Guest Essayist: Samuel Postell

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“The Show-Me State” of Missouri ratified the U.S. Constitution August 10, 1821 making it the twenty-fourth state to join the United States. The Missouri State Constitution currently in use was adopted in 1945.

Missouri’s application for U.S. statehood was not only an important event in the state’s history, but is among one of the most important events in our nation’s history. Before Missouri’s application for statehood, the abolitionist factions of the Union were relatively quiet and the Southern defense of slavery as a “positive good” had not yet begun. After Missouri’s application for statehood, it became clear that slavery would become a national issue that would divide the sections of the Union, perhaps to the point of civil war.

Missouri first applied for statehood in 1817, but Congress did not begin to consider enabling acts to allow the territory to create a state constitution until February of 1819. At the end of the day on February 18, 1819, James Tallmadge introduced his amendment which would spark the controversy between the Northern States and the slaveholding states. Tallmadge proposed an amendment that would free all children born of slaves after Missouri had become a state, as well as free all slaves in the state of Missouri once they had reached the age of 25. Various Northerners, particularly from New York and Pennsylvania, began to see such an amendment as a necessary condition for Missouri to become a state.

The Southerners responded with gusto. They feared that such amendments coming from the national congress infringed on the right of a state to determine its own laws, and they feared that such legislation would upset the balance between free and slave states in Congress. The consequence of this, they believed, would be the ultimate extinction of slavery in the Union. And perhaps they were correct: Representative Livermoore urged the House, just before it voted upon the Tallmadge Amendment, that “An opportunity is now presented, if not to diminish at least to prevent, the growth of a sin that sits heavy on the soul of every one of us.” The House voted to include the Tallmadge amendment in a vote of 79 to 67.

But that was not the last word on the Tallmadge Amendment. Although it had passed the House, it had to be accepted by the Senate which was composed of a majority that was principally opposed to the Federal government meddling with slavery in the territories. Thus, the Senate immediately rejected the Tallmadge amendment as part of the Missouri enabling act. Throughout the rest of the Congressional session, the two houses would deliberate upon the Missouri issue, but neither the Northerns in the House nor the Southerners in the Senate would give way. The Congressional session would end with Thomas Cobb’s admonition to Tallmadge that “the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood only can extinguish.” Tallmadge merely responded “so be it.”

The deliberation over Missouri not only occupied the House for the months of February through May of 1819, but it took the Congress the remainder of that year and half of the next to sort out the Missouri question. While the Congress was out of session several petitions were generated in Northern states urging their representatives to deny Missouri’s statehood if that entailed the spread of slavery, and some Southern petitions were signed that threatened secession if Congress blocked Missouri. The nation was on the brink of civil war, the representatives of the people were threatening one another in the chamber, and the nation was facing the greatest economic recession that it had yet seen. What was to be done?

As the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay did something that seems counterintuitive: he delayed the Missouri question for the first half of the following Congressional session, and created a committee. He placed a New Yorker who had been involved in the debates over the Tallmadge Amendment at the head of that committee, and he placed a balance of Northerners and Southerners on that committee. Only in that committee could Missouri be spoken of. Clay attempted to stall while the Senate prepared its bill for the House. He wanted to quell the passions of the much larger body of representatives in order that they not evoke civil war throughout the debates that were to come.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives began to speak of Maine’s admission to statehood. The first day of deliberation upon Maine, Henry Clay left the Speaker’s chair in order to set the stage for debate. He wanted to assure the Northerners that they had much to lose with the debates over Maine if they continued to give the Southerners ultimatums regarding Missouri. If Maine could not be accepted as a state, then the Northerners would lose any opportunity of equaling the Southern representation in the Senate, and this could have long term consequences.

Eventually, the Senate decided to tie Missouri and Maine together as an enabling act, and add an additional proviso excluding slavery from all remaining lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36° 30′ parallel, thanks to Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois. What followed was much heated debate within the House over the bill, eventually leading Clay to organizing a joint committee of representatives in the House and the Senate to deliberate upon the bill. In order to finally pass the bill through the House, Clay had to separate the three bills and pass each individually. Each bill passed by a narrow margin, but what was most important was that the nation averted civil war in the process of accepting two new states.

Henry Clay would thenceforth be known as the “Great Pacificator” for his work in promoting compromise within the House of Representatives. At the end of that session, he would leave the house with a challenge to preserve Union and liberty. He told his colleagues,

“I shall regard (this House) as the great depository of the most important powers of our excellent constitution; as the watchful and faithful centinel of the freedom of the people; as the fairest and truest image of their deliberate will and wishes; and of that branch of government where, if our beloved country shall unhappily be destined to add another to the long list of melancholy examples of the loss of public liberty, we shall witness the last struggles and its expiring throes”

Although the Union had been threatened, and civil war had been evoked, the nation proved its fitness to brave the sirens of civil war through representative deliberation and choice led by selfless compromise.

Sam Postell is a current Graduate Student at the University of Dallas and a former literature teacher at a high school in Dallas Texas. He has two book chapters under publication with the University of Missouri Press, one on the Missouri Compromise, and another on Henry Clay as Speaker of the House. He is currently working on a book on Henry Clay’s Political Thought

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2 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Thank you for the essay.

    The Northern abolitionist had good reason to be concerned over the spread of slavery. The Southern fire eaters were inordinately, overly passionate about spreading slavery. They had openly discussed plans to expand and establish slavery through Mexico into Central and South America. While most Southerners were most concerned with States rights and defending their homes. The Fire Eaters used States rights as lightning bolt to energize Southern states rights to protect their “peculiar institution.” It is not a stretch to compare them and their States Rights exploitation and propaganda efforts to what the Nazi’s did with the Jews.

    Both the Fire Eaters and Nazi underscores the importance of CA’s efforts to maintain an educated citizenry as the best means to protect ourselves and our rights from people who have evil intents. The current threat to silence open, free speech is taking on the same attributes as these prior evils.

    PSD

    Reply
    • Samuel Postell
      Samuel Postell says:

      Thank you so much for your reply! I fully agree with you, and in my essay I didn’t mean to place the extent to which the Southerners were guilty in relief. The Southerners were certainly interested in extending their “peculiar institution”, as Lincoln called it. What is most striking about the Missouri Crisis, in my opinion, is that Clay, who abhorred slavery and asked for a Kentucky Constitutional Convention in 1798, groped for Constitutional ground for restriction throughout the debates. What Clay’s study of the Constitution led him to sadly realize was that there was no Constitutional precedent whereby the Congress could affix conditions to state constitutions that would govern the municipal institutions of the territory once it became a state. In a sense, the Thomas Amendment, and the extension of the NW Ord. Line, made possible the arguments that Lincoln would later make against Douglas and the Supreme Court at Peoria. The Missouri Crisis, although it had to allow the spread of slavery, Constitutionalized Restriction! What a lesson on the imperfections of politics!

      Reply

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