The Second Missouri Compromise

Henry Clay.

With the creation of the Missouri Compromise came a second controversy for Missouri. Some northerners threatened “not to consent to the Missouri constitution when it came back to Congress for final approval.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 156. Henry Clay, then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, led the effort to solving this second controversy.

Congress would approve the Missouri constitution so long as it “provided the state legislature promised not to pass any law violating the ‘privileges and immunities’ clause of the federal Constitution.” Id. No state could do this anyway, looking at the language of the federal Constitution. The real question was “whether free African Americans could enjoy its protection if they were citizens of their home state.” Id. With this condition, the state of Missouri would be admitted. However, by 1847, Missouri would ban “all free black settlers,” illustrating just the lack of durability in any compromise reached in this era. Id. citing George Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, (1989), 242.

Thomas Jefferson, then 77-years old summed up his thoughts on the events regarding Missouri: “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. . . . I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.” Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1434.

Jefferson was concerned about the “prospect of the North uniting and using its greater population to force a resolution of the slavery problem.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 157. There was a concern that the federal government would strengthen and fall under the control of the hostile North.

John Taylor of Caroline published a volume called Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated, which “showed how the Old Republican political thought and strict constitutional construction now provided a rationale for the new pro-slavery Radicalism.” John Taylor, Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated (Richmond, Va., 1820), 298.

John Quincy Adams also noted in his diary, on November 29, 1820: “If slavery be the destined sword of the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States, combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result might be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and, calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”Memoir of John Quincy Adams, V, 210.

As the dust settled in Congress surrounding the crisis in Missouri, it was clear that some of the wisest in society, Jefferson and Quincy Adams, were well aware of the path that America was on. If it continued unabated, civil war was not only possible, it was looking increasingly likely, just based on the positioning of the factions in the country. The Missouri Compromise, as a whole, only seemed to flare tensions and delay what seemed more inevitable as the years progressed.

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