Wolf by the Ears: Some Later Reflections and What Ifs

This post is part of our July “Unexpected America” blog series, focused on intriguing or surprising American history research from 1776 to today. Check back with us all month to see what new scholarship our authors have to share! (Photo Credit Nicholas Raymond)

I try to teach my history students not to see things that happened in past as “inevitable.” Little in life is.  Usually we live by the choices that we make—or those that others make for us.


One of the really interesting questions I found in studying the slavery issue in pre-Civil War politics—in particular, the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821—was whether the history of that might have turned very differently if only an alternative political choice had been made at one crucial time or another. In fact, leading politicians at the time did recognize for themselves what a heavy burden of decision they faced.


An example that I mention in my book Wolf by the Ears is the following story:


On February 13, 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay walked home together from the newly reconstructed Capitol—rebuilt because invading British troops had torched the original one during the War of 1812. The anxiety of that winter day probably registered on the faces of Adams and Clay as well as in the words they exchanged. For days, the city had been awash with rumors of disunion. The storm in Congress over the Missouri question—how, or whether, to admit the Missouri Territory to the Union as a new slave state—continued to rage without any certainty of breaking.

This crisis had begun exactly one year earlier, when New York congressman James Tallmadge had proposed an amendment to the bill to make Missouri the 23rd member (after Alabama) of the United States. That amendment would have required the new state’s constitution to ban any further entry of slaves within its borders and mandate that all chattels born there after 1819 become free at age 25. Antislavery northerners insisted that Congress had every right to deny Missouri’s application if it would not accept these conditions and looked toward prohibition of slavery as a prerequisite for all further states west of the Mississippi. Proslavery southerners replied that the Union consisted of equal states, with freedom to decide, each for itself, whether it be slave or free.

It was shocking to think of it, Clay told Adams, but he “had not a doubt that within five years from this time the Union would be divided into three distinct confederacies”—northern, southern, and western. Adams himself must have wondered whether his own moral obligation to oppose slavery mattered more than keeping together a Union that his father, John Adams, had helped to establish. Elsewhere in Washington, at the same time, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina gloomily pondered that a collapse of the Union would force the South toward a defensive alliance with Great Britain, in effect returning to a “colonial state.” Was America’s “great experiment” in republican governance—a national union of states—about to prove pathetically short-lived?

Congress narrowly averted that fate by passing a compromise a few weeks later. The deal called for the simultaneous admission of Missouri as a slave state, without antislavery restrictions, and Maine as a free state—and for drawing a line on the map, at latitude 36o 30’, with the agreement that the remaining western territory north of that line be closed to slavery, while that south of the line be allowed open to migrating slaveholders. In public, Adams endorsed the compromise, even though he was an antislavery Massachusetts man. It was the best settlement that could be effected under the Constitution as it was, he thought, and preferable at least for now to putting the Union at hazard. Privately, however, he registered serious doubts and, indeed, outrage. For one thing, Clay’s legislative tactics disgusted him, especially the way a law perpetuating slavery in Missouri and perhaps in all of North America had been “smuggled” through both houses of Congress, “victorious by the means of accomplices and deserters from the ranks of freedom,” with the “dishonesty” of coupling the bill with the admission of Maine.

And yet, Adams knew that the real fault lay in the Constitution itself, which had “sanctioned a dishonorable compromise with slavery” in the first place. For that, no remedy existed except a revisiting of the “morally and politically vicious” bargain between freedom and slavery that had resulted in governance by “slave representation.” Perhaps it would have been a “wiser” and “bolder” course, he mused to himself, “to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the States to revise and amend the Constitution.” The outcome of that, he thought, would have been a new Union of thirteen or fourteen free states, “unpolluted with slavery,” in the hope of rallying the other states eventually to the standard of universal emancipation. “If the Union must be dissolved,” he prophesied, “slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break. For the present, however, this contest is laid asleep.”

Asleep, that is, until the political tumults of the 1850s, followed by the secession of southern states from the Union, awakened it again—and until the April 1861 roar of cannons in Charleston Harbor, the Battle of Fort Sumter, jarred the country into Civil War. It must have been tempting in 1860-1861, as it is today, to blame earlier politicians for their failure to prohibit slavery expansion altogether. But for them to do that would have required a powerful nation-state capable of compelling the obedience of anti-federal southerners and, later, anti-national westerners.

Barring all other contingencies, that kind of modern state might have emerged in America within two decades after 1820, had antislavery restrictionists been able to hold their ground in the Missouri fight and a dominant northern free-soil party developed as a result. In that event, some of the slave states might have seceded then, giving up their share of the trans-Mississippi West, instead of waiting until 1860-1861. Some northerners would have welcomed that departure instead of fighting to save a dysfunctional union. Afterwards, under intensifying demographic and foreign pressure to end slavery, those states might finally have done so and, perhaps in time, have rejoined the United States. But devotion to that old, internally flawed union proved strong in 1820, as it would in years to come, hence the pro-southern compromise of that year and others to follow until the coping mechanisms that held rival sections, North and South, together for so long had finally worn away.

John R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850 and Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819-1821.