A Fire Bell in the Past: The Missouri Crisis at 200, Feb. 2019 Conference


A rousing success, if we do say so ourselves, the February 15-16 conference reassessing the Missouri Crisis on the eve of its 200th anniversary brought together scholars from as far away as Gothenburg and as close as MU’s Tate Hall to discuss the whirlwind of events surrounding Missouri’s contentious application for statehood. A full conference schedule can be found here, and a not-to-be-missed “live recording” of the conference can be found on the @MO_Crisis200 Twitter account, thanks to the dexterity of History M.A. candidate Jordan Pellerito, but what follows are brief synopses of some of the extraordinary presentations that we were lucky enough to have made it out for during the busy weekend.

Bobby Lee, 2017-2020 Harvard University Junior Fellow, “The Boon’s Lick Land Rush and the Coming of the Missouri Crisis”

In an attempt to block Missouri’s entrance into the union, New York Senator Rufus King pegged the territory’s population in 1820 at around 11,000, below the threshold necessary for admission. At the center of Dr. Lee’s talk was not only just how willfully wrong King’s estimate was but also the population boom that made it so. As Lee explained, while the Tallmadge Amendment might have been the spark for the Missouri Crisis, the Amendment never would have come to be had tens of thousands of settlers not “pour[ed] like a flood” and “crash[ed] like an avalanche” into present day Howard County, MO—just 45 minutes north and west from the conference site—between 1815 and 1820.

As is so often the case, the history of Boon’s Lick, ground zero for the explosive demographic change that the Missouri territory experienced in the eighteen-teens, was one of craven, unjust dispossession. The land around Boon’s Lick was ideal for settlement: fertile, rich with game and timber, and river-accessible. It was also Ioway and Sac and Fox land that settlers for some time had been occupying illegally. However, on the specious grounds that the land had already been ceded to the U.S. in a treaty with the Osage, Indian title was revoked in 1815, leading to a 1700% surge in Howard County’s population in the five years after (making it the fastest growing county in the United States during this period). By 1820, Missouri as a whole boasted over 66,000 residents, more than enough to qualify for statehood and, with this, give rise to the debates over the extension of slavery into western territories that the next two days would be devoted to examining. As Dr. Lee noted in closing, the story of Boon’s Lick isn’t necessarily an isolated one, and we would do well to remember that land, and not gold, served as the single strongest magnet for immigration and migration throughout nineteenth-century United States history.

Diane Mutti-Burke, University of Missouri-Kansas City Professor of History, “Jefferson’s Fire-Bell: Slavery in the American Borderlands”

Slavery in Missouri, Prof. Mutti-Burke noted at the outset of her presentation, was not identical to slavery in the deep south. As she would show in the course of giving an overview of her conference paper—and as William Wells Brown likewise made clear in his Narrative—though perhaps different “when compared with the cotton, sugar, and rice growing states,” slavery in Missouri was no less brutal or inhumane.

The primary distinguishing factor between slavery in the Missouri borderlands and slavery in the cotton belt was one of scale. The vast majority of farms in Missouri were owned by proprietors who held ten or fewer slaves, and the entire number of enslaved persons never exceeded 18% of the state’s total population. This difference in scale created differences in practice. For example, because of close quarters on the small farms, there was a much higher degree of day-to-day personal interaction, leading on one hand to a new form of resistance for enslaved persons—exploiting intimate knowledge—but on the other hand to greater, even more unchecked abuse on the part of slaveholders. In addition, issues related to labor shortage and to the variable nature of seasonal demands in a diverse agricultural economy were addressed by an inter-farm hiring network, a practice that placed a particular burden on the nuclear family. Abroad marriages became a norm in Missouri, with enslaved men often living miles, if not counties, away from their wives and children. While this produced more liberal policies regarding the mobility of enslaved people, as well as greater familiarity and interaction within the slave community as a whole, the work frolics and church services in which enslaved persons took part always came with both greater oversight and the consequences thereof.

Matthew White, Ph.D. Candidate in History at The Ohio State University, “Pennsylvania’s Missouri Crisis and the Viability of Anti-Slavery Politics”

Sarah L.H. Gronningsater, University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor of History, “The New Yorkers? What Were They Thinking? The Origins of the Tallmadge Amendment” (Paper delivered by CUNY-Graduate Center Professor of History David Waldstreicher)

