RECAP: “The Centrality of Slavery: Settlement, Enslavement, and Middle Class Slaveholders in Missouri, 1770-1820,” Online Colloquium w/ Prof. John Craig Hammond

In providing a preview of what will be the lead chapter in the forthcoming MU Press/Studies in Constitutional Democracy monograph re-visiting the Missouri Crisis at 200, Penn State University-New Kensington Prof. John Craig Hammond, who will edit that volume along with Kinder Institute Associate Director Jeff Pasley, highlighted how little is actually known about the history of enslavement in Missouri despite the state’s central place in the history of slavery. Specifically, he pointed out how recent scholarship on slavery and capitalism has focused largely on deep south plantations at the expense of looking at the borderlands, meaning that we don’t yet have a good answer to the question of how and why a slave society/a society with slaves was constructed in Missouri.

That said, Missouri—or, more accurately, the Missouri Crisis—has held a key place in the historiography of the early nation since 2006: as a marker of the conclusion of politics that began with the Revolution and ended with the Missouri Compromise; as a point of genesis for political parties committed to protecting slavery; and as an inflection point for examining why some southern whites adopted pro-slavery ideology and others retreated from slave politics. As Prof. Hammond argued, though, truly understanding the history of slavery in Missouri requires thinking about the 50 years prior to the Crisis and how they led to this breaking point. As he studies in his chapter—and as he outlined in his talk—un-earthing this pre-Crisis narrative demands close attention to the degree to which, beginning in the 1770s, slavery and European settlement were inextricably bound together in the Missouri territory. Perceiving the enslavement of Africans as a pre-requisite for incorporation into not only North America but also the larger trans-Atlantic imperial world, French settlers petitioned the Spanish crown for assistance in establishing Missouri as a slave society, promising to pay with crops for enslaved men, women, and children that the Spanish purchased and delivered on credit. White Missourians’ commitment to slavery—along with their sense of entitlement to hold slaves—would only grow in post-Louisiana Purchase America, running as deep by 1819 as Alabamans’, Mississippians’, and Virginians’. And as Missourians came to construe keeping slaves in slavery as necessary to securing and expanding imperial state power, gradual abolition plans quickly became unimaginable, a position that underscores a certain cognitive dissonance in early-19th-century America. While Easterners like Tallmadge argued about slavery in the abstract, coming to the conclusion that Missouri was ripe for gradual abolition, the reality on the ground, supported by the majority pro-slavery contingent at the Missouri state constitutional convention, was that the territory would have outright refused entrance into the union were any restrictions on slavery put into place.

On one hand, then, at the time of the Compromise, Missouri, with its citizens’ willingness to deploy coercive violence against subjugated peoples in order to uphold white autonomy and sovereignty, had all the trappings of a slave society. And yet, Prof. Hammond noted, it continued to straddle the line between a slave society and a society with slaves, due largely to the fact that material conditions in the borderlands—namely the number of slaveholders and enslaved people—varied drastically with conditions in the deep south (even if, again, the two regions’ ideological commitments to slavery mirrored one another). As he touched on in wrapping up his overview, one critical, but often overlooked byproduct of the structural indeterminacy in the borderlands was that enslaved African Americans and Native Americans were able to challenge bondage in numerous ways. Shifting jurisdictional regimes, for example, opened the door for some successful challenges to the legality of bondage, while the generally unsettled nature of social, political, and economic life in Missouri created ways for many other enslaved people to exercise freedoms within the institution of slavery, blurring the line between emancipation and enslavement.

John Craig Hammond is Associate Professor of History at Penn State, New Kensington in suburban Pittsburgh. He is author or editor of numerous publications on slavery, politics, and conflict in the United States between the Revolution and the United States Civil War. He is currently co-editing with Jeff Pasley a volume on the Missouri Crisis of 1820. He is also considering pursuing the ideas presented in his contributed chapter to this volume as a monograph on mid-continent slavery.