Missouri Compromise: A Win-Win for Clay

Sen. Henry Clay, known as "the Great Compromiser," brought about the Missouri Compromise of 1820. House of Representatives historian Robert Remini says Clay's feat resulted from his ability to make each side — in this case, the South and North — feel as that it had won something in the bargain. Michele Norris talks with Remini, the author of Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Fighting and making up are not all about nature. There is some nurture involved, and some people who have famously nurtured compromise. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky was one of them. He first served in Congress in the year 1806, and then on and off until his death in 1852. He's known as the great compromiser. And perhaps his greatest work was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, bridging the gap between the North and the South over slavery. Many say it helped delay civil war for decades.

Robert Remini is a historian for the House of Representatives. He's also written a biography of Henry Clay. In his research, he's learned quite a bit about Clay's approach.

Mr. ROBERT REMINI (Historian): He explained that a compromise is something not brokered, you understand, where you say well, if you will do this, I'll give you something else. This is a way of facing an issue like slavery and saying what is your position, the opposition? If I have the majority and I jam it down your throat, that isn't going to solve the problem. You'll only come back when you're the majority and jam it down our throat.

The answer, he said, was each side must feel that they have gotten something they wanted. But in order to do that, you must give up something that the other side wants so to that there are no winners and no losers.

NORRIS: He's best known for -

Mr. REMINI: The Missouri Compromise.

NORRIS: - the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was at a time when there was great division in the country over the extension of slavery north into the Missouri territory. Tell us about the opposing camps in this issue.

Mr. REMINI: Well, of course by that time, a lot of Northerners felt that in this civilized country of ours, supposedly, that we have slavery is an abomination. And they wanted to get rid of it. And of course, the Southerners - this was their culture, their civilization, their wherewithal. And they said, if you touch slavery, if you do anything about slavery, we are out. We are leaving the Union.

And so he, Clay, recognized that what you have to do is get the North to back off and yet achieve some kind of victory in bringing an end to the further expansion and growth of slavery, and at the same time protect what the Southerners feel is their institution. And that is what the Missouri Compromise is about. In the Louisiana territory, you draw this line at 36°30' and there is no slavery north of the 36°30'.

NORRIS: In the end, slavery would be allowed in Missouri, but it would be the only state north of that line. And then Maine would enter the union as a free state. How did he get both sides to accept that?

Mr. REMINIS: Well, the Southerners, you see, could take their slaves south of 36"30'. At the same time, you see, the Northerners feel that they have a victory in that they have blocked the further expansion of it to the north. Maine is detached from Massachusetts - it had been part of Massachusetts - and comes in as a free state. So both sides, you see, get something.

NORRIS: And he maintains the balance, that essential balance in the Senate.

Mr. REMINI: Right.

NORRIS: Eleven free states, eleven slave states.

Mr. REMINI: Yes. And there were any number of Southerners who when the Civil War ended, they say if Henry Clay had been alive in 1860, '61, there would not have been a Civil War, and I believe it.

NORRIS: So the tactics that Henry Clay used to bring about the Missouri Compromise, could those same tactics be used effectively today?

Mr. REMINI: I think so. Why not? It's a basic principle of compromise. See, when I first wrote the biography of Henry Clay, I wanted to call it Henry Clay: The Great Compromiser. And it was Arthur Schlessinger, who said I would not used that word. Today, it seems to mean, compromiser, that you have no principles. You know, you're ready to do whatever is necessary for pragmatic reasons.

We - compromise, you see, in the 19th century meant something quite different, that you're willing to listen to the other side and try to work out your differences, and he was expert at that. And we need to get back, you know, to the idea that that's what compromise is.

It's not about, you know, you no longer stand for anything. Republicans can continue to stand for what they feel is basic to their position. The Democrats, the same thing. But understanding that in order to achieve results, we have got to get together. And the only way you can do that is through compromise.

NORRIS: Robert Remini, thank you so much.

Mr. REMINI: You're quite welcome. Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Robert Remini is the historian for the House of Representatives and he's the author of the book "Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union."

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