The Compromise of 1820

IN February, 1819, the House of Representatives went into committee of the whole over the admission of Missouri as a State. The recommendation of the committee provided in the ordinary manner what was necessary to this end. Tallmadge of New York moved the amendment that the admission should be made dependent upon the two following conditions: prohibition of the further introduction of slaves, and emancipation of all the slave children born after the admission as soon as they reached the age of twenty-five. This motion gave life to the whole strife, and the idea embraced in it remained the essence of the strife until the decision of its most important points. The majority of the House of Representatives voted to make the admission of Missouri as a State dependent upon such a limitation of her power in regard to slavery; but the majority of the Senate decided against this. Both houses insisted on their respective resolves, and Congress adjourned without coming to any final decision.

When the question again came up in the next session, the opponents of the so-called "Missouri limitation" found them-selves materially aided by a new circumstance. Maine, which had hitherto been a district of Massachusetts, applied for admission as an independent State. The majority of the Senate coupled together the Maine and Missouri bills, and so put before the majority of the House the alternative of admitting Missouri without any limitation, or denying, for the present, the admission of Maine. The House was not yet ready to acknowledge itself so easily beaten. Neither earlier nor later has a struggle been fought out in Congress in which the majorities of both houses have stood by the decision once arrived at with such stiff-neckedness. The close of the session constantly drew nearer, and an agreement seemed farther off than ever. The whole country was in a state of feverish excitement. At the last moment, in the night between the 2d and 3d of March, 1820, free labor and the principle of nationality yielded to slavery and the principle of State sovereignty. It the matter had affected Missouri alone, the defeat would have been of small practical significance; but two principles had been given up, and these two principles involved the weal and woe of the republic.

The South by no means limited itself to a discussion of the mere question of law, but brought forward a cloud of pleas in justification. It was asserted that the Louisiana Territory, to which Missouri belonged, had been obtained at a cost of the whole Union, and that it would there-fore be unjust to deprive the inhabitants of half the Union of the "colonization right;" but this would evidently be the case if they were forbidden to take their property with them. It was said, on the other hand, that slavery would present an impassable wall to immigration from the North. Where labor bears the stamp of shame the free laborer cannot turn his steps. But how could there be hesitation when the choice was to be made between the exclusion of slavery or free labor? The Union should be a nursery of freedom, and not a breeding-place for slavery. The South itself declaimed with the greatest pathos over the curse of slavery. Was it not, then, a self-evident duty to preserve the land from any extension of the curse?

The last part of this argument was repelled with great decision by the majority of Southern members. They affirmed that when it was proposed to allow the importation of slaves from Africa, or from any foreign country, the South would be first and most earnest in protesting against it. But by compliance with the wish expressed by the South the slave population of the Union "would not be increased by a single soul." Over and over again it was affirmed, with Jefferson in his old age, "All know that permitting the slaves of the South to spread into the West . . will increase the happiness of those existing, and, by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere and facilitate the means of getting rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity."

This false reasoning, however, was readily overthrown, it being undeniable that increased subsistence would increase population, while the higher prices arising from a widened market would be a strong impulse towards an increase in the supply of slaves. The question of State rights was next brought in as an element of the debate, it being claimed that the Constitution was but an "international compact," which could exercise no other powers than those originally granted it by the sovereign States, and could impose no conditions on new States not directly specified in that instrument.

It was indeed said that the slavery limitation did not really withdraw a "fundamental right," but rather did away with a "fundamental wrong." But the Constitution had left to the original States the right of tacitly letting the fundamental wrong stand as a "right" or of making it one. If several States made no use of this prerogative, and if the facts of every day showed it to be more than a destructive fiction that slavery was a "purely municipal institution," yet this did not change the positive right. Slavery eat into the life-marrow of the whole Union; therefore not only considerations of morality, but the highest self-interest of the Union demanded the absolute prohibition of its further extension. But morality and self-interest could not do away with the fact that the whole Constitution rested upon the foundation of the equality of the members of the Union, and that the original members had full freedom of action in regard to this particular question.

