Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic

Article excerpt

Historians' standard rendering of sectional politics from the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821 through the Civil War is a tale of recurring and increasingly polarizing sectional conflicts. This is obviously a significant part of the story of the coming of the Civil War. The logical consequence of this prevailing wisdom, however, is that sectionalist purists now gamer the preponderance of scholarly attention. Even historians who attend to sectional moderates ultimately focus on the question of how Republicans and fire-eaters took control of the two antagonistic sections. This narrative arc encourages a uniform picture of the political impact in the North of debates centered on slavery. Understanding that the northern electorate opposed slavery for a myriad of reasons, the assumption follows that northern politicians who voted for compromise during slavery debates-"doughfaces"-suffered at the polls if they even dared to run for reelection. Being at least functionally proslavery, doughfeces were in a no-win situation whenever slavery formed the subject of national debates. The standard interpretation of the North during the Missouri Crisis itself centers on the fact that only five of the House of Representatives' eighteen doughfaces returned to the next Congress. Given how the threat of slavery's expansion aroused the northern public, go these accounts, it should be no surprise that voters spumed their doughfaced representatives.1

But another way of looking at the antebellum politics of slavery would be to ask why those five Congressmen persisted in their doughfaced course and were able to secure reelection. Dismissing the doughfaces as craven lap dogs of the South-or as proponents of slavery and thus out of touch with their constituents-overlooks the fact that some of their voting records did resonate with voters. Understanding when, where, and why doughfaces prospered in the midst of polarizing slavery controversies will refine scholars' understanding of the complex workings of the slavery issue in the larger political context of the early republic. The doughfaces constantly-and with some justification-insisted that they hated slavery but assigned other issues a higher priority. Those issues overlapped with both national and local commitments that made doughfeces and their supporters just as committed to their own principled stances as were those committed to fighting slavery and its spread. Close attention to the Missouri Crisis from a Maine point of view shows that a simple division between North and South over slavery was more a dream of the antislavery politicians than a reality.2

The Maine story during the Missouri Crisis was both uniquely local and representative nationally of the complexity of slavery politics in the early republic. On the one hand, Maine's politics surrounding Missouri featured many of the same complications as in other northern states. Maine did not provide an unusually high number of doughfaces, as only two of the District's seven representatives in Congress voted against restricting slavery in Missouri. And at the national level, representatives of Maine wrestled with the same competing priorities of Union and antislavery as did other northern Congressmen, and advanced fairly standard arguments against restricting slavery in Missouri. The fluidity of partisan alignments complicated the situation even further. For the preceding decade, one could count on Federalists taking a sectionalist stance in defense of New England's power, and Republicans vehemently denying the validity of sectionalism in national politics. But the Missouri Crisis was destabilizing in part because in Maine as elsewhere, some Republicans joined Federalists in advocating restriction, while others attacked the restriction as a Federalist plot to retake national power. The drive to restrict slavery in Missouri thus threatened to strip the Republican leadership of party unity, both in Maine and other states as well as nationally. …

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