Recap: “Slavery & Politics at the University of Missouri,” with Kinder Institute Postdoc Zachary Dowdle

When then-aspiring politician James Sidney Rollins gave a July 4, 1834, public speech on the importance of education, he must have known that he was preaching to the choir. The state’s Whig-leaning population was open in its belief that an informed citizenry would benefit both civic and economic life in Missouri, and when Rollins reached the state house in 1838, he made good on the implied promise of his Independence Day oration by proposing a bill that would pit six counties against each other in a bid to house a public university. All six were centrally-located along the Missouri River, with dense enough populations and strong enough economic bases to support an institution of higher learning. These counties’ wealth, Kinder Institute Postdoc Zachary Dowdle noted in unpacking the driving force behind both his February 21 talk and his recently completed dissertation, was also built on the labor of enslaved people.

That the creation of the University of Missouri bears the stain of slavery is undeniable, and it is a history that can be observed from a variety of documentary angles. Slaveholders contributed approximately 76% of the nearly $100,000 raised in a subscription drive to support bringing the university to Boone County. 60% of funds generated by the sale of federal seminary lands for the same purpose came from the slaveholding class. And though he never could find the “smoking gun” explicitly linking the physical construction of the university to the labor of enslaved people, Prof. Dowdle allowed that, for a variety of reasons, it’s a truth we’re safe to assume. As UMKC Prof. Diane Mutti-Burke’s research on the Missouri slave economy shows, leasing enslaved people out was a common practice in the state, and records reflect that much of the labor used to build the university was sub-contracted. On this note, Prof. Dowdle argued that the fact that an 1840 call-for-laborers singled out a shortage of journeyman suggests that much of the unskilled labor needs had indeed been filled by enslaved people. That the leasing of enslaved men and women to serve as janitors and attendants was a norm at MU in the 1840s and 1850s only further supports the case that their coerced labor was indispensable to the university’s opening its doors in 1841.

Prof. Dowdle would go on to demonstrate, however, that the university’s inescapably intertwined relationship with slavery is perhaps more complicated than meets the eye. For example, a brief look at the biographies of the three candidates for the university’s first presidentship would suggest that promoting a pro-slavery position was not at the fore of curators’ minds. Andrew Wylie was a committed participant in Western Pennsylvania’s abolitionist movement while president of Washington College. John Clarke Young, a Princeton-trained, anti-slavery Presbyterian minister and president of Centre College in Kentucky, freed the enslaved people he inherited through marriage and continued his manumission efforts thereafter, acquiring slaves so to then emancipate them. And John Hiram Lathrop, who would eventually become Mizzou’s first president, never owned slaves and was driven from his position as Professor of Law and Civil Society at Hamilton College after not coming out in opposition to a student-signed anti-slavery petition with enough fervor to suit the New York legislature. Proving the young university’s legitimacy by establishing connections to elite Eastern institutions was, it seems, the primary concern of first wave administrators.

If the state, too, was relatively complacent about the issue of slavery during MU’s first years, this would change in the mid-1840s, as national debates about the expansion of slavery heated up. The toll on the university would be marked. Prof. Dowdle explained how an airtight clique of antagonistic Democrats’ first move was to push through re-districting legislation that would change the composition of the Board of Curators to skew pro-slavery. With new leadership in place, Lathrop was effectively ousted and replaced by James Shannon. A Belfast-born Southern Baptist minister and devotee of the John C. Calhoun school of pro-slavery theology, Shannon accepted the offer to serve as president on two conditions: that he get life-tenure and that he be allowed to continue to preach the gospel. The latter would put him squarely in the crosshairs of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As Shannon traversed the state, delivering sermons on the biblical justifications of slavery, Benton became more and more vocal in espousing his fear that Shannon’s sectarian politics were tarnishing the reputation and perverting the mission of the university by re-shaping it into an institution designed to produce pro-nullification, pro-Calhoun ideologues. Initially, nothing came of this, but with the Kansas-Nebraska Act demanding re-consideration among Missourians of slavery’s spread westward, Whig and moderate Democrat editors began to apply even greater anti-Shannon pressure on the state legislature and the MU curators. Finding that the president was spending far more time outside the university than on campus, and observing a dispiriting shift toward irregular enrollment, the legislature didn’t forcibly remove Shannon from his post but instead amended the bill determining the terms of his employment to preclude preaching. The curators, unsurprisingly, re-tenured him, but Shannon rejected the offer, choosing to instead assume the same office he held at MU at the newly created, Disciples of Christ-affiliated Culver-Stockton College in Canton, MO.