The decade before the Civil War was a period of intense political battles - sometimes physical ones - over slavery. But even before then, controversies over slavery had produced repeated crises which led to a series of compromises between the free and slave states.
Northerners and abolitionists felt, with good reason, that the compromises were a series of surrenders to the "Slave Power", as the pro-slavery bloc of states became known. In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the free states agreed to admit Missouri to the Union as a slave state. But the slave state representatives agreed to a North-South dividing line above which slavery would not be allowed in the territories to be organized there in the future.
One of the complications which was to make particular difficulties for abolitionist politics is that the opposition to admitting Missouri as a slave state was centered in the Federalist Party. The Federalists stood for a conservative approach to government that favored the wealthy and the privileged, a role was soon enough adapted by John Quincy Adams and the "National Democrats".
The advocates of broader democracy, including the more radical democrats who would rally behind Andrew Jackson's fight against the "money power", were drawn to Jefferson's Republican Party. (Jefferson's Republicans became known as the Democrats during Jackson's Presidency; today's Republican Party began as a separate party in the 1850s.)
Jefferson's own opposition to slavery endured until the end of his life. But he had relied on the rights of the states at key points in his career, in fighting the Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams administration and in countering a plot by some "High Federalists" to prevent him from taking office after his election in 1800 as President. To Jefferson, states rights provided support for democratic rights.
So he was disturbed by the part of the Missouri Compromise that seemed to restrict states rights in states above the Missouri Compromise line. On the other hand, Jefferson was no friend of secession. The Federalist Party had been widely discredited during the War of 1812 because of pro-British Federalists in New England, some of whom encouraged the idea of the New England states seceeding from the Union. Jefferson's Republicans had been genuinely disgusted by this treasonous sentiment, and were also happy to take advantage of it politically.
Still, Jefferson realized that the complex set of forces at work in the Missouri crisis could eventually split the Union, which to him would have critically endangered the progress of democracy. "It is the most portentious [question] which ever yet threatened our Union. In the gloomiest moment of the revolutionary war I never had any apprehension equal to what I feel from this source," he wrote.
He expressed the intensity of his concern in a letter to John Holmes, a Massachusetts state senator who had broken from the Federalist Party over their disunionist sentiments:
I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.
At that point, the slave and free states were equal in representation in the US Senate. The Missouri Compromise admitted Maine as a free state at the same time Missouri entered the Union as a slave state. This battle for one of the two sides to gain an advantage in Senate representation would be a central element in later such battles. The new states of California (free) and Texas (slave) which sought to enter the Union in the wake of the Mexican War would be key prizes in the disputes that led to the Compromise of 1850.
And with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the slave states and free states would fight a proxy war over the issue of slavery in the Kansas Territory. I'll be looking at that conflict in later posts this month.
But for now, I'll close this post by quoting John Quincy Adams, who was Secretary of State in the Monroe administration in 1920. Though his later Presidency would find him acting as the handmaiden of the "money power", his post-Presidential career as a Massachusetts Congressman would find him becoming an important anti-slavery advocate. Even at the time of the Missouri Compromise, Adams was realizing that the ultimate resolution of the slavery issue was inevitable. He wrote in his diary what he had learned about the Southerners who defended the Slave Power in this dispute:
The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls . . . they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. . . . They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee's manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat Negroes like dogs.
Adams had also split with his father's Federalist Party over the issue of New England secession plotting during the War of 1812. But he clearly found the idea of the free states dissolving the Union to rid themselves of slavery to be a possibility:
I have favored this Missouri Compromise, believing it all that could be effected under the present Constitution, and from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard. But perhaps it would have been a wiser as well as bolder course to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the states to revise and amend the Constitution. This would have produced a new Union of thirteen or fourteen States unpolluted with slavery, with a great and glorious object to effect, namely, that of rallying to their standard the other States by the universal emancipation of their slaves. If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question on which it ought to break.
His words proved to be prophetic. It was indeed the issue of slavery on which the Union broke.
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.