Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jefferson Cries Wolf in the Night? 3

In his book The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America, Robert Pierce Forbes argues persuasively that Thomas Jefferson’s April 22, 1820 “fire bell in the night” letter to John Holmes – previously discussed here and here – was, let us say, a trifle disingenuous.

Apart from the fact that the letter conveniently catapulted Holmes, a loyal Republican, to the United States Senate, Forbes notes that other contemporaneous Jefferson correspondence is free of the doom-and-gloom predictions the letter contains. In fact, what stands out is that the tone of Jefferson’s letters depends on the identity of the recipient. “Jefferson reserved his tone of fatalism for northerners and anticompromise southerners.”

Procompromise confidantes like president James Monroe heard a different message from the Sage of Monticello. Forbes cites, for example, a letter that Jefferson wrote three weeks later to the president. In the letter, dated May 14, 1820, Jefferson gushed about the nation’s future prospects (emphasis added):

Dear Sir,

—Your favor of the 3d is received, and always with welcome. These texts of truth relieve me from the floating falsehoods of the public papers. I confess to you I am not sorry for the non-ratification of the Spanish treaty. Our assent to it has proved our desire to be on friendly terms with Spain; their dissent, the imbecility and malignity of their government towards us, have placed them in the wrong in the eyes of the world, and that is well; but to us the province of Techas will be the richest State of our Union, without any exception. Its southern part will make more sugar than we can consume, and the Red river, on its north, is the most luxuriant country on earth. Florida, moreover, is ours. Every nation in Europe considers it such a right. We need not care for its occupation in time of peace, and, in war, the first cannon makes it ours without offence to anybody. The friendly advisements, too, of Russia and France, as well as the change of government in Spain, now ensured, require a further and respectful forbearance. While their request will rebut the plea of proscriptive possession, it will give us a right to their approbation when taken in the maturity of circumstances. I really think, too, that neither the state of our finances, the condition of our country, nor the public opinion, urges us to precipitation into war. The treaty has had the valuable effect of strengthening our title to the Techas, because the cession of the Floridas in exchange for Techas imports an acknowledgement of our right to it. This province moreover, the Floridas and possibly Cuba, will join us on the acknowledgement of their independence, a measure to which their new government will probably accede voluntarily. But why should I be saying all this to you, whose mind all the circumstances of this affair have had possession for years? I shall rejoice to see you here; and were I to live to see you here finally, it would be a day of jubilee. But our days are all numbered, and mine are not many. God bless you and preserve you muchos años.

Forbes correctly observes, “Nothing in Jefferson’s boldly activist letter to Monroe reveals any trace of pessimism for the nation’s prospects.”

Likewise, Forbes points to Jefferson’s letter to his old friend the Marquis de Lafayette dated December 26, 1820, in which Jefferson described “Missouri” as involving little more than political posturing and “noise”:
With us things are going on well. The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave, and that from Missouri is now rolling towards us, but we shall ride over it as we have over all others. It is not a moral question, but one merely of power. Its object is to raise a geographical principle for the choice of a president, and the noise will be kept up till that is effected. All know that permitting the slaves of the south to spread into the west will not add one being to that unfortunate condition, that it will increase the happiness of those existing, and by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere, and facilitate the means of getting finally rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity. In the meantime, it is a ladder for rivals climbing to power.

To antislavery men and northerners, however, Jefferson purported to convey fear and uncertainty. In a letter written on December 26, 1820 – the same day that he wrote to Lafayette – to Pennsylvanian Albert Gallatin, “a pronounced Republican opponent of slavery then serving as U.S. minister to France," Jefferson reverted to pessimism, clearly designed to persuade the influential Gallatin to support and lobby for compromise. Although the Missouri question was nothing but a Federalist plot, it had stirred up a hornets’ nest, and secession was not out of the question unless cooler heads prevailed (emphasis and paragraph breaks added):
But nothing has ever presented so threatening an aspect as what is called the Missouri question. The Federalists, completely put down and despairing of ever rising again under the old divisions of Whig and Tory, devised a new one of slave-holding and non-slave-holding States, which, while it had a semblance of being moral, was at the same time geographical, and calculated to give them ascendency by debauching their old opponents to a coalition with them. Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one State to another, no more than their removal from one country to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it. Indeed, if there were any morality in the question it is on the other side; because by spreading them over a larger surface their happiness would be increased, and burden of their future liberation lightened by bringing a greater number of shoulders under it.

