1820 Missouri Compromise: Attempt to Settle Slavery Issue
In early 1820 the issue of slavery was confounding Congress and stirring up much public debate. At that time the nation was evenly divided between slave and free states, with 11 each. However, the vast area of the Louisiana Purchase was being settled, and abolitionists did not want slavery extended into that territory. Missouri, which allowed slavery, had applied unsuccessfully for statehood in 1819, and now Maine—which did not allow slavery—wanted in as well. There was much wrangling back and forth between the Senate and the House of Representatives, and finally the matter was settled on March 3, 1820, when Congress passed legislation known as the Missouri Compromise. President James Monroe signed the bill on March 6.
The compromise allowed Maine to apply as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, but prohibited slavery anywhere else in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri’s southern border—with the exception of Missouri itself. The delicate balance between free and slave states had been maintained, at 12 each. Abolitionists were pleased that no area north of Missouri could become a slave state. Southerners, however, relying on arguments that both the Bible and states’ rights (as protected by the U.S. Constitution) permitted slavery, grumbled. The Missouri Compromise calmed the storm that was rising in early 1820, but clearly the slavery issue was not going to go away.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Holmes on April 22, 1820: “I thank you, Dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read the 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 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.” (Jefferson’s entire letter can be read at this Library of Congress website.)
The following three newspaper articles reflect the controversial times and opinions that gave birth to the Missouri Compromise. The first article is from a Northern newspaper ridiculing pro-slavery arguments based on the Bible and the Constitution. The second, from a paper in a slave state, insists that states’ rights are paramount in this matter, and Congress has no authority expressed in the Constitution to restrict slavery in a state. The third, from another Northern paper, contains more dire words from Thomas Jefferson.
This article was published by the New-Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire) on March 4, 1820:
The Constitution in Danger!
The Virginians have such a regard for this instrument, and the Carolinians for the Bible, that they cannot conscientiously restrict slavery in Missouri, now a Territory. The Constitution forbids it—and the Bible forbids it. Now mark their consistency. On the question of compromise, by restricting slavery north of a certain degree of latitude, these gentlemen with Mr. Parrott, of N.H., at once make a compromise with the Constitution, and their conscientious scruples vanish.
Mr. Smith of S.C. attempted by quotations from the “Holy Bible” to prove that slavery was at least permitted amongst the chosen people of God—that it was a part of the law of God—and asks the question “if we are left to select such laws for our obedience, as we find suited to our inclinations, and our policy, and abrogate the others?” But Mr. Smith is as happy in “quoting scripture to his purpose” as he is consistent in other respects. In the 3d column of a speech filling 11 [columns] of the National Intelligencer, he ridicules the idea of danger from the black population. “This people are so domesticated, or so kindly treated by their masters, and their situations so improved, that Marcus (an anonymous writer in favor of restriction referred to) and all his host, cannot excite one among twenty to insurrection.” Yet towards the close of his speech he deprecates even the mention of ameliorating the condition of slaves, or restricting their emigration, from its probable effects upon the slave population, to excite them to rebellion. “Let us look,” says he, “the danger that threatens us in the face. Let us contemplate a revolt in its progress and consequences,” and then refers to Edwards’ history of the revolt in St. Domingo, and paints the most frightful picture, calling upon the Senate “to preserve our citizens from massacre, our wives and daughters from violations, and our children from being impaled by the most inhuman of savages”—by extending the evil and danger over the vast country in the west.
This article was published by the Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland) on March 4, 1820:
Decision of the Missouri Question
Deprecating as we most sincerely have, and most sincerely do deprecate, that unhallowed spirit of decision and discord and every evil work, which had begun to be manifest in the late discussions, relative to the admission of Missouri; we should be inconsistent with our own principles, did we, by any tone of insult or exultation, aid in protracting the unhappy division which this question has caused. The competent tribunals have decided—they have decided, at any rate, in a manner consonant with the Constitution. It is not pretended that they were bound, by that instrument, to impose conditions on the sovereign power of a state, to be admitted by their act, pursuant to the Constitution. But it is alleged, and to our minds most conclusively proved, that they have no right by that instrument, to decide anything more than the question of admission or non-admission—nay more, that they have no moral right to decide in favor of non-admission.
