In which we see a nation and a political, and moral, crossroads
—What about it?
It’s the inescapable subject of American history, Sadie. There are so many things to talk about, not all of which relate directly to slavery. But sooner or later we’re always led back to it. It’s always part of the story.
—And where in the story are we?
Well, we’re in 1819, Emily. By this point the nature of American slavery had really changed since the Constitution had been ratified thirty years earlier. You’ll remember that it was a contentious issue. But the Founding Fathers expected it to die out. Then, in the 1790s there was a technology game-changer: Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney unveiled his Cotton Engine, or Cotton gin. Before the cotton gin came along, it had been very tedious and difficult to remove the seeds from cotton, making it an impractical as a crop. But now, suddenly, it’s something like ten times easier to harvest cotton in such a way that it can be turned into cloth. And the appetite for it is insatiable. That’s especially true in England, where the Industrial Revolution has gotten underway and textile factories are at the core of it.
Even with this new invention, cotton remains a very labor-intensive crop. Now, suddenly, the demands for cheap labor becomes extremely insistent. In places like England (and increasingly, in the Northern states), low-paid factory work becomes widespread. In the South, though the new cotton economy greatly enhances the value and demand for slavery. This is especially true because the new western lands that are opening up—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, western Tennessee—have rich soil that can sustain cotton (though cotton also has a way of wearing out soil). The heart of this region, by the way, is known collectively as the Mississippi Delta: another way in which rivers are central to the fate of American civilization.
After bottoming out in the 1790s, slavery begins growing again in the early nineteenth century. Even places not part of the new boom, like Virginia, are benefiting by exporting their slaves to these new slave states. Now we’re beginning to see massive new plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves. There were never all that many of them—only one quarter of Southern white families owned slaves at all, and only about 2% of slave owners fell into the plantation category—but they were prominent in terms of their visibility and influence.
Which bring us back to the source of that big river, Missouri. Look at this map. Where is Missouri?
—Well, it looks like it’s pretty much in the middle.
Right. But what’s around it in 1819, which is were we are now?
—Well, there’s Illinois—
Right, Jonah, which became a state in 1818—
—And Tennessee. And it looks like a little piece of Kentucky. And some territory that isn’t anything yet.
Yes. Below it is Arkansas, which will become a state in 1836. Above it is Iowa, which came into the Union in 1846. To the left, or west of it is the Kansas-Nebraska territory, about which we’ll have a lot more to say later. But tell me, Jonah, are Kentucky and Tennessee slave states or free states?
Right. And Illinois?
—A free state?
Yes, though there are transit laws in Illinois that allow slaveholders to keep their “property” for up to a year there. So based on what you just told me, do you think Missouri, which as applied for admission to the Union, should be a slave state or a free state?
—Well, I don’t think any state should be a slave state.
No. I mean as a matter of geography: would you think Missouri would logically be slave territory or free territory?
—I can’t really tell.
Good answer. In fact, Missouri, whose eastern border is marked by the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, could really go either way. It not a cotton powerhouse like Mississippi, which entered the Union in 1817, or Alabama, which does so in 1819. But you can profitably deploy slaves there in way that would harder than it would, in, say, Vermont (remember that most slaves in New England were typically individual household servants, not farm workers). I think we can say that slavery is a workable proposition from an economic standpoint. I think we can also say that it’s not a workable proposition from a moral standpoint, though, alas, morality is not as often a basis of action as we might like. My question to you at the moment is this: is slavery workable from a political standpoint?
—This is another one of your hard questions, Mr. K. How are we supposed to know?
What do you want to know, Sadie? What would help you figure this out?
—I’m not sure. Here’s a question: How many free states and slave states are there now?
At this point, there are eleven free states and ten slave states. Why do you ask? Have I just given you an argument for Missouri to come in as a slave state?
—You know, you’re making me think that was a bad question. We shouldn’t be thinking this way.
Well, again, Sadie: we shouldn’t be thinking in these terms morally. But should we not be thinking of them politically?
—I think Sadie’s right. The conversation should be about ending slavery entirely. That’s what would really be best for the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Representative James Tallmadge of New York.
—That’s funny. He looks like Brianna to me.
Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving. Representative Tallmadge has just introduced a bill into the House that would ban slavery from Missouri. Do we all support it? Looks like we do. The idea has gotten extra support from Senator Rufus King of New York, a signer of the Constitution, who has told us that he sees no reason why this can’t be done legally.
—That’s funny. He looks like Chris to me.
—Just call me King, guys. Senator King.
Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving. Here’s the problem: Southerners in Congress are militantly against the idea. They get strong support from former president Thomas Jefferson, who calls the controversy “a firebell in the night” and counsels the slaveholding states to hold firm.
—They’re always doing this.
Are you saying we should call their bluff, Sadie? Are you prepared to let the Union break up over it?
You know, we’ve been here before. Back in 1790, a group of Quakers brought a petition before Congress to end slavery. Benjamin Franklin, at the very end of his life, supported the idea as president of the President of the Abolitionist Society. But James Madison, who was Speaker of the House, managed to sweep the measure under the rug, in part because he was afraid the country was too fragile for such a debate so soon after the struggle to adopt the Constitution, which had almost fallen apart over slavery. Given that you all know there was a Civil War, do you think we would have been better off had we had it out back then?
You first, Bri—I mean Representative Tallmadge.
—It was always wrong. And the longer you wait the worse it is. Look at the Civil War. That was a disaster.
—The country was just too fragile. Slavery was wrong, was terrible. But you act too hard and too fast and you wreck everything.
—Look at the wreck that happened because you didn’t do anything!
Adam, Benjamin Franklin thought the country could handle it. Doesn’t that count for something?
—How old was Franklin at that point?
He was about 84 years old. What does that have to do anything?
—Well, he was not really that active at that point, was he? James Madison was really running things then.
—Didn’t Madison own slaves?
Yes, he did, Brianna/Tallmadge.
—So of course he wants to prevent anything from happening!
Adam: let me ask you this: If we assume for the moment that Madison was right, and the country couldn’t handle it in 1790, what about thirty years later? Was the country strong enough for a showdown in 1820?
—That’s really hard to say.
It is. We of course can’t test out that scenario. And it was at least as hard a call for people at the time, too. It’s the kind of situation people have to grapple with often: do we have it out now? Do we wait? There are no clear-cut answers.
—So what ended up happening?
The man of the hour turned out to be Henry Clay, about whom I’m going to have more to say in the coming days. Clay was the Speaker of the House in 1819-20. He crafts a proposal that works like this: We bring Missouri in as a slave state. Then we break off Maine, which has long been an appendage of Massachusetts, and bring it in as a free state in the name of balance. Then we draw a line that begins at the southern border of Missouri—to be known as the 36°30′ line, referring to its latitude. Territories that come into the Union below that line (Arkansas, 1836) will be slave states, while those above it (Michigan, 1837) will be free states. As you can see, Missouri juts pretty far North. But most of the states that come in after this, among them Wisconsin and Iowa, will be free states. Crisis averted?
—More like crisis postponed.
But maybe Clay bought time, Sadie? We know a war came. But maybe better leadership later might have brought about a better outcome?
—I don’t think so. In any event, look what happened: now slavery is in more areas than it was before. It’s more legal. How is that a good thing?
Hard to argue with that rhetorical question. What I will observe, though, is that there was a widespread sense of relief as a result of the deal, which has been known both as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1820. There was anger, resentment, and sorrow among African Americans and their supporters. But most people were glad to focus on something else—anything else.
We’re going to shift our gaze, too. But we can never get too far away from this. It haunts us. Always.
Next: Hard as Hickory