Balance between Free and Slave States: An Overview

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Balance between Free and Slave States: An Overview

There are several aspects of American history that explain the relative balance between states that abolished slavery and those that retained it during much of the time between the ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War. Various compromises allowed new states to enter the Union after the original thirteen in order to keep the balance. The maintenance of the balance was tied to the Constitution and how the document organized Congress. While a balance was maintained for much of the antebellum period, the various compromises conceded much to the South. The delicate balance eventually crumbled and led to the Civil War.

In order to understand the balance of power between the slave and free states, the original thirteen states are the proper starting point. States began moving toward abolition of slavery during the American Revolution. For instance, by the mid-1780s five of the original thirteen states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) had abolished slavery in their state constitutions. In addition, Vermont, which became the fourteenth state to join the Union, had abolished slavery in its constitution in 1777. However, not all Northern states initially wanted abolition. New York and New Jersey had large slave populations in the late eighteenth century and were reluctant to abolish slavery, which was evident by the failure of several gradual emancipation measures.

After the initial admission of the original thirteen colonies to the Union by Constitutional ratification, the balance between slave states and free states was roughly maintained by one slave state and one free state being admitted to the Union within a year of each other. The only breaks in this pattern were the admissions of Tennessee, Ohio, and Louisiana, which were separated by years between their admissions. The pattern would return with the admission of Indiana and Mississippi in 1816 and 1817 respectively.

The continuation of the balance between slave and free states was important given the nature of the Congress and the balance of power between the competing sides in the issue. Given the proportional representation of the House of Representatives and the arguably overrepresentation of Southern states via the Three-Fifths Compromise, the balance between the states was very important, as each side did not want the other to have a majority of power in Congress. If there were even one more slave state or free state, the balance of power would shift in the Senate, and would likely shift in the House as well. Compromises were needed to equalize the power between proslavery and antislavery interests in the government to keep the Union together.

One of the well-known early compromises was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was crafted by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. This compromise allowed the pattern of one free and one slave state admitted in close proximity to continue, as Maine then Missouri would be admitted in 1820 and 1821 respectively. It also provided for all territory south of the southern border of Missouri to be slave states. While on a map it appears that free states would hold the majority, the balance may have been maintained, as the number of states to come from the territory south of the compromise line was not set.

The next major compromise (also courtesy of Henry Clay) was the Compromise of 1850, which resulted from the United States acquiring vast territory from Mexico because of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). This compromise held major ramifications for the Union. While the Compromise is well known for the Fugitive Slave Act, the issues surrounding the balance of states is no less important. The major issue was whether or not slavery would be permitted in the new territories, or if the decision would be left to the people in the territory. In addition, California petitioned to enter the Union as a free state, which would upset both the Missouri Compromise line, as well as the balance of power (this issue was resolved via passage of the Fugitive Slave Act). The Compromise stipulated that Texas would cede lands in dispute in exchange for $10 million, which would cover its debts to Mexico. Furthermore, the territories of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah were to be organized without mention of slavery, which would be settled by the inhabitants of the areas when they applied for statehood. History shows that the Compromise of 1850 was only a temporary solution to a larger problem.

The next major attempt to keep the Union together and maintain the balance of power was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed for the question of slavery to be determined under popular sovereignty. This idea is similar to the stipulation for the territories mentioned in the Compromise of 1850 and had tragic results. The act gave birth to violence, bloodshed, and "Bleeding Kansas" as pro-slavery and antislavery forces clashed in the Kansas Territory, which was a prelude to the Civil War, over whether or not the territory and eventual state would be free or slave.

By 1860, the free states and slave states were as follows, with year of statehood in parentheses:

Free States:

California (1850)

Connecticut (1788)

Illinois (1818)

Indiana (1816)

Iowa (1846)

Maine (1820)

Massachusetts (1788)

Michigan (1837)

Minnesota (1858)

New Hampshire (1788)

New Jersey (1787)

New York (1788)

Ohio (1803)

Oregon (1859)

Pennsylvania (1787)

Rhode Island (1790)

Vermont (1791)

Wisconsin (1848)

Slave States:

Alabama (1819)

Arkansas (1836)

Delaware (1787)

Florida (1845)

Georgia (1788)

Kentucky (1792)

Louisiana (1812)

Maryland (1788)

Mississippi (1817)

Missouri (1821)

North Carolina (1789)

South Carolina (1788)

Tennessee (1796)

Texas (1845)

Virginia (1788)

As indicated by the statehood dates, the balance between slave and free states was maintained until the admission of California in 1850.

Overall, the institution of slavery and the failure of the competing interests surrounding the institution in government led to the collapse in the balance between slave and free states and the Civil War. For most of the period between the ratification of the Constitution until 1820, slave and free states entered the Union relatively paired, with admission dates within a year of each other. Then, both competing forces became power hungry and concerned over the other side gaining too much power. This caused them to create temporary solutions to maintain the balance, which only served to exacerbate the problem. Ultimately, more than 600,000 Americans would die for the failure of the government to both deal with the institution of slavery as well as maintain the balance of power between the competing forces.


"Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act." PBS. Available from

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

"Kansas-Nebraska Act." Library of Congress, Primary Documents in American History. Available from

"Statehood Dates." Available from

                                 Daniel Sauerwein

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Balance between Free and Slave States: An Overview

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