Map of Missouri

Missouri's political history unfolded in a world of colliding cultures and conflicting political traditions. During its early days as a borderland colony governed by imperial France and Spain, its political culture rested on a hierarchy of patrons and clients who often mixed public and private interests. After the Louisiana Purchase placed the frontier province under the authority of the United States, American officials pondered how best to maintain order and introduce a political system grounded on republican principles. To ensure an orderly process, President Thomas Jefferson briefly contemplated closing portions of Upper Louisiana to settlement and making those lands a refuge for relocated eastern Indians. That scheme went nowhere, and in 1804 Congress divided the territory into two administrative units: the District of Louisiana (Upper Louisiana) and the Territory of Orleans. As a cost-saving measure, it placed the less populous northern district that now encompasses Missouri under the jurisdiction of officials in Indiana Territory. That arrangement drew protests from local residents who objected to being subject to the dictates of absentee officials. Congress relented in 1805 and agreed to create a new Territory of Louisiana with a government of its own administered by a governor, secretary, and three superior court judges all appointed by the president.

Although this somewhat authoritarian system, initially prescribed for first-stage territories in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, found favor with old-line French Creoles and their allies, many republican-minded American newcomers pressed for the territory's prompt advancement to second-stage status. The higher classification allowed tax-paying adult white males to elect members of a territorial assembly for two-year terms and empowered them to send a nonvoting delegate to Congress for a similar period. It also created an upper chamber or legislative council consisting of nine members appointed by the president for five-year terms from a list of nominees proposed by the lower house. Before any legislation could take effect, it had to be approved by both houses and signed by the governor, who remained a presidential appointee. The 1812 statute that elevated Louisiana to a second-stage territory also changed its name to the Territory of Missouri to avoid confusion with the nation's newest state, Louisiana, which had previously been known as the Territory of Orleans.

Between 1804 and 1820, bitter disagreements over Spanish land titles and mining concessions divided the territory into warring political camps competing to influence public policy on these and related matters. The contest pitted a coterie of French Creole fur traders and merchants with numerous unconfirmed Spanish land concessions and the influential American attorneys and government officials they had enlisted to their cause against a rival group of American land speculators determined to challenge the old order and its pursuit of confirmation for those contested land titles.

In Missouri's highly charged and intensely personal political culture, name calling, threats of bodily harm, and accusations of official misconduct were commonplace. Allegations of voting irregularities in the 1816 contest for territorial delegates caused the U.S. House of Representatives to vacate the results and order a new election. In the rematch that followed, an attempt to challenge political newcomer Thomas Hart Benton's eligibility to vote culminated in a duel that tragically left Charles Lucas, the promising young attorney who had raised the objection, dead by Benton's hand. Election-day antics seldom degenerated into mortal combat, but combative politics had become the order of the day. It mattered little that partisans on both sides of the territorial divide styled themselves Republicans.

A rapid increase in the territorial population following the War of 1812 gave rise to growing demands for statehood. The territorial assembly's 1818 petition calling for Missouri to be admitted as a slave state triggered a contentious national debate over the extension of slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 temporarily resolved the matter and paved the way for Missouri's formal admission to the Union on August 10, 1821. The new state's first constitution provided for a popularly elected governor and lieutenant governor who served four-year terms, but it barred the governor from succeeding himself. The document created a bicameral General Assembly consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate whose members served two-year and four-year terms, respectively, and gave them the authority to override a governor's veto with an absolute majority of both houses. The framers of the 1820 Constitution ensured an independent judiciary by allowing the governor to appoint judges for life, but they also eliminated a tax-paying requirement for voting and bestowed suffrage on all adult white males who had lived in the state for at least one year before the election.

In the new state's initial elections, an electorate that included many first-time voters declined to continue most members of the well-entrenched territorial political establishment in office. William Clark, celebrated co-leader of the expedition to the Pacific and highly successful territorial governor, was among the casualties when he lost his bid to become the state's first elected governor to Alexander McNair, a relative political novice. Clark, a scion of Virginia's old republican order, fell victim to a populist political dynamic that championed the common man. That lesson was not lost on Missouri's newly elected U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton and his cohorts, who rushed to exploit the rising democratic tide. This new generation of Missouri politicians entered the national forum just as the second American party system was beginning to take shape. Their support for a combative brand of popular democracy and for expanded economic opportunities placed them and their state in the vanguard of the emerging Jacksonian movement that would soon take center stage in the national political arena.


  • Aron, Stephen. American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006.
  • Foley, William E. "After the Applause: William Clark's Failed 1820 Gubernatorial Campaign.” Gateway Heritage, 24 (Fall 2003–Winter 2004), 104–111.
  • ________. "The American Territorial System: Missouri's Experience." Missouri Historical Review, 65 (July 1971): 403–426.
  • ________. The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
  • ________. A History of Missouri: 1673–1820. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.
  • McCandless, Perry. A History of Missouri, 1820–1860. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1972.