However, it served to throw dust into the eyes of the people and to fanaticize them, while to the knowing ones it gave a geographical and preponderant line of the Potomac and Ohio, throwing fourteen States to the North and East, and ten to the South and West. With these, therefore, it is merely a question of power; but with this geographical minority it is a question of existence. For if Congress once goes out of the Constitution to arrogate a right of regulating the condition of the inhabitants of the States, its majority may, and probably will, next declare that the condition of all men within the United States shall be that of freedom; in which case all the whites south of the Potomac and Ohio must evacuate their States, and most fortunate those who can do it first.

And so far this crisis seems to be advancing. The Missouri constitution is recently rejected by the House of Representatives; what will be their next step is yet to be seen. If accepted on the condition that Missouri shall expunge from it the prohibition of free people of color from emigration to their State, it will be expunged, and all will be quieted until the advance of some new State, shall present the question again. If rejected unconditionally, Missouri assumes independent self-government, and Congress, after pouting awhile, must receive them on the footing of the original States. Should the Representatives propose force, 1, the Senate will not concur; 2, were they to concur, there would be a secession of the members south of the line, and probably of the three Northwestern States, who, however inclined to the other side, would scarcely separate from those who would hold the Mississippi from its mouth to its source.

What next? Conjecture itself is at a loss. But whatever it shall be you will hear from others and from the newspapers; and finally the whole will depend on Pennsylvania. While she and Virginia hold together, the Atlantic States can never separate. Unfortunately, in the present case she has become more fanatisized than any other State. However useful where you are, I wish you were with them. You might turn the scale there, which would turn it for the whole. Should this scission take place, one of the most deplorable consequences would be its discouragement of the efforts of the European nations in the regeneration of their oppressive and cannibal governments. Amidst this prospect of evil I am glad to see one good effect. It has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation and deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before, insomuch that our governor has ventured to propose one to the Legislature. This will probably not be acted on at this time, nor would it be effectual; for, while it proposes to devote to that object one-third of the revenue of the State, it would not reach one-tenth of the annual increase.

My proposition would be that the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come; that these should be placed under the guardianship of the State, and sent at a proper age to St. Domingo. They are willing to receive them, and the shortness of the passage brings the deportation within the possible means of taxation, aided by charitable contributions. In these I think Europe, which has forced this evil on us, and the Eastern States, who have been its chief instruments of importation, would be bound to give largely. But the proceeds of the land office, if appropriate to this, would be quite sufficient.

God bless you, and preserve you multos años.

Likewise, in yet another letter written on December 26, 1820 (seems to have been a busy catch-up day!), “to his old friend David Baillie Warden, an Irish Presbyterian encyclopedist and dedicated opponent of slavery and racism,” Jefferson sounded similar themes:
But nothing disturbs us so much as the dissension lately produced by what is called the Missouri question: a question having just enough of the semblance of morality to throw dust into the eyes of the people, & to fanaticise them; while with the knowing ones it is simply a question of power. The Federalists, unable to rise again under the old division of whig and tory, have invented a geographical division which gives them 14. states against 10. and seduces their old opponents into a coalition with them. Real morality is on the other side. For while the removal of slaves from one state to another adds no more to their numbers than their removal from one country to another, the spreading them over a larger surface adds to their happiness and renders their future emancipation more practicable.


  1. What can I say? I agree completely with your interpretation.
    R.P. Forbes

  2. Prof. Forbes,

    I'm honored.


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