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Missouri Compromise

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Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise is the title generally attached to the legislation passed by the 16th Congress of the United States on May 8, 1820. The measures provided for the admission of the District of Maine as a state free to ratify a state constitution that both did not recognize and prohibited slavery within the state. Further, the Compromise provided that the Missouri territory was free to enact a state constitution that both recognized as legal and permitted (through affirmative state legislation and state government regulation), the institution of chattel slavery. In addition, it outlawed as a matter of Federal law both the recognition and legality of the institution of chattel slavery in the Federal territory that remained of the Louisiana Purchase that was still unorganized and north of the 36°30′ parallel (excluding Missouri, hence "Missouri Compromise") within the Purchase lands. With these actions, the Compromise committed the largest remaining portion of Purchase territory to free soil. It did not permit either the plantation of or the expansion of slavery in the Purchase, as the territory became populated and organized first into Federal territories, and eventually into states of the union. However, South of the parallel no slavery restrictions were imposed in the Arkansas Territory, which later became Indian territory, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. There also were not any statements about restrictions or recognition of the institution of slavery at or South of the latitude, or in territory possessed by Spain. President James Monroe signed the legislation on April 6, 1820.


The compromise bills served to quell the furious sectional debates that had first erupted during the final session of the 15th Congress. On February 3, 1819, Representative James Tallmadge, Jr., a Jeffersonian Republican from New York State, had submitted two amendments to Missouri's request for statehood. The first proposed to federally prohibit further slave migration into Missouri; the second would require all slave offspring, born after statehood, freed at 25 years of age. At issue among southern legislators was the encroachment by their northern free state colleagues in what they considered a purely sectional concern: slave labor.

Northern critics including Federalists and Republicans, objected to the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana Purchase territory on the Constitutional inequalities of the three-fifths rule, which conferred Southern representation in the federal government, derived from a states' slave population. Nonetheless, the more populous North held a firm numerical advantage in the House. Jeffersonian Republicans in the North ardently maintained that a strict interpretation of the Constitution required that Congress act to limit the spread of slavery on egalitarian grounds.

The slave-holding states were acutely aware that maintaining a balance in the number of free-to-slave states was necessary to ensure political equilibrium in the US Senate. With the Senate evenly split at the opening of the debates, both sections possessing 11 states, the admission of Missouri would give the South a two-seat advantage in the upper house and diminish the Northern lower house majority. The South sought to enlist Missouri to maintain Southern political preeminence and ensure security of their institutions.

The Missouri question in the 15th Congress ended in stalemate on March 4, 1819, the House sustaining its northern antislavery position, and the Senate blocking a slavery restricted statehood. Antislavery agitation grew in the North in the aftermath of the debates, leading to widespread opposition to slavery in Missouri. As the 16th Congress assembled in December 1819, the two houses remained thoroughly polarized over slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territories.

When the free-soil District of Maine offered its petition for statehood, the Senate quickly linked the Maine and Missouri bills, making Maine admission a condition for Missouri entering the Union with slavery unrestricted. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois added a compromise proviso, excluding slavery from all remaining lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36 30’ parallel. The combined measures passed the Senate, only to be voted down in the House by those Northern representatives who held out for a free Missouri. Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay of Kentucky, in a desperate bid to break the deadlock, divided the Senate bills. Clay and his pro-compromise allies succeeded in pressuring half the anti-restrictionist House Southerners to submit to the passage of the Thomas proviso, while maneuvering a number of restrictionist House northerners to acquiesce in supporting Missouri as a slave state. This was the Missouri Compromise.

The legislation extracted by the compromisers served to effect a "brokered truce" or "armistice" rather than a genuine compromise. The crux of the Compromise was that it circumvented the deepening disaffection among Jeffersonian Republicans.

The Missouri crisis would spur the formation of two powerful political organizations – the Democratic and Whig Parties – both committed to preserving the federal Union by means of sectional compromise and the suppression of the explosive proslavery and antislavery arguments that had surfaced over Missouri statehood. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 would hasten the growth of a mass antislavery coalition – the Republican Party – whose precepts of which were first formulated by Jeffersonian Republican restrictionists during the Missouri crisis.

