The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America

The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America

The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America

The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America

Synopsis

Robert Pierce Forbes goes behind the scenes of the crucial Missouri Compromise, the most important sectional crisis before the Civil War, to reveal the high-level deal-making, diplomacy, and deception that defused the crisis.

Excerpt

What effect did slavery have upon the development of institutions in the United States? For much of our history, slavery has been regarded as an anomaly, a jarring distraction from more edifying and more central themes. The topics of slavery and race are “tangents to my subject, being American, but not democratic,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, America's most famous critic, “and my main business has been to describe democracy.” Until recently, most commentators have been willing to follow Tocqueville and set these questions aside as tangential to the discussion of American institutions. Those who view the subjects of slavery and race as central to the American experience, on the other hand, have sometimes intimated that American democracy itself is, in some occult fashion, contaminated by racism in its very essence. Common to most studies of the subject is a mood of almost implacable destiny and inevitability. “Conceivably there was and is a way out” of the “vicious cycle” of racism for “the white man,” Winthrop D. Jordan mournfully concluded his magnum opus, White over Black, but “there was little in his historical experience to indicate that he would succeed.” For a few short years after the Revolution, acknowledged Lerone Bennett Jr., it had seemed realistic to hope that the tide of liberty and equality might extend its reach to Americans of African descent as well as to whites. “Then the roof caved in. When did this happen? No man can say…. Caste lines hardened; racial hostility increased.” Like James Joyce's Haines, most scholars of the subject seem resigned to the conclusion that “it seems history is to blame.”

There is a note of complacency in such declarations, it seems to me, even when uttered in tones of deep moral indignation. The historicist assumption underlying them—that history develops along impersonal, inexorable, and perhaps ultimately unknowable paths—is itself of recent creation, and . . .

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