Monday, May 25, 2009

The Missouri Compromise: The Origins of the Second Crisis

Glover Moore and Robert Pierce Forbes appear to disagree, at least tacitly, over the primary reasons for the outbreak of the second Missouri Crisis. Forbes places primary emphasis on the “the content of the Missouri constitution [quoted here] itself.”
Its provisions prohibiting the legislature from passing any future emancipation act and directing the enactment of laws excluding free blacks from the future state did not merely outrage restrictionists but represented an egregious insult to northern backers of the first Compromise and a deep embarrassment to moderate southerners.

Moore, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on the fact that northern restrictionists were simply not willing to admit defeat. “Actually, it was not the Missourians but the slavery restrictionists who first revived the controversy, and this they did long before the meeting of the Missouri constitutional convention and before any issue relating to free Negroes and mulattoes had arisen.” Moore relates that a network of antislavery activists (as we would call them now) worked hard in the spring and early summer of 1820, before the Missouri convention met, to keep the Missouri issue in the public eye. When the constitution was promulgated in June, they used the issues the constitution presented.

The issue that wound up being the subject of the second crisis – whether the constitutional provision imposing on the Missouri legislature the “duty” “[t]o prevent free negroes and mulattoes from coming to, and settling in, this state, under any pretext whatsoever" violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause -- was an odd one. It appears true that, to that date, no other state had imposed an absolute ban on the immigration of free blacks. However, a number of western states, including Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, had imposed substantial restrictions on free black immigration.

As Forbes suggests, however, restrictions had little choice. The slavery issue had already been fought and lost. The provision restricting emancipation “was entirely unprecedented in a state constitution,” but “it was not unconstitutional.” The free black immigration issue thus “represented the only potential ground to bar the territory from the Union, even if it opened a host of problematic questions about northern treatment of the same group.”
On the other hand, if free blacks were U.S. citizens, then Missouri’s constitution clearly violated the privileges and immunities clause of the federal constitution, and Missouri could not be admitted until it amended or repealed the offending article. Even if Missouri’s residents proved willing to make such a change, it would certainly cause a delay of several months, by which time the Sixteenth Congress would have adjourned [no later than March 3, 1821], giving way to the more antislavery Seventeenth Congress, which would have a better chance of excluding a slaveholding Missouri altogether.

I'm not sure that Forbes is entirely consistent. In the earlier quote, he suggested that northerners were in fact "outraged" and "insult[ed]" by the Missouri provisions concerning emancipation and free black immigration. The latter quote makes pretty clear, however, that the invocation of these provisions was merely a tactic because it would not be productive to raise the underlying issue -- slavery -- a second time.

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