The Era of Good Feelings and Party "Amalgamation"

The Era of Good Feelings, closely associated with the administration of President James Monroe (1817–1825), was characterized by the dissolution of national political identities. With the discredited Federalists in decline nationally, the "amalgamated" or hybridized Republicans adopted key Federalist economic programs and institutions, further erasing party identities and consolidating their victory.

The economic nationalism of the Era of Good Feelings that would authorize the Tariff of 1816 and incorporate the Second Bank of the United States portended an abandonment of the Jeffersonian political formula for strict construction of the constitution, a limited central government and commitments to the primacy of Southern agrarian interests. The end of opposition parties also meant the end of party discipline and the means to suppress internecine factional animosities. Rather than produce political harmony, as President James Monroe had hoped, amalgamation had led to intense rivalries among Jeffersonian Republicans.

It was amid the "good feelings" of this period – during which Republican Party discipline was in abeyance – that the Tallmadge amendment surfaced.

The Louisiana Purchase and Missouri Territory

The immense Louisiana Purchase territories had been acquired through federal executive action, followed by Republican legislative authorization in 1803 during the Thomas Jefferson administration.

In the years following the War of 1812, the region, now known as Missouri Territory, experienced rapid settlement, led by slaveholding planters.

Prior to its purchase in 1803, the rulers of Spain and France had sanctioned slaveholding in the region. In 1812, the state of Louisiana, a major cotton producer and the first to be carved from the Louisiana Purchase, had entered the Union as a slave state. Predictably, Missourians were adamant that slave labor should not be molested by the federal government.

Agriculturally, the land comprising the lower reaches of the Missouri River, from which that new state would be formed, had no prospects as a major cotton producer. Suited for diversified farming, the only crop regarded as promising for slave labor was hemp culture. On that basis, southern planters immigrated with their chattel to Missouri, the slave population rising from 3,000 in 1810 to 10,000 in 1820. In a total population 66,000, slaves represented about 15 percent.

By 1818, the population of Missouri territory was approaching the threshold that would qualify it for statehood. An enabling act was provided to Congress empowering territorial residents to select convention delegates and draft a state constitution.

The admission of Missouri territory as a slave state was expected to be more or less routine.

The 15th Congress Debates: 1819

When the Missouri statehood bill was opened for debate in the House of Representative on February 13, 1819, early exchanges on the floor proceeded without serious incident.

In the course of these proceedings Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York "tossed a bombshell into the Era of Good Feelings" with the following amendments:

Provided, that the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited, except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been fully convicted; and that all children born within the said State will be executed [of Missouri], after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years.

A political outsider, the 41-year old Tallmadge conceived his amendment based on a personal aversion to slavery. He had played a leading role in accelerating emancipation of the remaining slaves in New York in 1817. Moreover, he had campaigned against Illinois' Black Codes: though ostensibly free-soil, the new Illinois state constitution permitted indentured servitude and a limited form of slavery. As a New York Republican, Tallmadge maintained an uneasy association with Governor DeWitt Clinton, a former Republican who depended on support from ex-Federalists. Clinton's faction was hostile to Tallmadge for his spirited defense of General Andrew Jackson over the Florida campaign against the Seminoles.

Tallmadge had backing from a fellow New York Republican, Congressman John W. Taylor (not to be confused with legislator John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia) . Taylor also had antislavery credentials: In February, 1819, he had proposed similar slave restrictions on Arkansas territory in the House, but failed 89-87. He would lead the pro-Tallmadge antislavery forces during the 16th Congress in 1820.

The amendment instantly exposed the polarization among Jeffersonian Republicans over the future of slavery in the nation. Northern Jeffersonian Republicans formed a coalition across factional lines with remnants of the Federalists. Southern Jeffersonian united in almost unanimous opposition. The ensuing debates pitted the northern "restrictionists" (antislavery legislators who wished to bar slavery from the Louisiana territories) and southern "anti-restrictionists" (proslavery legislators who rejected any interference by Congress inhibiting slavery expansion).