The unconquerable obstacle can be expressed in a single sentence: the fact could not be done away with that the Union was composed of free and slave States, that is, the fact could not be done away with that the attempt had been made to construct out of heterogeneous elements not only a harmonious but a homogeneous whole.

Arguments could not bring the question any nearer to a solution. After the differences of principle between the two parties had been clearly established, the debates served only to excite passion. The slave-holders sought more than ever to make a bridge of threats upon which they could cross to their goal. It is said that Randolph proposed to Clay to abandon the House to the Northern members, and that Clay actually gave the project serious consideration.

Missouri herself took an extremely arrogant position. When Taylor moved, December 16, 1819, to defer the consideration of the bill till the first Monday in February, 1820, Scott, the delegate of the Territory, objected that Missouri would, in this case, go on and organize a State government without waiting any longer for leave from Congress. And this threat of the Territorial delegate against the whole Union was not punished as a piece of laughable insolence. Reid of Georgia declared that Missouri would "indignantly throw off the yoke" and "laugh Congress to scorn." Tyler of Virginia, the future President, asked what would be done if "Missouri sever (herself) from the Union?" And Jefferson, the ex-President, expressed the fear that Missouri would be "lost by revolt."

During the whole struggle the decision had depended only upon a few votes, for a number of Northern representatives had voted, from the beginning, with the South. That it was, nevertheless, so long before the South obtained, by threats and worse means, the necessary number of votes, is a plain proof that an independent and honorable spirit was then much more common among Northern politicians than later. The restriction was finally stricken out by a majority of only three votes.

The results of this defeat were immense; but still more fraught with evil was the second defeat which the North suffered at the same time, and almost, indeed, without a struggle. . Since only the northern part of Missouri Territory was to be organized as a State, the southern part, the so-called Arkansas district, had to receive a Territorial government of its own When the bill concerning this came up for discussion in the House, Taylor proposed an amendment in regard to slavery like the one which Tallmadge had brought up in the case of Missouri. In committee of the whole the amendment was rejected by eighty to sixty-eight votes. In the House it had a some-what better fate. The first part, which forbade the further introduction of slaves, was rejected by seventy-one to seventy votes; but the second part, which freed slave children born in the Territory upon their twenty-fifth birthday, was adopted by seventy-five to seventy-three votes. With the help of parliamentary rules, however, the question was brought once more before the House. By the casting vote of the Speaker, Clay, the bill was referred back to the committee, and on the same day, in accordance with its report, the previously adopted amendment was rejected by eighty-nine to eighty-seven votes.

The attempt to lay hand upon the peculiar institution in this Territory was regarded by the slave-holders as an especial bit of spitefulness, because Arkansas was regarded as belonging to the peculiar domain of the South. This opinion influenced some Northern representatives, and to it the easy victory of the South is to be ascribed. .

The eighth section of the Missouri act of March 6, 1820, provided "that in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of 36 deg 30' north latitude, not included within the limits of the State contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude .. shall be, and is hereby forever prohibited." This was the second half of the so-called Missouri Compromise, and the responsibility for its adoption does not wholly rest upon a few weak or venal delegates from the North. Only five Northern members voted against it. The North thus gave its approval by an overwhelming majority to the division of the Territories between free labor and slavery. It was indeed only declared that slavery should not be allowed north of 36 deg 30', but this was self-evidently equivalent to saying that south of this line no hindrance would be put in the way of the slave-holders. The first suggestion of such a compromise was made by McLane in February, 1819, and he then expressly declared that the Territories should be "divided" between the free and slave States. It was never afterwards denied that this was a fair interpretation of the compromise. The action of the Northern members can be justified from no point of view. Even in mitigation of their fault it can only be alleged that when they had decided to make a bargain the one agreed upon did not seem disadvantageous, provided men did not look beyond the present time. The Louisiana territory -- according to the boundaries set to it by the United States -- was divided into two nearly equal parts by the line of 36 deg 30'. But, while the Missouri question was still pending, an agreement was reached with Spain concerning the boundary-line by which a great part of the southern half was lost to the United States.

