somewhat more complicated than a simple disregard of the South by the North. This “Tariff of Abominations,” as southerners took to calling it, originated as a result of a plot on the part of congressional Democrats to do political damage to President John Quincy Adams. Adams had narrowly won the election of 1824, and Democrats wanted Andrew Jackson to win the presidency in 1828. Democrats, therefore, including southerners such as John C. Calhoun, devised a scheme to discredit the Adams administration by raising the tariff rates so high that not even New England congressmen would support it. The plan backfired, however, as Congress passed the tariff bill with just a few amendments. However conceived, the Tariff of Abominations was widely protested in the South.

These early threats of secession show that Americans had long disputed the meaning of the American union and its connection to securing individual liberty. Did it rest on a compact theory of the federal union, with the Unites States acting more like a league of sovereign states than a nation of individuals? Or was the country based more fundamentally on the action of the American people as a whole, making the U.S. Constitution truly "the supreme law of the land" in its delegated spheres of governance? Tragically, for a nation founded upon ideals and not mere tradition or blood, this important question would eventually be answered by war instead of words.

Preparation Instructions

To teach this lesson about the seeds of American sectionalism, four activities are provided below: two on the Missouri Compromise and two on the Nullification Crisis. Review the activities, then locate and bookmark websites and primary documents that you will use.

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers a page on "Making Sense of Maps" which gives helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Missouri Compromise: Mapping the Slavery Controversy in 1820

Instruct students to access the interactive map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Ask them to view the map and become familiar with the location of the free states, the slave states, the regions identified as U.S. territories, the regions identified as not belonging to the U.S., and the 36º30' line. By clicking on each state, students can bring up statistical information about each state in the year 1820, compiled by reference to the U.S. Bureau of the Census from the Department of Commerce. Students will find particularly interesting the statistics of their own state, if it existed by 1820. They will do a comparative study of regions and states by using the pop-up information.

Two worksheets with question and answer charts are provided for student use with the interactive map:

Worksheet I (Pages 1-2 of the PDF): A comparative study of regions and states using the pop-up information

Worksheet II (Pages 3-4 of the PDF): An analytical study of changes brought about by the Missouri Compromise.

Activity 2. The Missouri Compromise: A Textual Analysis

Have students read the text of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 located at the EDSITEment reviewed website National Archives and then answer the questions that appear on page 5 of the PDF.

Activity 3. Nullification Crisis: The Widening Rift between the North and the South

If time permits, both the economic and philosophic activities should be completed. Otherwise, choose one to show the growing sectionalism of American.

(a) The Economic Divide between North and South

This section will help students to deepen their understanding of the basic commercial differences between the industrial North and the agricultural South. The South, especially South Carolina, was sorely aggravated by the imposition of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, causing them to resort to the threat of nullification and secession. In this activity, students will use internet resources from the EDSITEment-reviewed websites of American Memory and Digital History to read primary sources and analyze graphs and a map.

Have the students visit the following sites, and answer the corresponding questions on pages 6-7 of the PDF

When students return with the information gained from this activity, begin a discussion about the basic differences in the commercial economies of North and South, and about how the tariffs embittered the relationship between the two regions. If students do not bring this up, point out that while the diversified manufactures of the North were occupying a greater part of the overall U.S. economy, the southern agricultural economy was growing increasingly dependent on one crop—cotton.

(b) The Philosophic Divide Separating South Carolina from the Federal Government

When Congress enacted the Tariff of 1832, which lowered the tariff but not substantially, the legislature of South Carolina responded by calling a special convention. They issued what was called the "South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification." President Jackson responded three weeks later with a "Proclamation Regarding Nullification."

Print out and distribute to students pages 8-11 of the PDF. Have students read the text of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification and excerpts from Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification. Then ask the students to answer the questions that correspond to each document. In the third column of the worksheet—the one labeled "Citation"—students should indicate where in the document they found the evidence that allowed them to answer each question.


1. Have students write a paragraph to answer each of the following questions about the Missouri Compromise:

  • Why was the Missouri Compromise called a "compromise"?
  • What did each section of the country, North and South, gain and what did each give up?
  • What is the role of compromise in a self-governing society, considering that many convictions are deeply held but not shared by everyone in the community? Further, is some level of compromise necessary to the survival of a democratic republic?

2. Have students write a paragraph to answer each of the following questions about South Carolina's struggle against federal tariffs:

  • What are South Carolina's basic arguments supporting a state's right to nullify an act of Congress and even secede from the federal union?
  • What arguments did President Andrew Jackson give to refute South Carolina's claim to nullify federal laws it deemed unconstitutional?

3. Have students write a couple of paragraphs to answer the following question:

  • Was South Carolina's attempt to nullify a federal tariff inevitable, given the geographic, political, and economic context of the Missouri Compromise?

Alternatively, have students use the matrix provided on Comparing North and South Worksheet (Page 12 of the PDF) to summarize the major differences between the North and South on the key issues brought up in this lesson, such as the respective view of the North and South on slavery in the south, slavery in the western territories, and tariffs, as well as major differences in their regional economies.

Extending The Lesson

1. The Tallmadge Amendment (1819)

The debate in Congress over the admittance of Missouri to statehood was complicated by New York Congressman James Tallmadge's amendment. Have students read the amendment in the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory collection.

Ask students to answer the following questions:

  • What is the main point of this amendment?
  • Why did this amendment trigger a passionate debate about Missouri's application for statehood?
2. Thomas Jefferson's Letter to John Holmes (1820)

Have students read and interpret a famous letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote about the effect of the Missouri Compromise on the slavery controversy in America. Have students go online to the Jefferson Exhibit at the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory website at. Instruct them to jot down answers to the following questions:

  • What two metaphors does Jefferson use to describe America's slavery controversy?
  • Taken together, what impression do these metaphors convey about the intensity with which Jefferson viewed the slavery question?
  • What did Jefferson imply that he would be willing to do if he thought it would help?
  • What did he mention as a possible two-pronged solution to the slavery problem?
  • On what personal note does he end his letter?
3. Nullification Proclamation (1832): Additional Primary Source Documents and Contemporary Accounts

For additional primary source documents and contemporary accounts dealing with Andrew Jackson and the nullification crisis, see Nullification Proclamation at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Library of Congress: Primary Documents in American History.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Lucas Morel, Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)
  • Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School (Staunton, VA)