Friday, May 15, 2009

The Missouri Compromise: Compromise, Armistice or Defeat?

I have discussed in several earlier posts David M. Potter’s conclusion that the Compromise of 1850 was not a compromise at all, but rather an armistice.

But what about the Missouri Compromise of 1820? I suspect that the general impression is that it was a compromise. After all, it sure looks like a compromise at first blush. The South gained a new slave state (Missouri) that extended north of where slavery had legally existed before, while the North gained a new free state (Maine) and the commitment that slavery would not be permitted in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory.

But an analysis of key votes held during the Missouri Crisis casts doubt upon this conclusion. Closer examination suggests that it was only a half a compromise, or more precisely, that only side compromised, while the other did not.

Glover Moore lays out and discusses the key votes in his dated but valuable The Missouri Controversy 1819-1821. In the Senate, the key vote that Moore discusses was held on February 17, 1820. The first “vote was taken on ordering the Maine-Missouri bill to be engrossed and read a third time. As the bill embraced all of the compromise measures, a vote for engrossment was a vote for the compromise.” The result, broken down sectionally, was as follows:

For Against
North 4 18
South 20 2
Totals 24 20

Moore observes that “[t]he vote leaves no doubt about which section of the country favored and which did not favor the compromise of 1820.”

Likewise in the House. The House never voted on the compromise as a whole, because that was precisely the test that Speaker Henry Clay was determined to avoid. To gauge sectional willingness to compromise, Moore therefore looks at two separate votes.

Taking the North first, Moore asserts that “the willingness of Northern representatives to compromise must be gauged by their vote against the second recommendation of the conference committee that the antislavery clause be eliminated from the Missouri bill.” Northern Representatives voted against striking the clause by a margin of 14 to 87. “Thus, by an overwhelming majority, Northern representatives rejected the only concession which the compromise of 1850 required of them.”

Looking at the South, Moore maintains that “[t]he willingness of Southern representatives to compromise can only be judged by the vote on the Thomas proviso [barring slavery from the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase], the concession which the compromise required of the South.” Southern representatives voted in favor of the proviso by margin of 39 to 37.

Moore comments:
By voting 39 to 37 in favor of the Thomas proviso, Southern representatives approved the compromise of 1820. The majority they gave it was a slender one, but even that was in marked contrast with the uncompromising vote of the Northern congressmen.

In short, it would appear that, from the southern perspective, the Compromise of 1820 was in fact a compromise. An overwhelming majority of southern senators and a slim majority of southern representatives voted in favor of the compromise or the key concession they were asked to make to achieve it.

To the North, however, the Compromise of 1820 was not a compromise. It was not even an armistice – it was a defeat. Of those northern legislators who voted, 82% of Senators and 86% of Representatives voted against compromise or against the key concession they were asked to make.

1 comment:

  1. All very true. But what do you make of the fact that Tallmadge and Taylor celebrated and congratulated each other?


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