As said in the title, why was there a need to maintain the balance of power between the Slave states and Free States by keeping them equal in number, before the American Civil War?

Both the Clay Compromise and the Missouri Comprise were aimed at achieving this.

It may, perhaps, be a silly question, but I cannot make out any intuitive answer myself, neither does my textbook provide any insight.

  • 4
    Not in, but before the war. The war kind of settled the issue.
    – Jos
    Feb 27, 2018 at 10:23
  • @Jos True, you are. Edited.
    – Arjun
    Feb 27, 2018 at 10:50
  • 2
    Standard zero sum game theory tactics. Each side had a different, and incompatible vision of the future of the country. Each side feared that the other side would win. In such situations, it is common to prevent the other side from obtaining any advantage; the status quo is the only defense against an intolerable future.
    – MCW
    Feb 27, 2018 at 11:26
  • It wasn't necessary to maintain the balance. But both the South and the rest of the country, the slave states and the free, feared the other side taking control of the government. The only place the South could stay even or gain an advantage was in numbers of senators resulting from numbers of states. So those fearing a possible civil war pushed for the compromises that kept the number of slave and free states equal, to avoid an advantage for either side.
    – MAGolding
    Feb 27, 2018 at 22:54

2 Answers 2


Fundamentally, it's the same reasons why all balances of power have ever been maintained: because people wanted to keep the status quo. The root of the issue was of course slavery. Both the North and the South feared the other side, and by extension slavery and abolitionism, gaining control of the federal government.

The struggle was focused in the Senate because the South had a much smaller population, especially of whites. Even with the Three-Fifths Compromise, the southern states were a distinct minority in the House of Representatives. Constitutionally, therefore, the South's ability to preserve their "peculiar institution" of slavery rested with their control in the Senate. Because every state was entitled to two senators regardless of size or population, the upper chamber allowed the less populous South approximately equal power to the North.

It was thus "necessary" to preserve the balance of power in the Senate because otherwise, the slave states feared, they would be unable to prevent Northern, free, states from meddling with Southern slavery. Conversely, the Free states feared slave power, which in addition to immorality, they perceived to be a threat to Republicanism itself. Because membership in the Senate is state based, the admission of new states into the Union posed a potential threat to this balance.

Hence why both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 aimed to preserve a balance of free and slave states in the Senate, typically by arranging for paired admissions of free and slave states.

  • 2
    @Arjun Glad to help.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 27, 2018 at 11:04
  • I would perhaps note that the civil war was the more or less predictable outcome of losing the balance.
    – user22111
    Feb 27, 2018 at 17:40

Why was it necessary to maintain a balance of power between the Slave and Free states?

Because without a balance of Senate seats Congress could vote to make slavery illegal, which they ultimately did while the Civil war was ongoing and all the Southern Senators were absent. The Missouri Compromise kept the balance in tact for decades. When it was renegotiated with the Kansas Nebraska Act days of the South's parity in the Senate were tenuous. Rather than a formula which guaranteed the South's parity as the Missouri Compromised entailed, the Kansas Nebraska act allowed new territories to decide themselves if they would be free or slave. When Kansas voted to come into the union as a free state in 1861 the parity was gone and the Civil War was on.


  • 1
    What power did Congress have to outlaw slavery under the original Constitution? I thought slavery remained legal in the non-seceding slave states (KY, MD, DE, MO?) until the 13th Amendment was adopted?
    – bof
    Aug 15, 2018 at 22:54
  • @bof. congress has the power to amend the constitution. I was referring to the passing of the 13th amendment. But since slavery is not protected by the constitution any federal law could have ended slavery. Lincoln did it with a presidential order. A constitutional amendment was just harder to reverse.
    – user27618
    Aug 16, 2018 at 0:19
  • @bof you are correct that the emancipation proclamation / presidential order only freed the slaves in confederate states but that wasn’t a limitation of the authority of the presidential powers which Lincoln was basically making up as he went along. Rather it was a limitation in the language which Lincoln chose for the executive order.
    – user27618
    Aug 16, 2018 at 0:27

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