Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jefferson Cries Wolf in the Night? 2

A long time ago, I began to discuss Thomas Jefferson's famous 1820 "fire bell in the night" quote concerning the threat presented by slavery. I want to revive the topic and evaluate the quote by looking at the context.

As I noted in my earlier post, the quote comes from a letter that Jefferson sent on April 22, 1820, about seven weeks after the first Missouri crisis had been resolved by the passage of bills that called for the admission of Maine as well as Missouri as new states, and provided that slavery would not be permitted in the Louisiana Purchase territory (other than the future state of Missouri) above 36 degrees 30 seconds north latitude (which latitude formed the southern border of Missouri). Why did he send this after-the-fact correspondence to an addressee who is now virtually unknown? For that matter, who on Earth was John Holmes, anyway?

The identity of the addressee is in fact one clue as to Jefferson’s motivation and purpose in sending the letter. John Holmes, it turns out, was a former Federalist turned Republican politician from the Maine "district" of the state of Massachusetts. For our purposes, the most important thing to know about Holmes is that he served in the House of Representatives as a representative of the Maine district of Massachusetts from March 1817 until he resigned on March 15, 1820 as Maine was about to be admitted as a new state. Three months later, on June 13, 1820, the newly-assembled Maine legislature elected Holmes as one of the state’s first United States Senators.

During the first Missouri crisis, southerners in Congress, irate over northern refusal to admit Missouri as a slave state, tied the pending admission of Maine to the admission of Missouri. It would therefore be logical to think that Mainers would have favored Missouri’s admission in order to realize their long-sought ambition of statehood.

In fact, a large number of Mainers (like Timothy Claimright, whose views I recently discussed) took exactly the opposite view. They favored restriction (i.e., restricting slavery in Missouri) and were furious when they learned that slave interests were holding their own statehood, the merits of which no one questioned, hostage to Missouri’s admission. Determined not to give in to what they perceived to be blackmail, many insisted that their representatives stand firm on Missouri.

John Holmes appeared to be well-positioned to take advantage of this popular outrage. As a delegate to the Maine constitutional convention in the fall of 1819, he had opposed a proposal to exclude black men from the vote:
I know of no difference between the rights of the negro and the rights of the white man; God Almighty has made none; our [Massachusetts] declaration of rights has made none. That declares that “all men (without regard to color) are born equally free and independent.”

When Congress assembled in December 1819, it was Holmes who notified the House that Maine had completed all prerequisites to admission. He soon learned, however, that Maine’s admission was being held hostage to Missouri – and he was outraged. Initially, he protested that the admissions of the two states were “wholly unconnected” and suggested (albeit with some circuitous language) that he “should forfeit the chance of Maine rather than forfeit my opinion.”

By New Year’s day, 1820, however, he was backtracking, apparently endorsing the proposition that “it would be best that the Mother should have twins this time.” Soon after, he convinced another Maine District congressman to join him in supporting Missouri’s unrestricted admission.

Holmes presumably expected that his position would be understood and supported as a reluctant necessity. He was wrong. He soon discovered “that Maine’s citizens considered the move to extend slavery an outrage,” and that he and colleague Mark Langdon Hill (whom Holmes had converted) were the only members of the seven-man Maine District delegation to support Missouri's unrestricted admission. He also “came under withering attack in the northern press and on the floor of Congress.”

By the end of January 1820, Holmes was virtually alone, detested by many of his constituents, and in deep political trouble. Quoting from letters of William King, Maine’s leading politician (and soon to be its first governor), to his half-brother Rufus King of New York, Robert Pierce Forbes has summarized the political landscape as follows:
“In the attempt to associate the admission of Maine and Missouri together,” William [King] wrote his half brother, “the motive is so apparent, that it has excited general disgust in this State.” Maine’s citizens desired statehood, but only “on terms honorable & correct . . . they will not, I am sure, consent to bargain their way along let the consequence be what it may.” John Holmes was the only member of the Maine delegation intending to vote with the South, William informed his brother; “it is hardly fair to judge his motives, altho’ opinions are expressed freely on the subject.” . . . “Mr. Holmes’ course is generally complained of here, and I am inclined to think his constituents will not be disposed to overlook his present conduct.”

When the final vote came on March 2, 1820, Holmes and Mark Hill were the only two members of the Maine District delegation to vote in favor of the Compromise. Holmes, returning to Maine hoping to be elected one of the state's first Senators, instead met "anger and vilification at home for his part as the arch-doughface of the Missouri capitulation."

Jefferson's fire bell letter to Holmes -- in which the revered founding father "tender[ed] the offering of my high esteem and respect" to Holmes "as the faithful advocate of the Union" -- proved to be a godsend:
It could be argued that nothing less than an endorsement from the author of the Declaration of Independence himself could have salvaged Holmes's political career in Maine. Fortunately for him, [Holmes] had exactly that. . . . Armed with this powerful document by the founder of their party, with its forecast of doom for the infant nation, Holmes secured election as one of Maine's first senators from the new state's chastened Republican legislature.

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