When asked by Jefferson Davis in an 1850 letter whether he had, in fact, been present at an 1819 anti-slavery meeting in Lancaster, PA, James Buchanan responded that he had but quickly added that he was merely “under the influence of the excitement then universal.” As White argued in his talk, the anti-slavery excitement to which Buchanan referred was in large part the end result of a steady, post-1812 economic decline in Pennsylvania that crescendoed with the Panic of 1819 crippling Philadelphia’s textile manufacturers. The violence—political and physical—that ensued revealed fissures that had been forming for some time, namely between pro-bank Family Party Pennsylvanians and the state’s Independent Republicans, anti-bank anti-federalists with deep ideological and membership ties to the American Revolution. In 1819, however, the latter party’s ire became outward- and southward-facing. At nominating conventions across the state, including the one in question in Davis’ letter to Buchanan, anti-tariff, pro-slavery, and anti-Tallmadge/anti-restriction positions were folded both into one another and into a single historical memory, coming to be collectively demonized by Independent Republicans as betraying and profaning the Revolution’s promise to extend freedom into prosperity. As the Missouri Crisis heated up, a rhetoric of disunion heated up with it, though White noted in closing that radical Pennsylvanians would back away from the precipice of imagining an “American Flanders,” ultimately concluding that while it could be a component of a party platform, anti-slavery sentiment could not itself drive one.

Just north of Philadelphia, anti-slavery fervor (and reticence) would likewise shape many New Yorkers’ thoughts about the Crisis. Or, as Prof. Gronningsater’s paper explored, it was not at all happenstance that the Tallmadge Amendment emerged from the pen of a New York representative. While the state had as many slaves as Georgia in the 1780s, abolition would begin in and continue throughout the 1790s and early 1800s, with former slaves in New York not only gaining freedom but also (at least for men) the franchise. There was, of course, backlash to this, particularly when it became clear that the support of once enslaved men was sizable enough to sway elections, and the certificate of freedom requirement passed in 1811 was un-subtly designed to suppress the black vote. It would be another decade, though, until an insidious disenfranchisement scheme actually worked, and the pre-1821 protection of the rights of former slaves in New York suggested a broader understanding of citizenship at the state level that mapped directly onto the debate over Missouri at the national level. While Martin Van Buren and his bucktails might have abstained from voting on how New Yorkers would collectively respond to the Missouri question, DeWitt Clinton and others were openly and adamantly against the expansion of slavery into Missouri or any other new state, arguing for constitutional recognition of the fact that citizens of New York should be recognized as citizens of all states and that safeguarding the rights of black New Yorkers in Missouri thus required the wholesale ouster of slavery in new lands.

Stepping out of his role as a medium for Sarah Gronningsater, Prof. Waldstreicher added that the story of New York might be used to re-orient the Missouri Crisis’ place within the larger narrative of nineteenth-century U.S. history, positioning it not as the early tremors of the Civil War but instead as the waning moments of the first wave of emancipation that brought questions of race, voting, and democracy to the national stage and introduced new forms and magnitudes of partisan strategizing.

Chris Childers, Pittsburg State University Assistant Professor of History, “The Missouri Crisis and the Uncontested Reelection of James Monroe”

Such partisan strategizing reappeared in full force during Saturday afternoon’s presentation on the uncontested reelection of James Monroe. In an 1819 letter to Jefferson, Prof. Childers began, John Adams described how “clouds, black and thick” loomed over the nation and the 1820 election, though Adams immediately qualified his dire empyreal symbolism by noting that he expected the president and vice-president to be brought back into office by a great majority. And indeed they were; only three states showed even half-hearted resistance to Monroe’s reelection.

As the talk laid out, however, the 1820 election results reflected neither the obstacles Monroe faced on the path back to the presidency nor how the obstacles themselves cast doubt on just how good the feelings were in the “era of good feelings.” Monroe’s relationship with the old guard in his own state is a case study in both this electoral obstruction and how Monroe strategically maneuvered his way around it. And the Missouri Crisis, Prof. Childers showed, was in the middle of it all. Though Monroe initially spoke out against the restriction of slavery in Missouri, he rankled Virginia politicians by gravitating toward compromise on the issue. Virginia’s democratic-republican establishment firmly believed compromise on the issue to be a threat to state sovereignty and to the union in general, and they responded to what they saw as Monroe’s wavering by making noise in state nominating caucuses about whether or not he was a candidate fit to resolve the Missouri question. Monroe’s response? He and his associates sent a to-be-leaked letter to Richmond Enquirer Editor Thomas Ritchie, the contents of which deflected all compromise attention onto New York Federalist (and overall conference punching bag) Rufus King; hinted at an already-penned presidential veto of any congressional compromise bill; and reiterated Monroe’s constitutional support for opening new states to slavery.

Mollified, the Virginians fell back into line, but they would not be Monroe’s lone opponents. Pro-restriction Northerners, especially DeWitt Clinton in New York, also posed a brief roadblock to Monroe’s second term. In the case of Clinton, Monroe merely drew on patronage politics to quash the challenge in New York, confirming the shifting partisan landscape that Prof. Waldstreicher summoned in closing out his reading of Prof. Gronningsater’s paper.