Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Missouri Compromise: A "great Joy" to the North?

Several months ago, I wrote a post on the Missouri Compromise entitled The Missouri Compromise: Compromise, Armistice or Defeat? The post concluded, based on a review of congressional votes, that northern representatives viewed the first Missouri Compromise – the Compromise of 1820 – as a defeat:
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.

Recently, Robert Pierce Forbes, the author of The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (which I see is slated to be released in paperback August 15), was kind enough to visit these pages and left the following comment to the post:
All very true. But what do you make of the fact that [James] Tallmadge and [John W.] Taylor celebrated and congratulated each other?

Since a comment from one of the leading authorities on the Compromise is not exactly an everyday event, I thought I’d explore it and venture a response.

Prof. Forbes describes the celebration and congratulations he refers to in his comment in greater detail in his book, as follows:
[T]idings of the Missouri vote brought “great Joy” to the originator of the restriction amendment and its principal backer. From former representative James Tallmadge, John W. Taylor received fervent congratulations: “You have in this business a monument to your fame. Accept the thanks of a sincere friend for your perseverance – Talents – & devotion to the cause of your nation – & of suffering human nature.” For his part, as he wrote to his wife, Taylor also felt satisfaction. “We have gained all that was possible, if not all that was desired. . . . an ample recompense for all the time and talent it has cost us.”

It strikes me that we are viewing here, in part, a not uncommon human reaction to defeat after a long and bitter struggle. The two warriors had lost, but they could console themselves with the knowledge that they had fought the good fight against large odds and had at least achieved something.

In addition, as Prof. Forbes himself points out in the next paragraph, it was possible to see this as the beginning, not the end, of the match. The first round had been close, and there was reason to believe the odds would be better in the second:
Moreover, the struggle to admit Missouri was hardly finished. The principal task for opponents of restriction was consolidating their position. They had prevailed by just three votes, and even if, as I think it should be, [John] Randolph’s assertion that six more northern votes waited in the wings if needed is taken seriously, this still amounted to a tenuous margin. By every indication, most “doughfaces” could expect stiff reelection challenges; the Seventeenth Congress would undoubtedly be still more unfriendly to slavery expansion.

Was the first Missouri vote a defeat? Yes, but a glorious one. The South’s nose had at least been bloodied, and Northern consciousness, as we might say today, had been raised. There would be future battles, and victory would ultimately result.

It goes without saying that I would be delighted to highlight any comment or response from Prof. Forbes.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Tig,
    Thank you for your invitation to respond to your thoughtful post. It calls to mind a quotation from Einstein that I cite in my introduction: "The theory decides what we can observe." Since you know that the Compromise was a defeat for its authors, the letters must be ones of consolation.

    But how would you read them if you had never heard of the Missouri Compromise? Would “great Joy," "a monument to your fame," "ample recompense," look like commiseration in defeat? In public, as I make clear, the architects of the Compromise had to describe it as a Southern victory. But in their private correspondence--in letters not likely to be intercepted by Bucktail postmasters--the two men most responsible for restriction expressed their delight in the outcome.

    This stuff is far from obvious; it took me literally years to figure it out.


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