America’s Long Journey: The Missouri Compromise

Slavery had been prohibited in the Northwest Territory since 1787, the second-most-important decision (after the Declaration of Independence) taken by the Continental Congress in the years between 1774 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1789. For reasons that we will go into at the proper time, this ordinance set important precedents, deciding the manner in which the new government was going to organize territories held in common. But for the moment, we confine ourselves to the results of the decision to ban slavery, which, as stated, actually predated the Constitution. (The act was reaffirmed by the first Congress.)

The Northwest Territory was the great triangle of land between the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes. The first territory owned by the general government rather than by an individual state, it was also the first territory in which slavery was prohibited from the outset. We know Jefferson’s response to the sudden surfacing of the slavery issue as a regional rather than as a national problem. It is well to remember that Jefferson had as much to do with the Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery as any man living. But he hadn’t foreseen how his precedent was going to morph until it threatened civil war.

Until 1820, the nation’s growth was incremental and non-divisive. The original 13 states had been joined by Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), and Alabama (1819). Orderly, peaceful and logical. As new territory achieved a certain minimal population, it petitioned for admission, northwestern and southwestern states coming in more or less together. By 1820, the slave-holding and non-slave-holding states numbered eleven each.

But in 1819, the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. Missouri, like Louisiana (which had been a state for seven years), lay west of the Mississippi River, and thus was not part of the territory covered by the Northwest Ordinance.

Representative James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York offered two amendments to the Missouri statehood bill, prohibiting further importation of slaves into Missouri and requiring gradual emancipation for slaves already there. The amendments passed (along regional lines) in the House, but failed in the evenly divided Senate. This began a solid year of Congressional debate on the issue. Northerners argued that Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in a new state. Southerners said that new states had the same freedom to choose slavery as the original thirteen had had.

The slave states were already outnumbered in the House and clearly destined to be ever more outnumbered (as few emigrants chose to move to territory where they would have to compete with slave labor). They determined to keep a de facto veto power over federal legislation by maintaining parity in the Senate. The free states, meanwhile, were irritated by the constitutional provision that each male slave be counted as 60% of a man for the purposes of congressional representation, even though they were considered property otherwise. The North considered this constitutionally mandated over-representation of slave states, which it was. The admission of new slave states would make the situation worse.

Finally, the detached part of Massachusetts known as the District of Maine requested statehood. Speaker of the House Henry Clay demanded that Missouri be admitted alongside Maine, which struck his fellow representatives as a way out of their dilemma. The final compromise line was set at 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude. Any part of the Louisiana Purchase territory below the line was to be open to slavery, and anything above it – with the exception of the state of Missouri – was to be free. The Compromise passed the Senate on March 2, 1820, and the House on February 26, 1821.

Clay’s part in the Missouri Compromise earned him the title of “Great Pacificator.” Following this pairing formula, six more states entered the Union – Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Iowa and Wisconsin – entering, like the animals on Noah’s Ark, two by two, until in 1850 California finally overturned the balance.

In hindsight, perhaps it was a mistake to draw a line in the sand, as Jefferson saw right away. But it is the nature of politics to seek the quick fix, the easy way out, and let the future take care of itself. And perhaps the 36-30 line seemed a logical extension of the border formed by the Ohio. The Compromise did result in Congress excluding slavery from national territory, for the first time since the Northwest Ordinance. And Lincoln himself, as shrewd and thoughtful a political observer as ever lived, said that the Missouri Compromise line preserved the peace for 30 years and would have continued to do so had not Kansas-Nebraska destroyed it. Perhaps the best that can be said of the compromise is that it was the work of fallible but patriotic men, and it bought time.

America’s Long Journey: “A Firebell in the night”

Jefferson’s views on slavery were much like those that Abraham Lincoln would form half a century later – disapproval, and a hope that it would gradually die out, mixed with a strong belief that Congressional interference in the domestic institution of the slave states would lead to an end to the Union. But Jefferson, in his old age, did not think that geographically containing the “peculiar institution” was practical or wise or just. Writing to a northern congressman on April 22, 1820, a month after passage of the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson produced this prophetic and much-quoted analysis.

“I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell 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. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way.