The sectional "rupture" over slavery among Jeffersonian Republicans, first exposed in the Missouri crisis, had its roots in the Revolutionary generation.

Jeffersonian Republicanism and Slavery

The Missouri crisis marked a rupture in the Republican Ascendency – the national association of Jeffersonian Republicans that dominated national politics in the post-War of 1812 period.

The Founders had inserted both principled and pragmatic elements in the establishing documents. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was grounded on the claim that liberty established a moral ideal that made universal equality a common right. The Revolutionary War generation had formed a government of limited powers in 1787 to embody the principles in the Declaration, but "burdened with the one legacy that defied that principles of 1776": human bondage. In a pragmatic commitment to form the Union, the federal apparatus would forego any authority to directly interfere with the institution of slavery where it existed under local control within the states. This acknowledgment of state sovereignty provided for the participation of those states most committed to slave labor. With this understanding, slaveholders had cooperated in authorizing the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, and to outlawing the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808. Though the Founders sanctioned slavery, they did so with the implicit understanding that the slaveholding states would take steps to relinquish the institution as opportunities arose.

Southern states, after the War for Independence, had regarded slavery as an institution in decline (with the exception of Georgia and South Carolina). This was manifest in the shift towards diversified farming in the Upper South, and in the gradual emancipation of slaves in New England, and more significantly, in the mid-Atlantic states. Beginning in the 1790s, with the introduction of the cotton gin, and by 1815, with the vast increase in demand for cotton internationally, slave-based agriculture underwent an immense revival, spreading the institution westward to the Mississippi River. Slavery opponents in the South vacillated, as did their hopes for the imminent demise of human bondage.

However rancorous the disputes among Southerners themselves over the virtues of a slave-based society, they united as a section when confronted by external challenges to their institution. The free states were not to meddle in the affairs of the slaveholders. Southern leaders – of whom virtually all identified as Jeffersonian Republicans – denied that Northerners had any business encroaching on matters related to slavery. Northern attacks on the institution were condemned as incitements to riot among the slave populations – deemed a dire threat to white southern security.

Northern Jeffersonian Republicans embraced the Jeffersionian antislavery legacy during the Missouri debates, explicitly citing the Declaration of Independence as an argument against expanding the institution. Southern Jeffersonian leaders would renounce the document's universal egalitarian applications.

These Jeffersonian paradoxes stood at the center of the Jeffersonian Ascendency's clash over Missouri statehood and the "true meaning of the American Revolution".

"Federal Ratio" in the House

Article One, Section Two of the US Constitution supplemented legislative representation in those states where residents owned slaves. Known as the three-fifths clause or the "federal ratio", three-fifths (60%) of the slave population was numerically added to the free population. This sum was used to calculate Congressional districts per state, and the number of delegates to the Electoral College. The federal ratio produced a significant number of legislative victories for the South in the years preceding the Missouri crisis, as well as augmenting its influence in party caucuses, the appointment of judges and the distribution of patronage. It is unlikely that the three-fifths clause, prior to 1820, was decisive in affecting legislation on slavery. Indeed, with the rising northern representation in the House, the South's share of the membership had declined since the 1790s.

Hostility to the federal ratio had historically been the object of the now nationally ineffectual Federalists; they blamed their collective decline on the "Virginia Dynasty", expressed in partisan terms rather than in moral condemnation of slavery. The pro-De Witt Clinton-Federalist faction carried on the tradition, posing as antirestrictionists, for the purpose of advancing their fortunes in New York politics.

Senator Rufus King of New York, a Clinton associate, was the last Federalist icon still active on the national stage, a fact irksome to Southern Republicans. A signatory to the US Constitution, he had strongly opposed the three-fifths rule in 1787. In the 1819 15th Congress debates, he revived his critique as a complaint that New England and Mid-Atlantic States suffered unduly from the federal ratio, declaring himself "degraded" (politically inferior) to the slaveholders. Federalists, North and South, preferred to mute antislavery rhetoric, but during the 1820 debates in the 16th Congress, King and other old Federalists would expand their critique to include moral considerations of slavery.

