Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court

By Gerald T. Dunne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
New Arrivals, Old Survivals

FIREBELL IN THE NIGHT

Midway between the decisions in the Dartmouth College and Crowninshield cases, on February 13, 1819, the Missouri statehood bill was called up in the House of Representatives. On that same day, Congressman James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York proposed an amendment providing for the emancipation at twenty-five of all slaves thereafter born in the newly admitted state. Tallmadge followed a New York precedent, but the mere hint that such procedure might be recast in national law as a positive instrument of emancipation provoked a fresh constitutional crisis.

From the standpoint of states' rights and strict construction, any such action by the federal government was an impermissible usurpation. Yet from the standpoint of countervailing nationalistic-natural-law logic, the proposal was not only legitimate but proper and even inevitable. Moreover, from the imperative of history, it seemed difficult to avoid the inference of such power the moment the federal government ceased to be a creature of the states and became, whether de jure or de facto, their creator. Springing from these tangled roots, the confrontation shook the country and seemed to prove that the irenic years which had preceded it were not the era of good feelings but, rather, the calm before the storm.

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