Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate

In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the philosopher Avishai Margalit argues that “we should be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.”[1] The essence of popular government rests on the idea that compromise is not only necessary, but that it is a positive function in promoting the interests of the public good. Margalit warns, however, that political compromises can easily lead to immoral and violent outcomes. He defines a “rotten political compromise” as one that helps “establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation . . . that does not treat humans as humans.”[2] This provocative definition might compel students of nineteenth-century U.S. history to consider numerous instances of political compromise when slaveholders’ interests were perpetuated in the interest of national harmony.

One such moment that I have been studying more lately is the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As we approach the 200th anniversary of this crucial legislation, I have taken an interest in studying figures who refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s existence in the new state of Missouri. In particular, I have been fascinated by the responses of a small number of Missourians who unsuccessfully fought to ban slavery in the state.

A Map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Missouri Compromise story is well-known to nineteenth-century historians. A bill on Missouri statehood was first brought up for debate in Congress on December 18, 1818. Fearing the rapid spread of slavery into new western territories, Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed a plan to gradually end slavery in Missouri. Any black Missourians born after statehood would be free and the remaining enslaved population in the state would be gradually emancipated over time. Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois proposed a further amendment to ban slavery north and west of Missouri in other territories that were part of the Louisiana Purchase, a precursor to the final legislation that Congress would eventually pass.[3]

These proposals caused such a furor among proslavery politicians—not least Missouri’s own proslavery leaders—that the Missouri statehood bill failed to pass before Congress adjourned in March 1819. John Scott, Missouri’s non-voting representative in Congress, complained that his prospective state was entitled to the “rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed the other states.” Dismissing earlier Congressional legislation banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, Scott argued that as long as a republican form of government for white men was established in Missouri, Congress could not interfere any further. If Congress could ban slavery in Missouri, it could also establish “what religion the people should subscribe . . . and to provide for the excommunication of all those who [do] not subscribe.” Slavery had existed in Missouri territory for one hundred years at that point and should be allowed to exist moving forward, according to Scott.[4]

A minority of white Missourians opposed slavery and refused to compromise on the issue, however. Through the spring and summer of 1819, a vigorous debate about slavery in Missouri occurred in the pages of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, the first newspaper to be published west of the Mississippi River. Published by Joseph Charless, an anti-slavery Irish immigrant who Meriwether Lewis had urged to settle in St. Louis, the Missouri Gazette published a series of antislavery letters by an anonymous writer that went by the name “A Farmer of St. Charles County.”[5]

“A Farmer of St. Charles County” began his correspondence with the newspaper on April 7th. He complained that territorial laws often referred to the “inhabitants” being given the same rights as U.S. citizens, but that only white men truly enjoyed those rights. Taken literally, “the word ‘inhabitants’ would comprehend every individual of the human race, whatever might be his color” could claim the right of citizenship. The farmer then complained that the slave state simultaneously complained about their “species of property which they have found troublesome and dangerous to keep at home.” Why would Missouri choose to indulge in such a danger any further? Slaveholders, according to the St. Charles farmer, became greedy, lazy, and prone to vices like “gambling, drinking, and dueling.” Only the spirit of the Declaration of Independence could correct slavery’s wrongs.[6]

Joseph Charless, antislavery editor of the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The farmer continued his letters by arguing that restricting slavery’s growth could eventually lead to its eventual demise. Restriction would “reduce the price of slaves in the slave states, and make their owners more willing to emancipate” and perhaps colonize them to Africa. Slavery was the “foulest blot on our national character” and created an unfair economic advantage for slaveholders. Finally, the farmer correctly predicted that “Virginia and Kentucky will grow an abundance of negroes. [The excess] must be sold or emancipated, for it would not do to let them remain in those states. Therefore they want a market for them in Missouri. They know that slavery is a curse, and they want us to have a share in that curse, and to pay them well for it besides.”[7] Another anonymous farmer, inspired by the St. Charles farmer’s letters, wrote to the Missouri Gazette wondering what proslavery thinkers would say if Congress passed a law requiring that “the people of Missouri should never make any laws prohibiting or restricting slavery,” even if it was against the interests of Missourians. Would such laws respect states’ rights and the spirit of popular government?[8]