It would have appeared like presumption, while the controversy was pending, to have obtruded our remarks on a subject, under the closest and most ambitious scrutiny of the combined political wisdom of statesmen, selected from different parts of our country. As it has now been decided, we may be permitted to express our pleasure, at a decision, which we believe to be right and correct. Nay, it may not appear impertinent, to suggest a single point of view, in which the idea of restriction appears to us very absurd—because the more firmly we are convinced the decision is correct, the more probability will follow, of a cheerful, and in the end, a general acquiescence in it. The suggestion, we would renew, has, we know, already been made and enlarged upon. It appears to us, however, to have force, though it has not novelty.
We ask, then, whether there is another single condition or restriction, which ingenuity can conjure up, which it will be pretended Congress have a right to impose on a state asking admission, other than what the Constitution itself imposes? Have Congress a right to require that a state shall impose a property qualification on voters, or the contrary? Have they a right to require the establishment of a state religion, or to require in so many words, (however reason may require it) that religion should be left free, and no legal provision made for its support? Have they a right to insist on a freehold qualification, as in Virginia; a general suffrage as in Maryland; or a possession of personal or real property, as in Massachusetts? In a word, is there another single requisition, except this Slave Restriction one, which it will even be pretended Congress may lawfully impose, in the internal regulations of a state? If there be no other instance, in which this power by inference can even be imagined to be vested, by what train of reasoning is it proved to exist in this solitary case? And as a consequence from these suggestions we may ask the very important question, stated by Judge Cooper: If Missouri, today, is admitted into the Union, under a restriction; and as a sovereign state, tomorrow, chooses to abrogate it [the restriction], is Congress competent to try her for her conduct; annul her constitution; turn her senators out of the hall; and shut the doors in the face of her representatives?
But we forbear to pursue the subject. Our object is rather to advocate acquiescence in the result, than to renew the controversy. Thank God, it is, at last, decided; and, as we believe, decided right. We trust, a spirit of harmony will succeed the spirit of division which has been but too apparent. We do hope, also, that the rage for “much speaking” will subside; and that the period of application to real, effective, important business has arrived. There are certainly (and our legislators ought to know it a great deal better than we do) several important measures, which should at least be maturely considered and decided upon.
This article was published by the New-York Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York) on March 6, 1820:
The Missouri Question Decided
On Thursday last, the Missouri Bill, with the Slavery Restriction as it passed in the House of Representatives, was taken up in the Senate. The restriction was struck out, and a section inserted in its stead, prohibiting Slavery in the Territories of the United States north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude—embracing what is termed the compromise.
Thus amended, the Bill was returned to the House, and at a late hour of the evening, the amendment was adopted by a majority of four. By examining the yeas and nays, it appears that several of the friends of the restriction either left their post of duty and retired to a warm supper and an early bed, or, alarmed at the idle threats of their opponents, fled from the House and yielded the victory. If sound policy required the present result, most certainly that result should have been obtained in a different manner, especially as the question had been already placed in the hands of a committee of conference. We suspect that a letter from Washington, published in one of the Baltimore papers, contains a key to the conduct of those Members who deserted their posts. “Never,” says this letter, “was there a question more warmly contested on the floor of Congress, nor one more calculated to effect an object dear to the enemies of free government.” It was said by one Member, that “the combined influence and powers of kings and priests could not effect a separation of the Union; it had been tried, but in vain—that it was left for ourselves to destroy the only asylum for the oppressed of every clime.”
Today a gentleman from Virginia, Judge Nelson, read an extract of a letter from the sage of the Mountain, as he called Mr. Jefferson, the mention of whose name by the speaker riveted all eyes on him—all was hushed, all anxious to hear—“The Missouri question is the most portentous one which ever yet threatened our Union—in the gloomiest moment of the Revolutionary War, I never had any apprehension equal to that I feel from this source.”
“Such is the warning voice of Jefferson,” [Nelson said.] “It added much to my fears, having always entertained apprehensions of the tranquility of the states being interrupted in the agitation of this question.”
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