Monday, May 11, 2009

The Missouri Crisis: A Prequel

In The Missouri Controversy 1819-1821, Glover Moore points out a prequel to the dispute over slavery in Missouri of which I was unaware of.

On Monday November 23, 1818, a “resolution declaring the admission of the State of Illinois into the Union, on an equal footing with the original States, was read a third time.”

At that point, New York Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. – who three months later would ignite the Missouri controversy – rose and “assigned the reasons why, in his opinion, the resolution ought not to be adopted.” Rep. Tallmadge's principal objection related to the failure of the proposed Illinois constitution specifically to bar slavery. “The principle of slavery,” he maintained, “if not adopted in the constitution, was at least not sufficiently prohibited.”

Pointing first to Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery, Rep. Tallmadge first argued that it “was in the nature of a convention between the United States and the people of the States and Territories to be formed out of that territory.” Consequently, “[i]f the [proposed state] constitution was found to comport with that provision, it ought to be received by Congress; if not, it ought to be rejected. “Mr. T.” contended that the proposed Illinois constitution “contravened this stipulation, either in the letter or the spirit.”

Turning (as it were) to the merits of slavery, Rep. Tallmadge condemned it as “despotism” that contradicted the Declaration of Independence:
It had often been cast as a reproach on this nation, that we, who boast our freedom, and pride ourselves on our independence, yet hold our fellow-beings in service. Americans had been represented, indeed, with one hand exhibiting the declaration of independence, and with the other brandishing the lash of despotism.

Rep. Tallmadge softened the blow of his words by placing the blame for the “original sin” of slavery on the British. He recognized that the southern states were trying to “control and regulate the evil,” and had no desire to interfere with their efforts in states where slavery already existed. “But, Mr. T. said, if Congress should voluntarily recognise this feature in a constitution submitted for their decision, and in violation, too, of a compact forbidding it, they would take upon themselves the unjust imputation he had alluded to.”

Rep. George Poindexter of Mississippi then took the floor. He believed that the proposed Illinois constitution was not a bar to admission, but his statements concerning slavery were remarkable given the rancor of later debates:
Mr. POINDEXTER, of Mississippi, said he fully concurred with the gentleman from New York, in his solicitude to expel from our country, whenever practicable, anything like slavery. It is not with us, said he, a matter of choice whether we will have slaves among us or not; we found them here, and we are obliged to maintain and employ them. It would be a blessing, could we get rid of them; but the wisest and best men among us have not been able to devise a plan for doing it.

Rep. Poindexter did not deny that the federal government could condition Illinois' admission on the wording of its constitution, but he did assert that it was a futile exercise, for the people of a state could change their constitution at will, since [i]n the nature of free governments, no law could be irrepealable.” Remarkably, however, “he hoped that neither Ohio, Indiana, nor Illinois, would ever permit the introduction of slavery within their limits. He hoped, as far as we could, we should expel slavery from this country.”

After an intervening speech by Rep. Richard C. Anderson, Jr. of Kentucky, Rep. Tallmadge took the floor again. The most interesting part of his response (to me at least) addressed Rep. Poindexter's contention that, after statehood, citizens of Illinois could amend their constitution to permit slavery. Rep. Tallmadge argued that the Republican Form of Government clause of the Constitution might bar them from doing so – the first articulation on the floor of Congress of that argument of which I am aware:
With respect to the power of a State to change its constitution, he was not prepared to say that a State was, in that respect, under no restraint. Would Gentlemen admit a State into the Union to-day under a republican form of government, and permit it to call a convention to-morrow, and change its form of government to a monarchy? That State would cease, by the very act, to be a component part of the Union, and the same result would follow, he presumed, if a State were to violate the condition on which it was admitted into this Union, by admitting the introduction of slavery.

This was too much for future president William Henry Harrison, then serving as a Representative of the State of Ohio. Although “the introduction of slavery” was “the object of” Harrison's “abhorrence,”
he protested against the doctrine of the gentleman from New York. He could assure the gentleman that the people of that State [of Ohio] were fully aware of their privileges, and would never come to this House, or to the State of New York, for permission so to alter their constitution.

The resolution to admit Illinois passed by an overwhelming margin, 117 to 34. At the same time, those 34 negative votes – thirty-three from the north, one from Maryland – were an omen of the future.

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