“The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. This certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the general government. Could Congress, for example, say that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other state?

“I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.”

Sad words, those. Think of having to say, after spending a lifetime in public service for which you did not necessarily have any more enthusiasm than Washington had, that you could see that all you and your remarkable generation had sacrificed to accomplish was doomed to fail. It amounts to saying that he had lost faith in the people’s ability to govern themselves. And what else had the revolution been about?

Berea College — free for all

I have loved America and American history since before I can remember, but honestly, some of it makes painful reading, especially when you have to read of good things deliberately destroyed by the fears and prejudices of others. Eventually, some of what was lost can be regained, but think of all those wasted years! And today (at least since 1994, when a deliberately obstructionist Republican majority was elected to the House of Representatives in reaction to Bill Clinton’s first two years) we are in the trough of one of those spells of reaction that undo the good and reinforce the malicious.

But even in bad times, some good things survive, and serve as models.


Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey

The third-best-known slave revolt in American history (after Nat Turner’s and John Brown’s, if Brown’s can be counted as a slave revolt) didn’t actually happen. It was planned and widely organized, but it was disclosed to authorities before it could be set into motion. Its author, and many another with him, was executed, and none of the prospective victims were harmed. Nonetheless, it was exactly what the white population had been fearing, chronically and acutely, in the twenty years or so since the French had lost Haiti to a slave rebellion. The consequences of Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy were widespread, and unfortunate.

The facts in a nutshell:

Denmark Vesey was born, possibly in Africa, possibly on the island of St. Thomas, in about 1767, and was sold in 1781 to a Bermuda sea captain named Joseph Vesey, who sold him to a planter in Saint-Domingue. But Denmark was subject to epileptic fits, and the planter required Vesey to cancel the sale. So Vesey reclaimed the slave and kept him as his personal servant.

First stroke of fate: Denmark Vesey became acquainted with Saint-Domingue more than 20 years before it became Haiti, and then epilepsy rescued him from life there.

Young Denmark assumed his master’s surname and traveled with him until 1783, when Joseph Vesey retired and settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

Second stroke of fate: On November 9, 1799, in his early thirties, Denmark Vesey won $1,500 in a city lottery, and purchased his freedom.

He lived in the city as a freedman for nearly another quarter of a century, working as a carpenter, and was one of the co-founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We don’t know anything much about his life in these long years. What we do know is that at some point he began planning and organizing an uprising, to begin on Bastille Day (July 14), 1822.

Like everyone else, he was familiar with the story of the Haitian slave revolt. His plan apparently envisioned blacks from Charleston and from nearby plantation attacking guardhouses and arsenals in order to seize arms, then to kill the whites, burn the city, and sail to Haiti.

Of course, any such plot requires involving large numbers of people. As many as 9,000 blacks, in Charleston and along the Carolina coast, are said to have been involved, though who knows. The point is that any secret shared among so many people becomes its own undoing. That’s what happened here. On the eve of the scheduled insurrection, one of those in the plot betrayed it, and it never came off.

During the ensuing two months, some 130 blacks were arrested, 67 being convicted of attempted insurrection. Vesey and 34 others were hanged, and 32 more were exiled, which presumably means sold into overseas slavery.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The fact that a plot actually existed, and was foiled only at the last minute, verified long-held fears, and of course led to massive over-reaction which in the highly charged emotional climate of the time undoubtedly seemed justified. The state restricted owners’ right to free their slaves, restricted the movement of free blacks in and out of the state, and required free blacks to find a white guardian to vouch for their character. In order to provide more effective control of the black population, the South Carolina Association was formed. And, not least, the legislature mandated that black sailors visiting Charleston be imprisoned until their ship left, an act that was later ruled unconstitutional.

Fear is rarely overcome by logic. It has a logic of its own. Denmark Vesey’s plot, although it didn’t get off the ground, seemed to show North and South alike that the South was sitting on a powder keg. Much later, Abraham Lincoln would argue that the history of slave revolts showed that although the powder was everywhere, the powder trains necessary for a simultaneous explosion were everywhere lacking and could not be provided. But white southerners found this cold comfort, nor could they quite believe it. After all, Haiti showed that a successful slave revolt could happen. Denmark Vesey showed that it could happen here. Nat Turner showed that it was a real, and not merely a theoretical, danger. And, finally, John Brown seemed to show that substantial forces in the North were determined to bring servile war to the South.