Republican James Tallmadge, Jr. and the Missouri restrictionists deplored the three-fifths clause because it had translated into political supremacy for the South. They had no agenda to remove it from the founding document, only to prevent its further application west of the Mississippi River.

As determined as Southern Republicans were to secure Missouri statehood with slavery, the three-fifths clause failed to provide the margin of victory in the 15th Congress. Blocked by Northern Republicans – largely on egalitarian grounds – with sectional support from Federalists, the bill would die in the upper house, where the federal ratio had no relevance. The "balance of power" between the sections, and the maintenance of Southern preeminence on matters related to slavery resided in the Senate.

"Balance of Power" in the Senate

Northern voting majorities in the lower house did not translate into political dominance. The fulcrum for proslavery forces resided in the upper house of Congress. There, constitutional compromise n 1787 had provided for exactly two senators per state, regardless of its population: the South, with its small white demographic relative to the North, benefited from this arrangement. Since 1815, sectional parity in the Senate had been achieved through paired admissions, leaving the North and South, at the time of Missouri territory application for statehood, at eleven states each.

The South, voting as a bloc on measures that challenged slaveholding interests and augmented by defections from Free State Senators with Southern sympathies, was able to tally majorities. The Senate stood as the bulwark and source of the Slave Power – a power that required admission of slave states to the Union to preserve its national primacy.

Missouri statehood, with the Tallmadge amendment approved, would set a trajectory towards a Free State trans-Mississippi and a decline in Southern political authority. The question as to whether the Congress could lawfully restrain the growth of slavery in Missouri took on great importance among the slave states. The moral dimensions of the expansion of human bondage would be raised by Northern Republicans on constitutional grounds.

Constitutional Arguments

The Tallmadge amendment was "the first serious challenge to the extension of slavery" and raised questions concerning the interpretation of the republics' founding documents.

Jeffersonian Republicans justified Tallmadge's slavery restrictions on the grounds that Congress possessed the authority to impose territorial statutes which would remain in force after statehood was established. Representative John W. Taylor pointed to Indiana and Illinois, where their Free State status conformed to the antislavery provisions in the Northwest Ordinance.

Further, antislavery legislators invoked Article Four, Section Four of the Constitution, which required that states provide a republican form of government. As the Louisiana Territory was not part of the United States in 1787, they argued, introducing slavery into Missouri would thwart the egalitarian intent of the Founders.

Proslavery Republicans countered that the Constitution had long been interpreted as having relinquished any claim to restricting slavery within the states. The free inhabitants of Missouri, either in the territorial phase or during statehood, had the right to establish slavery – or disestablish it – exclusive of central government interference. As to the Northwest Ordinance, Southerners denied that this could serve as a lawful antecedent for the territories of the Louisiana Purchase, as the ordinance had been issued originally under the Articles of Confederation, not under the US Constitution.

As a legal precedent, they offered the treaty acquiring the Louisiana lands in 1803: the document included a provision (Article 3) that extended the rights of US citizens to all inhabitants of the new territory, including the protection of property in slaves. When slaveholders embraced Jeffersonian constitutional strictures on a limited central government they were reminded that Jefferson, as US President in 1803, had deviated from these precepts when he wielded federal executive power to double the size the United States (including the lands under consideration for Missouri statehood). In doing so, he set a Constitutional precedent that would serve to rationalize Tallmadge's federally imposed slavery restrictions.

The 15th Congress debates, focusing at it did on constitutional questions, largely avoided the moral dimensions raised by the topic of slavery. That the unmentionable subject had been raised publicly was deeply offensive to Southern Congressmen, and violated the long-held sectional understanding between free and slave state legislators.

Missouri statehood confronted Southern Jeffersonians with the prospect of applying the egalitarian principles espoused by the Revolutionary generation. This would require halting the spread of slavery westward, and confining the institution to where it already existed. Faced with a population of 1.5 million slaves, and the lucrative production of cotton, the South would abandon hopes for containment. Slaveholders in the 16th Congress, in an effort to come to grips with this paradox, would resort to a theory that called for extending slavery geographically so as to encourage its decline: "diffusion".