Another significant moment occurred in St. Ferdinand, St. Louis County, in June. Antislavery residents there passed a series of resolutions arguing against slavery in Missouri. “Slavery is contrary to the term freedom, and is also contrary to the laws of nature” and “one of the greatest evils we have to regret at this present day in the United States,” they argued. Slavery’s continued growth would “eventually end in an entailed hereditary misery on our future prosperity, and bring upon us their just censure, as well as the judgment of a just, but angry God.”[9]

These antislavery appeals in the Missouri Gazette failed to greatly change public opinion. Several people wrote to Charless accusing the St. Charles farmer of not actually being a farmer or a St. Charles resident, since no one in that town could so oppose the right to own enslaved laborers. Leading territorial politicians such as Alexander McNair and Thomas Hart Benton held public meetings against any compromises with antislavery politicians. Both made the self-serving argument that expanding slavery to Missouri was preferred by enslaved blacks, because the future state’s lands were not suitable for cotton growth. Slaves would be treated better and welcome the chance to work on a small-scale farm rather than a giant plantation further south. When McNair and Benton were elected as delegates to a state constitutional convention in 1820, they helped author a clause that would have banned free black settlement in the state, although Speaker of the House Henry Clay later asked that Missouri not enforce this clause before Congress accepted the new constitution.[10]

Article II, Section 26 of the Missouri Constitution, which banned free black settlement in Missouri. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In the end, Clay engineered a compromise that gave a little to both sides of the divide. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while Maine would come in as a free state, setting the precedent of balancing free and slave territories when adding new states to the Union. Territory north of the 36˚30′ parallel would be free of slavery (excluding Missouri) while territory south would be allowed to establish it. While both sides at the time found room to criticize the Missouri Compromise, the legislation became sacrosanct in the minds of antislavery thinkers like Abraham Lincoln thirty years later. Criticizing the law’s repeal by Congress in 1854, Lincoln argued that the Compromise protected the “sacred right of self-government” and that its repeal guaranteed the “sacred right of taking slaves to Nebraska” and other western territories.[11] Replacing the Missouri Compromise with the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” soon ushered the creation of the Republican Party and eventually the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 worth it, or was it a “rotten compromise” that compromised the nation’s values? In the minds of antislavery Missourians, it was not the “Missouri Compromise,” but “Missouri Compromised.”


[1] Avishai Margalit, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5.

[2] Margalit, 2.

[3] See Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Floyd Calvin Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 1804-1821 (Jefferson City: The Hugh Stephens Printing Co., 1916).

[4] “Remarks of Mr. Scott, of Missouri,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 12, 1819.

[5] “Joseph Charless (1772-1834),” The State Historical Society of Missouri, 2020, accessed February 29, 2020, https://historicmissourians.shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/c/charless/.

[6] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 7, 1819.

[7] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819.

[8] “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 21, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Louis County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 9, 1819.

[9] “For the Missouri Gazette,” Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, June 23, 1819.

[10] “Sydney,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, April 14, 1819; “A Farmer of St. Charles County,” Letter to the Editor, Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, May 19, 1819; Shoemaker, Missouri’s Struggle for Statehood, 84-88; “The Second Missouri Compromise,” Last Best Hope of Earth, March 28, 2016, accessed March 1, 2020, https://lastbesthopeofearth.com/2016/03/28/the-second-missouri-compromise/; Junius P. Rodriguez, The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia (New York: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 229.

[11] “Speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, October 16, 1854,” Teaching American History, 2020, accessed March 1, 2020, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-the-repeal-of-the-missouri-compromise/

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

One Reply to “Missouri Compromised: Anti-Slavery Protest During the Missouri Statehood Debate”

  1. In the movie, Chariots of Fire, there is a line spoken by the father of Eric Liddle. He says, “Compromise is the work of the devil.” What would have happened if the Missouri anti-slavery protests had been successful, instead of a compromise? There is a lesson here that history teaches; and it is this: a war could have been prevented. Unfortunately, the hardened and greedy hearts of too many humans are often out of reach of the lessons history can teach us. What would a consensus have looked like? Many think that consensus and compromise are the same thing. They are not! What might things have been like if there had been the Missouri Consensus of 1850? Even today, we spend too much time and effort appeasing the powerful. Thank you for the article Nick.

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