I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. — Mark Twain

Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam




Conflict and Compromise

For thirty years after the Constitution was established, slavery falls into the background of the national history. Other and absorbing interests were to the front. First, the strife of Federalist and Democrat: Should the central government be strengthened, or should the common people be more fully trusted? Twelve years of conservative ascendency under Washington and Adams; then a complete and lasting triumph for the popular party led by Jefferson. Mixed with and succeeding this came an exasperating and perplexing struggle for commercial rights, invaded equally by England and France in their gigantic grapple; an ineffectual defense by Jefferson, who in executive office proved an unskillful pilot; a half-hearted war under Madison, a closet statesman out of place in the Presidential chair; a temporary alienation of New England, exasperated by the loss of her commerce and suspicious of the Jeffersonian influence; a participation in the general peace which followed 1815, and a revival of industry. Under this surface tide of events went on a steady, quiet advance of the democratic movement. With Jefferson's administration disappeared the Federal party and the old distrust of the common people. State after State gave up the property qualification—almost universal in the first period—and adopted manhood suffrage. Slavery disappeared from the North; in New Hampshire it was abolished by judicial decision, as in Massachusetts; Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania passed gradual emancipation laws, and a little later New York and New Jersey did the same. In Kentucky, settled by hardy pioneers from Virginia, there had been a vigorous campaign to establish a free State; the Baptist preachers, strong leaders in morals and religion, had championed the cause of freedom; the victory seemed decisively won, by three to one it was said, in the election of May, 1798; but a torrent of excitement over the alien and sedition laws submerged other issues, and the convention sanctioned slavery as it existed. The African slave trade was made piracy by act of Congress in 1808, though the extreme penalty was not inflicted for sixty years, and a considerable traffic still went on. In furtherance of emancipation, a colonization society was started in Pennsylvania, and in a few years it had transported 20,000 freed negroes to Africa, and established the feeble colony of Liberia. Meanwhile the first French republic had freed half a million slaves in the West Indies; and Chili, Buenos Ayres, Columbia, and Mexico, as they gained their independence from Spain, had abolished slavery. The European reaction against the French republic and empire had largely spent itself; the English tradition of constitutional freedom had survived and promised to spread; the Spanish colonies in America had won their independence.

The stiller and deeper current of industrial progress had moved on apace in the United States. A new New England was being swiftly built in the Northwest. The Southwest, too, was growing fast. The acquisition of the Louisiana territory,—through an exigency of Napoleon's politics, and the wise inconsistency of Jefferson—had opened another vast domain. At the North, commerce, set free again, spread rapidly, and a new era of manufactures was opening. The South—more diffusely settled, with less social activity, with a debased labor class—caught less of the spirit of advance. But on one line it gained. Following the English inventions in spinning and weaving, and the utilization of the stationary steam-engine, a Connecticut man, Eli Whitney, had invented a cotton-gin, for separating the seed from the fibre, and the cotton plant came to the front of the scene. The crop rose in value in twenty years from $6,000,000 to $20,000,000. The value of slaves was trebled, and the border States began to do a thriving trade in exporting them to the cotton States—it was said a little later the yearly export reached 50,000.

As new States were organized and admitted, those from the Northwest came in without slavery, which had been kept out by the ordinance of 1787, and those from the Southwest, where slaves had been carried by the emigrants from the seaboard, were allowed without question to retain the institution. Of the old thirteen, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York New Jersey, Pennsylvania (spite of a few slaves lingering in the last three) were counted as free States—seven in all; Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, the two Carolinas, Georgia, were claimed as slave States—six. Speedily were added Vermont to the one column, and Kentucky and Tennessee to the other, making the numbers equal. The following acquisitions were free and slave States alternately: Ohio and Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi, Illinois and Alabama, a total, so far, of eleven free and eleven slave. Of the new Southwestern domain, Arkansas had been organized as a territory, early in 1819, and a motion that slavery be excluded had been defeated in the House by the casting vote of the speaker, Henry Clay.