It all added to the mix. Fear of slave rebellion was a continual, and continually growing, background presence in the South for 250 years. “We have the wolf by the ears,” Thomas Jefferson said, “and dare not let him go.”

The last New Englander

The last New Englander

Now, what do I mean by calling John Quincy Adams the last New Englander in the White House? It isn’t strictly true geographically, for among his successors are Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire  and Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But the New England values he embodied were being overwhelmed by others. His entire presidential term was a conflict between a man loyal to his upbringing and a country changing into something unrecognizable.

What historians call the First Party System (Federalists, following Alexander Hamilton versus Democratic Republicans, following Thomas Jefferson) had broken down by 1824, as the Federalists all but disappeared. That didn’t mean that all was love and light, any more than usual. It meant merely that the partners in the new square dance hadn’t yet quite found each other. So the nominating process in 1824 was a bit confused.

Back in 1824, presidents were still nominated by caucus, with multi-party races decided among the top three vote getters. Adams’ public record commended him to New England. The West was divided between the supporters of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, and ex-War Hawk and long-time Congressional leader Henry Clay of Kentucky. The fourth candidate (not counting John Calhoun of South Carolina, who entered the race, then dropped out) was William Crawford of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury. Crawford was popular and had support from Madison and Jefferson, but in 1823 he suffered a paralytic stroke, and was still in recovery at the time of the election.

The electoral vote was Jackson 99, Adams 84, William Crawford 41, Henry Clay 37. Nobody had the 131 votes needed to win, so the Twelfth Amendment threw the election to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote. Clay, having come in fourth, was excluded. Crawford was too ill to be seriously considered. So it was between Jackson and Adams, and when Speaker of the House Clay endorsed Adams, Adams was elected by 13 states to seven for Jackson (and four for Crawford).. There was nothing wrong with Clay endorsing Adams. He disliked Jackson, and his and Adams’ views on tariffs and internal improvements were similar. But when Adams then appointed Clay his Secretary of State, he was accused of having made a corrupt bargain for Clay’s support. (In those days, to be Secretary of State was tantamount to being next in line for a presidential nomination.)

An Adams, in a corrupt bargain? Conscience-ridden John Quincy Adams? The idea is ridiculous on the face of it. Yet Jackson believed it, and his supporters believed it, and never tired of repeating the accusation, and the charge overshadowed Adams’ entire term and probably led to his loss to Jackson in 1828.

Adams was a thoroughly modern man, with activist views that would appeal to later generations, but which were too much too soon for his own time. On the one hand he reduced the national debt by more than two thirds, finding it at $16 million and leaving it at just $5 million. On the other hand, in an era of rapid technological change, he wanted to help the country modernize, and he saw a proactive role for the federal government. He proposed a national university, and federal support for the arts and sciences, and an extensive program of “internal improvements” to build roads and canals, and improve harbors, all behind a wall of tariffs designed to protect nascent American industry from foreign competition. This was Henry Clay’s American System, and within a few years would become Whig orthodoxy.

But other than internal improvements, his policies might as well have been designed to alienate the west. Neither the national bank, nor the high tariff, nor restrictions on the sale of public land appealed to the country beyond the Appalachians. And he got no political credit for such policies of his that were popular in the West, such as the extension of the National Road into Ohio, and various canal projects in the west and south. Jackson’s supporters saw to that.

The long and the short of it is, it didn’t matter what his vision was. Jacksonians regarded him as having attained office illegitimately, and opposed anything he proposed to do. Jackson, of course, had no doubts, and fought with no quarter, as always. Adams, as always, refused to play politics according to the rules, allowing his conscience to hobble him in seeking political support. The result was predictable. Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, in the process creating the modern Democratic Party (which led, in short order, to creation of the countervailing Whig Party opposing “King Andrew.”)

Jackson, armored as always in his invincible certainties, refused to pay the traditional courtesy call on the outgoing president whom he still regarded as having served illegitimately. Adams, in turn, did not attend Jackson’s inauguration, and it is hard to blame him.

