Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Which Robert Pierce Forbes Takes Me to the Woodshed

I'm too lazy to provide all the background, but very briefly in an earlier post I asserted that in the aftermath of the Missouri Compromise most northerners regarded the resolution of the crisis as a defeat. In a comment to that post, Prof. Robert Pierce Forbes, the author of The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America, raised a question about my conclusion, citing correspondence of two of the restrictionist leaders, James Tallmadge and John W. Taylor. I in turn published a follow-up post noting Prof. Forbes's question and asserting that there appeared to be extenuating circumstances surrounding the expressions in the correspondence. I pledged to highlight any reply that Prof. Forbes might be so gracious to supply.

Prof. Forbes has now done exactly that, and true to my word I want to give him the floor. Here is his response without edit:
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.

I have an idea as to at least one point I want to make, but for now I'll keep my powder dry. The books I want to consult first - Prof. Forbes's work and Glover Moore The Missouri Controversy, 1819-1821 - are at my weekend place. But respond I shall!

About the illustration:
A satire condemning the duplicity and conspiracy of the "Bucktail" faction of New York Democrats in their April 1824 ouster of New York's ex-governor DeWitt Clinton from his post as canal commissioner. The Library's impression of the print has the missing letters in the names of the figures filled in by hand. Twelve men stand in a room, with a platform, table, and lamp on the right. On the left G[ardiner] is about to exit saying, "I will run home and ask the people how they will like it before I give my vote." To the left of the platform P[ierson] says to B[ourne], "I hope we shall give you a united vote for the removal of Mr. Clinton I have long wished an opportunity to have revenge on him for blowing up the old Burr Conspiracy." B[ourne]: "I am delighted with the prospect! Clinton has always been my devil--it will be impossible to pull him down to our level if we do not dishonor him. I recommend secrecy as success depends upon our taking the members by surprise at the moment of adjournment." Others in the room speak (counterclockwise, from the far left): S[eama]n: "I beg of you to pause ere you adopt any more lobby measures--we were sent here for public good--yet all our measures have for their object individual benefit. This base deed will produce a reaction and may make him Governor. The republican party so justly famed for justice and liberality will in their haste to free themselves from this odium forget and forgive everything." M[ors]e: "The North river squad think the Canal a benefit to ourside [sic] of the City and they will therefore disapprove our dishonoring its founder." D[rake]: "I wish I could be excused from voting, my conscience tells me it is wrong my judgment tells me it will dishonor the State--but the lobby requires it and it must be done." H[yatt]: "I vote here against the measure but if a majority of this meeting decide in its favor I will vote for it in the house tomorrow as my creed is the majority must rule." B[enedict]: "It is inconsistant with a Soldiers honor to build up or pull down any man to gratify angry or sordid passions --besides this lobby influence must be check'd or it will ruin the State." [Henry] W[heaton]: "I will support the measure to punish him for the injury he did our profession by recommending the fee bill and extending the jurisdiction of the judges." [Clarkson] C[rolius]: "I will support the measure in hopes of appeasing the wrath of the Bucktails altho' I fear they are too hard baked to be gull'd in this way. Besides My Insurance Co. & the lobby." W[ar]d: "My vote shall be given for this removal because he is the author of all our troubles about the electoral law. When Govr. he recommended to the Legislature the restoration of the peoples rights." T[own]: "It is true he has been my Benefactor and I ought to shudder at the deed but three months tuition in the hands of the lobby does away these squeamish feelings." Above, in a cloud, is Columbia with an American flag and an eagle, saying, "I renounce them and their ways."

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing cartoon--it provides a level of detail for the Clinton removal episode just unmatched anywhere else. The vindictive--and stupid--move to fire the former governor from his last minor post of honor, Canal Commissioner, took place while Van Buren was in Washington and not directly supervising the Bucktails (hence "Albany Regency". The move backfired and generated sympathy for Clinton that propelled him back into the governor's mansion. Van Buren's rueful comment about this was, "There is such a thing as killing a man too dead."

    Thanks for posting my comment--I'm looking forward to your response.


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