|Missouri Political Profile|
Born amid one of the nation's earliest and bloodiest political battles, Missouri has been plagued by contention and controversy for much of its 181-year existence. From its earliest days, divisions based on geography, economics and race have created a state that's not quite in the North, not quite in the South, and has shifted often in its political trends.
These divisions continue to play out in the state's politics. Missouri is a place where both staunch Democrats and Republicans have managed to thrive. Dick Gephardt, the U.S. House of Representatives' Democratic leader, has served his Missouri district for 13 straight terms since 1976. But the conservative John Ashcroft, now U.S. Attorney General, also had a lengthy career in Missouri, serving 26 years in various state-wide positions including governor and U.S. senator.
Despite this diversity it is still a bellwether state -- correctly voting for every U.S. president in the 20th century except one (opting for Adlai Stevenson instead of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956). Gephardt is widely expected to retain his congressional seat, but the race between Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and former congressman Jim Talent, a Republican, is heating up as election day draws closer.
Carnahan, who was appointed to serve two years of the Senate seat won by her late husband, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, in 2000, began her campaign last summer to serve out the final four years of his six-year term. Talent, a former four-term U.S. congressman and a candidate for governor in 2000, and Carnahan have already begun grappling over issues like the debate over a missile defense shield, health care coverage and corporate accountability.
But the political debates of today are tame compared to those that helped form the state. By 1818, the citizens of the Missouri territory had begun petitioning the U.S. Congress for admission to the union as a state. But the question of whether to admit Missouri played into the highly charged national debate between the pro-slavery supporters in the South and abolitionists in the North.
Slavery was legal in Missouri, and its admission would throw off the nation's delicate North-South balance. After heated Congressional arguments, legislators finally agreed to the 1820 Missouri Compromise that admitted Missouri to join union as a slave state and balanced it by also establishing Maine as a new, slave-free state. But its struggle with slavery did not end in 1820. The infamous 1857 Dredd Scott case - in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided an African-American man was the property of his white owner regardless of whether he resided in a pro-slavery or free state - originated in Missouri.
When the slavery question finally helped ignite the Civil War, Missouri was one of its frontlines. Despite its pro-slavery laws, Missouri did not secede from the union and join the Confederacy like many Southern states in 1861. Nonetheless, many Civil War battles were fought within the state's borders.
Today, Missouri is the 17th largest state in the U.S., although it has suffered from below-average population growth since 1900 -- with most of the growth occurring near metropolitan areas like St. Louis and in the Ozark mountains. Its racial makeup remains predominantly Caucasian, with whites making up 85 percent of the state's population. African-Americans make up some 11 percent. The state's economy picked up speed in the 1990s, bolstered by gains in the trade, manufacturing and service industries - as well as tourism to cities like Branson, a hotbed of soft-rock and country music stars that draws some seven million visitors a year.
In its earliest years, Missouri served as a springboard for adventurers exploring the uncharted territories west of the Mississippi River. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark started their historic trek in St. Louis in 1804. Years later, Missouri would serve as home to the Pony Express and, in the fictional world of writer Mark Twain, the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Missouri's reputation as a gateway to the West continued into the 20th century as well: it hosted 317 miles of the famed Route 66, which opened up the heart of the Midwest to automobile traffic from the East.
--By Greg Barber, Online NewsHour