RECAP: “Misleading Myths of the Missouri Crisis,” Colloquium w/ Rothermere American Institute Senior Fellow Donald Ratcliffe

Some key stories in the national narrative have become so familiar, RAI Senior Fellow Donald Ratcliffe argued in introducing his February 26 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, that our telling of them reflects not historical knowledge but gaps therein, not understanding but a perversion thereof. The Missouri Compromise is a prime example of this phenomenon, and he spent his talk laying out the two primary myths that make it so.

Myth 1. That the Compromise was the byproduct of an unflappable commitment to sectional balance

As illustrated in the work of historical geographer D.W. Meinig, the idea that a pro-slavery Senate would only consider Maine’s admission into the union if it were paired with Missouri’s—and, moreover, that this fulfilled a longstanding, unwritten rule regarding sectional balance—simply isn’t born out in the numbers. The original existence of said balance, for example, wasn’t a result of states entering the union in twos but was rather a product of abolition acts passed in 1799 and 1804 in New York and New Jersey. Louisiana entered the union not as counter-ballast to a free state but because of the circumstances of the War of 1812. And while Alabama and Illinois are often treated as an offsetting pair, the reality was that, in terms of how its representatives voted, Illinois was only nominally a free state, meaning that the entrance of Alabama in 1819 gave the South a functional 12-10 advantage.

As for the Maine-Missouri question, so incensed were members of the lower house at the very idea of the two states’ destinies being bound together that five of the seven Massachusetts congressmen representing Maine districts said they would vote against Missouri statehood even if it meant leaving Maine’s fate to the vindictive whims of a slavery-sympathetic Senate. The complete de-coupling of Maine from Missouri, Ratcliffe noted, was thus the first indispensable step in achieving compromise, a conclusion verified by the fact that the two very much did not enter the union together, with Maine coming in immediately after compromise was reached and Missouri following 17 months later, on the heels of heated debates about its proposed constitution banning free Blacks from entering the state. Nor, Ratcliffe continued, did the Missouri Crisis establish a pattern. Between 1822-1844, only Arkansas and Michigan were admitted to the union, notably in separate congressional sessions. Two slave states, Florida and Texas, were admitted in 1845, creating unbalance that lasted until Iowa (December 1846) and Wisconsin (May 1848) leveled the political scales. And from there, only free states were admitted, with the exception of West Virginia during the Civil War.

What, then, explains compromise, if not sectional balance?

Myth 2. That the Compromise was a result of weak-willed Northern doughfaces caving to the interests of the slave empire

The twists and turns leading up to the 1820 Compromise reflect, on one hand, just how fluid the Missouri question was and just how little the true magnitude of this fluidity is acknowledged. For example, John W. Taylor’s post-Tallmadge re-proposal of the 36°30’ dividing line was resisted by an anti-slavery contingent looking for total success but accepted by many pro-slavery Southerners (especially in the Old Southwest) whose priority was protecting the institution in Missouri. Just as some momentum for 36°30’ was accruing, Rufus King’s fiery moral condemnation of slavery on the Senate floor generated pushback from the South, which only compounded lingering Northern fear that the dividing line was fundamentally meaningless and would be challenged by Southern states as soon as the opportunity to do so arose.

The fluidity only intensified as resolution began to appear imminent. A mere 24 hours after a committee to settle the issue was appointed on February 29, 1820, it seemed that the tide had shifted finally toward the side of anti-slavery, as the March 1 draft of the Compromise that was presented for a vote expanded upon the original terms of the Tallmadge Amendment, forbidding any further introduction of slavery into Missouri and freeing children of enslaved parents immediately upon birth (versus at 25-years old in Tallmadge’s initial proposal). The legislation that passed on March 3, however, appeared on the surface to be a near complete reversal of course as well as a major blow to the anti-slavery House majority: while slavery was outlawed in any (non-Missouri) territory from the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30’, no restrictions on the introduction, nor any provisions for the emancipation, of enslaved people were included.

For support to shift so suddenly away from the hardline anti-slavery version of the bill required an 18-vote swing, and as the story goes, each of these 18 votes came from a cowering doughface who turned coat on the Northern cause. This story, Ratcliffe assured us, is wrong. Ten of the 18 votes were in fact expected, he explained, with seven coming from free state congressmen who had long voted the pro-slavery line and three coming from anti-slavery legislators, like Joseph Bloomfield of New Jersey and Henry Storrs of New York, who were convinced that Congress lacked the constitutional power to impose the kinds of restrictions on slavery contained in the Tallmadge Amendment and subsequent variations on it. As for the remaining eight votes, half were actually calculated abstentions while the remaining four came from congressmen (Charles Kinsey and Bernard Smith of New Jersey, for example) who saw the bill not as caving to the slave power but as a maximization of the unique leverage that the North had at that moment in time. They saw it, that is, as a way to get the South, so devoted to the entrance of a pro-slavery Missouri, to concede as much of the Louisiana Purchase territory as possible to freedom. As Samuel Eddy of Rhode Island, who joined Kinsey and Smith in supporting the Compromise, noted, to not pursue this outcome would be “to lose all and gain nothing.” Each of these swing votes was, in effect, an act of political suicide, though the four men who cast them did so willingly, on the grounds that they believed banning slavery north of 36°30’—a fertile region bigger than the whole of the early-19th-century U.S.—was a practical and moral victory commensurate with the famous Northwest Ordinance of 1787.