On February 16, 1819, the House Committee of the Whole voted to link Tallmadge's provisions with the Missouri enabling legislation, approving the move 79-67. Following the committee vote, debates resumed over the merits of each of Tallmadge's provisions in the enabling act. The debates in the House's 2nd session in 1819 lasted only three days. They have been characterized as "rancorous", "fiery", "bitter", "blistering", "furious" and "bloodthirsty".

Northern representatives outnumbered the South in House membership 105 to 81. When each of the restrictionist provisions were put to the vote, they passed along sectional lines: 87 to 76 in favor of prohibition on further slave migration into Missouri (Table 1) and 82 to 78 in favor of emancipating slave offspring at age twenty-five.

The enabling bill was passed to the Senate, where both parts of the bill were rejected: 22 to 16 opposed to restricting new slaves in Missouri (supported by five northerners, two of whom were the proslavery legislators from the free state of Illinois); and 31 to 7 against gradual emancipation for slave children born post-statehood. House antislavery restrictionists refused to concur with the Senate proslavery anti-restrictionists: Missouri statehood would devolve upon the 16th Congress in December 1819.

Federalist "plots" and "Consolidation"

The Missouri Compromise debates stirred suspicions among proslavery interests that the underlying purpose of the Tallmadge amendments had little to do with opposition to slavery expansion. The accusation was first leveled in the House by the Republican anti-restrictionist John Holmes from the District of Maine. He suggested that Senator Rufus King's "warm" support for the Tallmadge amendment concealed a conspiracy to organize a new antislavery party in the North – a party composed of old Federalists in combination with disaffected antislavery Republicans. The fact that King, in the Senate, and Tallmadge and Tyler, in the House – all New Yorkers – were among the vanguard for slavery restriction in Missouri lent credibility to these charges. When King was re-elected to the US Senate in January 1820, during the 16th Congress debates, and with bipartisan support, suspicions deepened and would persist throughout the crisis. Southern Jeffersonian Republican leadership, including President Monroe and former President Thomas Jefferson considered it as an article of faith that Federalists, given the chance, would destabilize the Union so as to re-impose monarchal rule in North America, and "consolidate" political control over the people by expanding the functions of the central government. Jefferson, at first unperturbed by the Missouri question, soon became convinced that a northern conspiracy was afoot, with Federalists and crypto-Federalists posing as Republicans, using Missouri statehood as a pretext.

Due to the disarray of the Republican Ascendency brought about by amalgamation, fears abounded among Southerners that a Free State party might take shape in the event that Congress fail to reach an understanding over Missouri and slavery: Such a party would threaten Southern preeminence. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts surmised that the political configuration for just such a sectional party already existed. That the Federalists were anxious to regain a measure of political participation in national politics is indisputable. There was no basis, however, for the charge that Federalists had directed Tallmadge in his antislavery measures, nor was there anything to indicate that a New York-based King-Clinton alliance sought to erect an antislavery party on the ruins of the Republican Party. The allegations by Southern proslavery interests of a "plot" or that of "consolidation" as a threat to the Union misapprehended the forces at work in the Missouri crisis: the core of the opposition to slavery in the Louisiana Purchase were informed by Jeffersonian egalitarian principles, not a Federalist resurgence.

Development in Congress

To balance the number of "slave states" and "free states," the northern region of what was then Massachusetts, the District of Maine, ultimately gained admission into the United States as a free state to become Maine. This only occurred as a result of a compromise involving slavery in Missouri, and in the federal territories of the American west. The admission of another slave state would increase the South's power at a time when northern politicians had already begun to regret the Constitution's Three-Fifths Compromise. Although more than 60 percent of whites in the United States lived in the North, by 1818 northern representatives held only a slim majority of congressional seats. The additional political representation allotted to the South as a result of the Three-Fifths Compromise gave southerners more seats in the House of Representatives than they would have had if the number was based on just free population. Moreover, since each state had two Senate seats, Missouri's admission as a slave state would result in more southern than northern senators. A bill to enable the people of the Missouri Territory to draft a constitution and form a government preliminary to admission into the Union came before the House of Representatives in Committee of the Whole, on February 13, 1819. James Tallmadge of New York offered an amendment, named the Tallmadge Amendment, that forbade further introduction of slaves into Missouri, and mandated that all children of slave parents born in the state after its admission should be free at the age of 25. The committee adopted the measure and incorporated it into the bill as finally passed on February 17, 1819, by the house. The United States Senate refused to concur with the amendment, and the whole measure was lost.