But in all these thirty years the subject of slavery had little prominence in public discussion. Now it suddenly came to the front. A bill was brought into Congress to permit Missouri to organize as a State. It was part of the Louisiana purchase, of which the Southern portion had inherited and retained slavery; but Missouri was geographically an extension of the region of the Ohio States, in which free labor had made an established and congenial home. It was moved in Congress that slavery should be excluded from the new State, and on this instantly sprang up a fiery debate. On one side it was urged that slavery was a wrong and an evil, and that Congress had full power to exclude it from a State as a condition of admittance to the Union. On the other side slavery was defended not only as an industrial advantage, but as morally right and a benefit to both blacks and whites. It was strenuously declared that the people of each incoming State had a right to determine their own institutions; and it was also urged that to keep the balance of power between the two sections, it was necessary that slave States should be admitted equally with free. It was disclosed with startling suddenness that two systems of labor and society stood face to face, with different ideals, different interests, and in a mutual opposition to which no limits could be foreseen. It was plain that with the increase of profit from slavery all idea of its abolition had been quietly dropping from the minds of the great mass of the Southern community. It was equally plain that the sentiment against slavery in the North had increased greatly in distinctness and intensity. There was apparent, too, a divergence of material interests, and a keen rivalry of political interests. The South had been losing ground in comparison. From an equality in population, the North had gained a majority of 600,000 in a total of 10,000,000. The approaching census of 1820 would give the North a preponderance of thirty in the House. In wealth, too, the North had been obviously drawing ahead. Only in the Senate did the South retain an equality of power, and, to maintain at least this, by the accession of new slave States, was an avowed object of Southern politicians.

The debate was so hot, the underlying causes of opposition were so obvious, and the avowed determination of the contestants was so resolute, that the unity and continuance of the nation was unmistakably threatened. State Legislatures passed resolutions for one side or the other, according to their geographical location; only the Delaware Legislature was superior to the sectional consideration, and voted unanimously in favor of holding Missouri for freedom. The alarm as to the continuance of the Union was general and great. No one felt it more keenly than Jefferson, startled in his scholarly and peaceful retirement at Monticello, as he said, as by "a fire-bell in the night." He wrote: "In the gloomiest movements of the Revolutionary war, I never had an apprehension equal to that I feel from this source." It was a grave omen that Jefferson's sympathies were with his section rather than with freedom; he joined in the opposition to the exclusion of slavery from Missouri. He had no love for slavery, but he was jealous for the right of each State to choose its own way, for good or evil; a political theory outweighed in him the sentiment of humanity.

A compromise was proposed. Let Missouri have slavery if she will, but for the Northwest let it be "thus far and no farther"; let it be fixed that there shall be no more slave States north of the line which marks Missouri's southern boundary, the line of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. Present advantage to the South, future security to the North; and meantime let Maine be admitted, which keeps the balance equal. This was the solution accepted by both sides after a discussion lasting through the Congressional session of 1819-20 until March. But the smothered flame broke out again. Missouri in 1820 adopted a constitution, and asked for admission according to promise; and one clause in her constitution forbade the entrance of free blacks into the State. This was too much for the North, already half disgusted with the concession it had made, and when Congress met for the session of 1820-21 the whole question was reopened, and the dispute was hotter and more obstinate than ever. The issue was wholly uncertain, and disunion seemed to hover near and dark, when Henry Clay, who in the first debate had taken no very important part, but had supported the Southern claim, now threw his whole power, which was great, in favor of conciliation and agreement on the original basis. Clay was a politician, and ambitious for the Presidency, but he was a patriot and a lover of humanity. As to slavery he was a waverer, disliking it at heart and sometimes speaking manfully against it, but at other times respectful toward it as an established and mighty fact, and even lending himself to its eulogy. In the first debate he had advocated the Southern side, had extolled slavery, and declared the black slaves of the South to be better off than the white slaves of the North. Now he gave all his persuasive and commanding eloquence, all the influence of his genial nature and winning arts, to rally the lovers of the Union to the mutual concessions by which alone it could be preserved. He justified the objection to the exclusion of free negroes, he divested himself of sectional partisanship, and pleaded with equal skill and fervor for the compromise. He did not forget that he was a Presidential aspirant, but he was a true lover of his country, and seldom have the traits of politician and patriot worked together more effectively. Though the mass of the Northern members, strengthened doubtless by the influence of their constituents at home during the recess, were now opposed to the whole compromise, and a few Southern extremists were against it, yet the majority of both House and Senate were won to its support, and on the last day of February, 1821, Missouri was admitted as a slave State, on condition that she expunge her exclusion of free blacks, which she promptly did. Maine had already been admitted. The excitement ended almost as suddenly as it had begun.