Stubborn, intelligent, upright John Quincy Adams. Like his father, his own man, driven by his conscience, isolated by the malice, suspicion and slander of his enemies, and his own inability to generate warm emotional support among his supporters or keep them in line by using the party apparatus. Like his father, a one-term president, repudiated by his contemporaries and vindicated by historians. But when old John Adams left the White House in 1801, he was finished with politics and statecraft, and glad of it. His son, leaving office in 1829, probably thought that he too had come to the end of his distinguished public career, not suspecting that he was less than two years away from the opening of a very satisfying third act.

The Election of 1828

The Election of 1828

In viewing political movement, we tend to mistake cause for effect. Thermometers don’t cause fevers, they reflect them. Elections usually don’t determine political realignments; they reflect realignments that have already taken place. The 1828 fever-chart showed a nation in the midst of several profound transitions.

Before 1828, politics was still more or less in the hands of the class that had shaped the revolution and had guided the republic through its first half century. For all the bitter differences between New England federalists and the Virginia dynasty, they were all statesmen shaped by the confrontation with England; they were all classically educated; they were all aristocrats or their lawyers.

Before 1828, presidential nominations came by way of congressional caucus. The assumption was that elected officials were the best judges of which candidates were best qualified to become chief magistrate. Various geographical regions had their own candidates, and political insiders judged among them. The people in general acquiesced, leaving politics to their betters.

Jackson’s election shook up the whole system. Partly it was his doing; partly it was Jackson being elevated by the rising tide.

As soon as Adams was inaugurated as president in 1825, Jackson resigned from his senate seat and set out with characteristic single-mindedness to replace him. Working with brilliant New York politician Martin Van Buren, he assembled a coalition that reshaped American politics. His charismatic personality and controversial policies energized a large part of the American electorate that until then had been content to leave the decision to the professionals and to the upper and middle classes who had heretofore dominated political life. Now, the common people were emotionally engaged to an unprecedented degree.

With this new engagement came partisan press attacks even more bitter than those that had harassed Washington and his successors to date. With it came a new degree of personal party loyalty. Politics assumed an importance in voters’ lives that it never had before. Within a few years, selection of presidential candidates by Congressional caucus had to be replaced by selection by political conventions.

Jackson’s single-minded campaign to replace Adams succeeded. He swept every region of the country except New England, New Jersey and Delaware, winning 178 electoral votes to Adams’ 83. The full results of Jackson and Van Buren’s alliance took a while to become obvious, but in retrospect it could be seen that it had carried the republic’s politics from its 1824 state of flux into what historians call the Second Party System of Democrats and Whigs.

The Democracy held to low tariffs (for revenue purposes only, rather than protection), to silver and gold, and to the older pattern of small family farms, and expansion to provide more land to continue the old pattern. As might be imagined, the Democracy’s strength centered on the frontier and in more isolated areas.

But Jackson’s and Van Buren’s party brought forth an opposition party, which called itself the Whig Party (in opposition to “King Andrew”) led by Henry Clay. The Whigs had a program for modernizing the economy – Clay’s American System – and their numbers included bankers, businessmen, and commercial farmers. Whigs flourished in the cities and, outside the cities, in market towns and commercial areas. They argued for high tariffs to foster the growth of American industry, for banks and paper money to facilitate commerce, and for public works programs to build roads, canals and railroads, to provide the infrastructure needed for rapid economic development.

(Minor parties sprang up and went away – the Anti-Masonic Party, the Liberty Party, later the Free Soil Party – but the pattern was fixed as Democrats versus Whigs until the Whigs split up and the Republican Party was born in the 1850s.)

This Second Party System endured for a quarter century, until the mounting uproar over the expansion of slavery destroyed the Whigs and brought forth the Republicans. Most Whig policies became Republican policies, just as many prominent Republicans, such as William Seward and Abraham Lincoln, were former Whigs. The changing times favored their vision of the nation’s future.

The Democracy had a brief period of dominance, peaking in the presidency of James Polk, but in retrospect it can be seen that they were trying to hold back the tide. We were not going to be a nation of small towns and small farms. The Democracy went into a decline that lasted, with brief and almost accidental interruptions (the presidencies of Cleveland and Wilson) until the Great Depression reshaped politics once again. The Democrats had hitched their wagon to the wrong star.