The result of this compromise was that the country was practically divided into free and slave sections, upon a fixed geographical basis. Though there was nothing in the bill to declare that slavery should exist everywhere south of the line of demarcation, it had become a tacit bargain which was not likely to be successfully questioned.

The South had allowed itself to pursue a purely idealistic policy where European relations were concerned, but where the interest of the slave-holders was touched upon it had followed from the beginning a policy that was not only realistic in the highest degree, but wise. It took good care to demand everything forthwith. What it needed at the moment satisfied it for the moment. It propped the planks securely, and then shoved them just so much farther that it could safely take the next step when it became necessary. It had done this at present, and therefore was contented for the present. Up to this time the free States had always been one more in number than the slave States. Now the latter got Alabama and Missouri into the Union, and the former only Maine. The balance of power in the Senate was therefore fully established. Their territorial possessions were, in the mean time, ample; Florida, just acquired from Spain, Arkansas and the rest of the southern part of the Louisiana territory, balanced for a while the northwest, which, as Charles Pinckney wrote, had been inhabited until now only by wild beasts and Indians. Why express alarm now over things which could become realities only after the lapse of many years? But it did not follow from this that alarm should never be expressed over them. Reid of Georgia had already asked why a partition-line should not be drawn between the two sections "to the Pacific Ocean.". .

Up to this time the division of the Union into two sections had been only a fact: henceforth it was fixed by law. . Each of the two groups inevitably constantly consolidated more and more; and the more they consolidated the more the Missouri line lost its imaginary character. For the first time there was, in the full sense of the term, a free North and a slave-holding South. "Political prudence," as it was hyper-euphemistically called, might lead one to oppose this with the strength of despair; but all political artifices were put to shame by the power of facts. Even the last resource, the erasure of the black line from the map by another law and by judicial decisions, remained without effect: the line was etched too deeply into the real ground. Only one thing could erase it, and this one thing was the destruction of the gloomy power that had drawn it. From the night of March 2, 1820, party history is made up, without interruption or break, of the development of geographical parties.

This was what was really reached when men breathed free, as if saved from a heavy nightmare. The little and cowardly souls congratulated themselves that the slavery question had been buried forever; and yet men never shook themselves free from the Missouri question.

The strife was kindled again by a clause of the Constitution of Missouri by which the legislature was obliged to pass laws against the entry of free colored persons into the State. The North declared that this clause infringed upon the constitutional provision according to which "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States." The slaveholders affirmed that free blacks were not to be considered as citizens "in the sense of the Constitution." The Northern Congressmen opposed to this the fact that free blacks were citizens in some Northern States, and that the clause in question spoke of "citizens of every State." The debate was finally lost in endless arguments over the meaning of the words "citizens" and "citizens of the United States," without reaching any results.

A compromise was finally proposed by Henry Clay, which permitted the objectionable clause to remain in the State Constitution provided that the State would agree never to pass a law to make it operative. This assurance was given by the Missouri legislature, and the conflict ended.

Three constitutional questions -- two of them of cardinal importance -- had been discussed. Men had fought shy of all three for the moment, and for this reason the originators of the compromise claimed that they had postponed the decision to the Greek kalends. From a legal point of view, only one positive result had been reached, and this was on a point concerning which no legal question existed. The Northern majority had indirectly renounced the right of Congress to forbid slavery, as far as the territory lying south of the line of 36 deg 30' was concerned, and it had agreed to this renunciation because the Southern minority had renounced, on its side, its claims to having the question of law involved decided now in its favor, provided its concrete demands, which it based upon its interpretation of the Constitution, were complied with.

This was the true nature and substance of the "compromise" which gave Henry Clay the first claim to the proud name of "the great peace-maker."

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