THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE
Louisiana having become a State in 1812, that portion of the purchase north of the thirty-third degree took the name of the Missouri Territory. St. Louis was its centre of population and of influence.
Being found in this extensive domain at the purchase, slavery had never been hindered in its growth. It had therefore taken firm root and was popular. The application, early in 1818, of the densest part of Missouri Territory for admission into the Union as a slave State, called attention to this threatening status of slavery beyond the Mississippi, and occasioned in Congress a prolonged, able, angry, and momentous debate. Jefferson, still alive, wrote, "The Missouri question is the most portentous which has ever threatened the Union. In the gloomiest hour of the Revolutionary War I never had apprehensions equal to those which I feel from this source."
To see the bearing of the tremendous question thus raised, we have need of a retrospect. Property in man is older than history and has been nearly universal. It cannot be doubted that in an early stage of human development slavery is a means of furthering civilization. Negro slavery originated in Africa, spread to Spain before the discovery of America, to America soon after, and from the Spanish colonies to the English. The first notice we have of it in English America is that in 1619 a Dutch ship landed twenty blacks at Jamestown for sale. The Dutch West India Company began importing slaves into Manhattan in 1626. There were slaves in New England by 1637. Newport was subsequently a great harbor for slavers. Georgia offered the strongest resistance to the introduction of the system, but it was soon overcome.
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Till about 1700, Virginia had a smaller proportion of slave population than some northern colonies, and the change later was mostly due to considerations not of morality but of profit. Anti-slavery cries were indeed heard from an early period, but they were few and faint. Penn held slaves, though ordering their emancipation at his death. Whitfield thought slavery to be of God. But its most culpable abettor was the English Government, moved by the profits of the slave trade. A Royal African Company, with the Duke of York, afterward James II., for some time its president, was formed to monopolize this business, which monarchs and ministries furthered to the utmost of their power.
Thus the Revolution found slavery in all the colonies, north as well as south. But it was then, so far south as Virginia, thought to be an evil. That commonwealth had passed many laws to restrain it, but the King had commanded the Governor not to assent to any of them. The Legislature, replying, stigmatized the traffic as inhuman and a threat to the very existence of the colony.
Hostility extended from the trade to slavery itself. Jefferson was for emancipation with deportation, and trembled for his country as he reflected upon the wrong of slavery and the justice of God. Patrick Henry, George Mason, Peyton Randolph, Washington, Madison, in a word all the great Virginians of the time held similar views.
The Quakers of Pennsylvania were, however, the most aggressive of slavery's foes. So early as 1775 a society, the first in America if not in the world for promoting its abolition, was formed in Pennsylvania. In 1789 it was incorporated, with Franklin for president. Similar organizations soon rose in several northern States, numbering among their members many of the most eminent men in the land. The British Abolition Society, formed in 1787, and the labors of Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Zachary Macaulay against the slave trade in the West Indies, had influence here, as had still more the French Assembly's bold proclamation of the Rights of Man.
The Ordinance of 1787 for the Northwest Territory marked a most decisive point in the history of slavery. By its decree, in Jefferson's language, there was never to be either slavery or involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in punishment for crimes. It is to the everlasting honor of the southern members then in the Continental Congress that they all voted for this inhibition. Virginia, whose assent as a State was necessary to its validity, she having at this time rights over much of the domain in question, also concurred. Whatever the strictly legal weight of this prohibition over the immense Louisiana purchase, it certainly aided much in confirming freedom as the presupposition and maxim of our law over all our national territory.
Vermont had never recognized slavery save to prohibit it in its first constitution. In New Hampshire it existed but nominally. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 virtually ended it in that State. Gradual abolition statutes passed in Pennsylvania in 1780, in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784. The constitution made it possible to forbid the importation of slaves in 1808. A national law to that effect was passed in 1807, making the trade illegal and affixing to it heavy penalties. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1816 for the purpose of negro deportation. It did little of this, but rendered some service toward carrying out the act against slave importation. A new law in 1820, which made this traffic piracy, punishable with death, was partly due to its influence. Also many, like Birney, Gerrit Smith and the Tappans, who began as colonizationists, subsequently became abolitionists.
Notwithstanding all these influences slavery increased in strength every year. South Carolina and Georgia were finding it exceedingly profitable for cotton and rice culture, and the income from slave traffic into the vast opening lands of Tennessee and Kentucky constituted an irresistible temptation.
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In spite of the law of 1807 and of the indescribable horrors of the business, even the foreign slave trade went on. The institution found many defenders in the Federal Convention of 1787, and in the first and subsequent Congresses. The pleas began to be raised, so current later, that the negro was an inferior being, slavery God's ordinance, a blessing to slaves and masters alike, and emancipation a folly. Now began also that policy of bravado by which, for sixty years, the friends of slavery bullied their opponents into shameful inaction upon that accursed thing politically as well as morally, which was so nearly to cost the nation its life. Thus stood matters when the Missouri Compromise was mooted in the national Legislature.
We hardly need say that this strife ended in a compromise. Missouri was created a slave State, balanced by Maine as a free State, but at the same time slavery was to be excluded forever from all the remainder of the Louisiana purchase north of 36 degrees 30 minutes, the southern line of Virginia and Kentucky as well as of Missouri itself. The land between Missouri and Louisiana had been in 1819 erected into the "Territory of Arkansaw."
In the memorable discussion over this issue, involving the country as well as Congress, two sorts of argumentation were heard in favor of the suit of Missouri. The genuine pro-slavery men urged the sacredness of property as such, and the special sacredness of property-right in slaves as tacitly guaranteed by the Constitution. They also made much of the third article of the Louisiana purchase treaty. This read as follows: "The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States; and in the meantime they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and the religion which they profess."
There were with these, men who acted from mere policy, thinking it best to admit the slave State because of the difficulty and also the danger to the Union of suppressing slavery there. They appealed as well to the sacred compromises in the Constitution, meaning the permission at first to import slaves, the three-fifths rule for slave representation in Congress, and the fugitive slave clause. They spoke much of the necessity of preserving the balance of power within the Union, and of Congress's inaction as to slavery in the Louisiana purchase hitherto, and also in Florida. These arguments won many professed foes of slavery, as Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Quincy Adams. In all Congress Clay was the most earnest pleader for the compromise.
To all these arguments the unbending friends of free soil replied that property right was subordinate to the national good, and that Congress had full power over territorial institutions and should never have permitted slavery to curse the domain in question. If it had committed error in the past, that could not excuse continuance in error. The terms of the Louisiana purchase, it was further urged, could not, even if they had been meant to do so, which was not true, detract from this sovereign power. It was pointed out that in every case in which a State had been admitted thus far, Congress had prescribed conditions. It was boldly said, still further, that if slavery threatened disunion unless allowed its way, it ought all the more to be denied its way.
The chief strength of slavery in this crisis lay in the distressing practical difficulty, if the prayer of Missouri were refused, of dealing with slaves and slave proprietorship there, and of quieting a numerous and spirited population bent upon statehood and slavery together. The more decided foes of slavery did not sufficiently consider these complications.
Nor did they duly reflect upon the sweeping triumph which freedom had withal secured in the pledge that the vast bulk of the Louisiana purchase should be forever free. The pledge was indeed broken in 1854, but not until such a sense of its sacredness had been impressed upon the country that the breach availed slavery nothing.