Nat Turner’s long shadow

Nat Turner’s long shadow

As we shall see, between the years 1791 and 1804, a slave revolt in the French island of Saint-Domingue ended in the massacre or expulsion not only of the French planters and the army the French sent to recapture its possession, but of all the white people on the island. Saint-Domingue, which we know as Haiti, is across a narrow channel from Cuba, and uncomfortably close to the slave plantations of the South. From that time on, slave owners in the South lived in the shadow of a successful slave revolt.

In fact, it was an easy association of ideas. If you expressed criticism of slavery, you must be an abolitionist, and, if an abolitionist, you must advocate a slave rebellion (or, as they called it, “servile warfare”. Advocating servile warfare, you were a traitor to your own race, a criminal, deliberately putting into danger the life and fortunes of millions of white men, women and children.

These leaps of illogic were irrational, but, in an age that did not yet understand the power of the unconscious mind, they were all the stronger for being unconscious. Because of that, when events seemed to validate the logic of their fears, the fears became unquestionable, became dogma, and undercut any grounds for compromise that might have remained. We saw the results of John Brown’s capture of Harper’s Ferry. But nearly 30 years before that was Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Turner’s wasn’t the first slave uprising in the United States. Between the entry of the first slaves in the early 1600s and emancipation in 1865, by some counts there were more than 250 attempted uprisings involving 10 slaves or more, or an average of one a year. But Nat Turner’s was among the most traumatic, and started the most lasting consequences. His revolt took place in August, 1831, without encouragement from, or connection with, any white outsider.. But William Lloyd Garrison’s intemperate newspaper The Liberator had begun issuing fiery condemnations the previous January, and many Southerners jumped to the conclusion that Turner’s revolt was a direct result of encouragement by Northern Abolitionists. If the argument was factually incorrect, it nonetheless followed the emotional logic of the Southern state of siege, which henceforth got ever worse.

Net Turner’s story is simple but strange. He was a slave who lived in Southampton County, Virginia, (near present-day Suffolk) Highly intelligent, able to read and write from a young age, he grew deeply religious, frequently fasting, praying or reading the Bible. He had visions, which he took to be messages from God. In February, 1831, he took a solar eclipse to be the sign he was waiting for, and started preparing for a rebellion against the slave-masters. On August 13, 1831, an atmospheric disturbance made the Sun appear bluish-green, and he took this as the final sign from God that he was to begin to kill his enemies. A week later, on August 21, he and several other slaves and free blacks (ultimately numbering more than 70) began traveling from house to house, freeing the slaves they met and killing all the whites. First to last, they killed about sixty white men, women and children. On the morning of the 23rd, a white militia defeated the band of slaves, and the formal rebellion was over.

But the killing wasn’t. Now it was the turn of white society. Virginia executed 56 blacks, banished many more, and acquitted a few. Nearly 200 more were killed by white militias and mobs in the hysteria that followed. Rumors said that the slave revolt extended as far as Alabama, which was ridiculous except as an illustration of fear fueled by uncertainty. In neighboring North Carolina, rumor had it that armies of slaves had massacred the inhabitants of the city of Wilmington and were marching on the state capital. All across the South, for more than two weeks, whites attacked blacks for little or no cause. One company of militia reportedly killed 40 in one day.

Turner was not captured until October 30, 1831. On November 5, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, and was hanged six days later. His corpse was flayed, beheaded, and quartered.

What followed was a further triumph of fear. The Virginia General Assembly made it unlawful to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write, and prohibited blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister. New legislation in southern states prohibited the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reduced the rights of free blacks.

Some good almost came of it. In the spring of 1832, the Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery in the state, with some urging gradual emancipation. However, when it came to a vote, slavery won. Virginia was the mother of presidents, the state with prestige unequalled throughout the South. Had slavery been abolished there, no matter how long the timetable, the good results that could have come are incalculable. Didn’t happen. Instead, emancipation would come abruptly, without preparation, without compensation, as a war measure in the middle of the devastation and bitterness attendant to civil war. In other words, it came in about the worst way possible.