Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
THE MISSOURI CONTEST

In November, 1818, Missouri requested permission of Congress to frame a constitution for admission into the Union as a state.1 The request was taken under consideration by the House of Representatives on February 13, 1819, at which time James Tallmadge of New York moved to add to the enabling act: "That the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall be duly convicted; and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years."2

Tallmadge was a man of broad humanitarian principles, strongly opposed to slavery, and his action was in the liberal tradition of those who had abolished slavery in New York state and had labored diligently to assist and protect the free Negroes in New York City, and of those who had enacted and sustained the Ordinance of 1787.3 Much of the debate which now ensued centered around that historic document and the basic questions of (1) whether Congress had the constitutional power to exclude slavery from the territories, (2) whether Congress had the constitutional power to impose binding restrictions upon a new state other than that its government be republican, and (3) whether a state, once admitted under an antislavery restriction, could alter its constitution to legalize slavery.

The second debate -- which ensued after Missouri had framed her constitution -- embraced the questions of (1) what were the attributes of citizenship, (2) were free Negroes citizens, and (3) what were the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.

Other issues emerged in the course of the debate which were important. For example, certain representatives from the South continued the threats of violence begun in the early Congresses, this time in a manner calculated to arouse the people of Missouri to unlawful procedures, and they condemned public discussion of the question in a manner prophetic of Calhoun's resolutions of 1837. Southern intolerance had not only driven out many liberals -- the migration was almost complete by 1830 -- but was condemning free enquiry and discussion of slavery anywhere in the country and was denying the right of petition with renewed vigor, by 1819. Thomas W. Cobb, of Georgia, with direct reference to Tallmadge, said: "We have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out; which seas of blood can only extinguish," a remark which he repeated a second time.4 John Scott, delegate from the Territory of Missouri, was particularly ferocious in praising the prowess and courage and willingness to resist oppression of the sturdy inhabitants of Missouri and warned supporters of the Tallmadge Amendment to "beware the fate of Caesar and of Rome." Edward Colston of Virginia told Arthur Livermore of New Hampshire that he was no better than Arbuthnot or Armbrister, two British subjects hanged by Jackson in Florida, and that he deserved the same fate. Elliott of Georgia insisted that slavery was not an issue and that Congress should disregard all public agitation.5

William Smith of South Carolina said the "ex

-102-

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