During the following session (1819–1820), the House passed a similar bill with an amendment, introduced on January 26, 1820, by John W. Taylor of New York, allowing Missouri into the union as a slave state. The question had been complicated by the admission in December of Alabama, a slave state, making the number of slave and free states equal. In addition, there was a bill in passage through the House (January 3, 1820) to admit Maine as a free state.

The Senate decided to connect the two measures. It passed a bill for the admission of Maine with an amendment enabling the people of Missouri to form a state constitution. Before the bill was returned to the House, a second amendment was adopted on the motion of Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, excluding slavery from the Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north (the southern boundary of Missouri), except within the limits of the proposed state of Missouri.

The vote in the Senate was 24 for the compromise, to 20 against. The amendment and the bill passed in the Senate on February 17 and February 18, 1820. The House then approved the Senate compromise amendment, on a vote of 90 to 87, with those 87 votes coming from free state representatives opposed to slavery in the new state of Missouri. The House then approved the whole bill, 134 to 42 (the latter votes being from southern states).

Second Missouri Compromise

The two houses were at odds not only on the issue of the legality of slavery, but also on the parliamentary question of the inclusion of Maine and Missouri within the same bill. The committee recommended the enactment of two laws, one for the admission of Maine, the other an enabling act for Missouri. They recommended against having restrictions on slavery but for including the Thomas amendment. Both houses agreed, and the measures were passed on March 5, 1820, and were signed by President James Monroe on March 6.

The question of the final admission of Missouri came up during the session of 1820–1821. The struggle was revived over a clause in Missouri's new constitution (written in 1820) requiring the exclusion of "free negroes and mulattoes" from the state. Through the influence of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay "The Great Compromiser", an act of admission was finally passed, upon the condition that the exclusionary clause of the Missouri constitution should "never be construed to authorize the passage of any law" impairing the privileges and immunities of any U.S. citizen. This deliberately ambiguous provision is sometimes known as the Second Missouri Compromise.

Impact on political discourse

During the decades following 1820, Americans hailed the 1820 agreement as an essential compromise almost on the sacred level of the Constitution itself. Although the Civil War broke out in 1861, historians often say the Compromise helped postpone the war.

These disputes involved the competition between the southern and northern states for power in Congress and for control over future territories. There were also the same factions emerging as the Democratic-Republican party began to lose its coherence.

In an April 22 letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the division of the country created by the Compromise Line would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union:

...but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

Congress' consideration of Missouri's admission also raised the issue of sectional balance, for the country was equally divided between slave and free states with eleven each. To admit Missouri as a slave state would tip the balance in the Senate (made up of two senators per state) in favor of the slave states. For this reason, northern states wanted Maine admitted as a free state.

On the constitutional side, the Compromise of 1820 was important as the example of Congressional exclusion of slavery from U.S. territory acquired since the Northwest Ordinance.

Following Maine's 1820 and Missouri's 1821 admissions to the Union, no other states were admitted until 1836, when Arkansas was admitted.

The Compromise was deeply disappointing to African-Americans in both the North and South. It stopped the southern progression of gradual emancipation at Missouri's southern border and legitimized slavery as a southern institution.


The provisions of the Missouri Compromise forbidding slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north were effectively repealed by Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. The repeal of the Compromise caused outrage in the North and sparked the return to politics of Abraham Lincoln, who excoriated Douglas's act in his "Peoria Speech" (October 16, 1854).


Missouri Compromise Wikipedia