When Americans claim that the 2016 election was the most contentious in history or that we’ve never been as divided as a people as we are now, I have to try very hard not to be smug. After all, unlike folks who actually have to show a profit each year, I as a college professor have the great privilege of teaching a course on Jacksonian America, 1807-1848. Believe me, in the 1810s and 1820s, we were far more divided than at any other time in American history outside of the Civil War itself.

As hard as it is for us to understand, the issue of slavery and the question of Missouri’s entrance into the United States as a slave state in 1819 almost ripped America in two, less than fifty years after the Declaration of Independence had been signed. It’s not hard for us to understand that slavery would be divisive, but it is hard for us to understand why the question of slavery hit America so brutally in 1819, so suddenly emerging upon the scene as a crisis of polity and culture. After all, the Constitution sanctioned slavery in three different clauses, and Americans has been living with the wicked institution since the 17th century. Why, then, 1819?

Yet, rarely is history as clear-cut as it seems, especially when one is in the midst of it.

No one had debated slavery as an issue publicly since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and 1789. On July 13, 1787, Congress unanimously passed the Northwest Ordinance, forbidding all slavery and involuntary servitude in the areas north and west of the Ohio River. The spirit of the law, if not the letter, seemed to suggest that slavery would never expand into the western territories. Congress, in 1787, met in New York. Only three weeks later, on August 8, 1787, the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, took up the issue of slavery. The issue deeply divided the authors of the Constitution. Men such as John Dickinson, Rufus King, and George Mason fought bitterly against any sanction of slavery, while Charles Pinkney and John Rutledge fought equally fiercely in favor of it. To suggest, as some conservatives have done as a way to explain slavery, that the Founders were simply men of their times is offensive not only to the Founders but to the free will of all human beings. Humans have been arguing about the merits and evils of slavery since slavery came into existence, and James Madison’s notes on the convention reveal that the Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote the three compromises allowing slavery. To be sure, the issue was extremely complicated in 1787, but not a single Founder went along with the institution or attempted to retard it because he was merely a man of his times. The debates over slavery were, understandably, brutal, and the majority of delegates decided to vote for the institution rather than lose South Carolina and Georgia.

When most Northerners agreed to the three compromises in the Constitution, they saw them as a means for the South to wean itself from slavery gradually but certainly. It’s not as clear that Southerners saw it the same way, but no Southerner in 1787 would justify the institution as anything other than a shameful embarrassment.

As such, the country ignored the issue for the next thirty years. When 1819 came around, then, and Missouri applied for admission into the Union as a slave state, the country was in no shape to deal with such a crisis. Northerners, for the most part, had believed that the South was carefully ridding itself of the institution, but the South was, in fact, getting more and more used to it and dependent upon it. Given that news traveled slowly, as did people and goods, it’s not surprising that the two sections of the country could have evolved so radically away from one another in a sort of blissful ignorance over three decades.

During the 1819-1820 debates on Missouri, Senator Rufus King of New York noted that he had been at the Constitutional Convention and that he knew the mind and intent of the Founding. The Founders, he said, had assumed that slavery would gradually disappear.

Senator William Pinkney noted that he, too, had been at the Constitutional Convention and that he knew the mind and intent of the founding. The founders had recognized the necessity of the institution of slavery to the South, thus having passed the three compromises as a way to protect the institution and the South.

For better or worse, each had been a founder, and each had remembered the founding very differently than had the other.

Here’s King in 1819:

The disproportionate power and influence allowed to the slave-holding states, was a necessary sacrifice to the establishment of the constitution…. But the extension of this disproportionate power to the new states would be unjust and odious. The states who power would be abridged, and whose burdens would be increased by the measure, cannot be expected to consent to it.

Further, the New York senator asserted:

If Missouri, and the other states that may be formed to the west of the river Mississippi, are permitted to introduce and establish slavery, the repose, if not the security of the union may be endangered; all the states south of the river Ohio and west of Pennsylvania and Delaware, will be peopled with slaves, and the establishment of new states west of the river Mississippi, will serve to extend slavery instead of freedom over that boundless region…. If, instead of freedom, slavery is to prevail, and spread as we extend our dominion, can any reflecting man fail to see the necessity of giving to the general government greater powers; to enable it to afford the protection that will be demanded of it: powers that will be difficult to control, and which may prove fatal to the public liberties.

Here’s Senator Pinkney, focusing more on the potential of federal interference than in the issue of slavery itself:

A territory cannot surrender to Congress by anticipation, the whole, or a part, of the sovereign power, which, by the Constitution of the Union will belong to it when it becomes a State and a member of the Union…. If it can barter away a part of its sovereignty, by anticipation, it can do so as to the whole; for where will you stop?

States weighed in on the matter as well. One of the most famous statements against Missouri’s entrance came from Massachusetts. Daniel Webster had authored it:

The laws of the United States have denounced heavy penalties against the traffic in slaves, because such traffic is deemed unjust and inhuman. We appeal to the spirit of these laws; we appeal to this justice and humanity. We ask whether they ought not to operate, on the present occasion, with all their force? We have a strong feeling of the injustice of any toleration of slavery. Circumstances have entailed it on a portion of our community which cannot be immediately relieved from it without consequences more injurious than the suffering of the evil. But to permit it in a new country, where yet no habits are formed which render it indispensable, what is it, but to encourage that rapacity, fraud, and violence against which we have so long pointed the denunciations of our penal code?  What is it, but to tarnish the proud fame of our country? What is it, but to throw suspicion on its good faith, and to render questionable all its professions of regard for the rights of humanity and the liberties of mankind?

Just as the republic was unraveling, cooler heads prevailed, and the two sides reached a compromise. Authored by Henry Clay, who considered himself a Westerner, not a Southerner, the compromise allowed for Missouri to come into the Union as a slave state. To balance representation in the Senate, Massachusetts gave up its one remaining territorial claim, Maine, allowing it to enter the Union as a free state. Additionally, Clay’s compromise also changed the old Mason-Dixon line to parallel 36°30′ north, the line running from southern Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. North of that line would remain free, while south of it would adopt slavery. As should be obvious, the compromise proved a temporary solution at best. Still, it kept the Union together.

If we believe that the country of today is more divided than ever, we have a lot to learn.

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