ON FEBRUARY 13, 1819, 35-year-old Congressman William Cobb unfolded his six-foot frame from his chair in the chamber of the Old Brick Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and locked his gray eyes on James Tallmadge Jr. of New York. There was little love lost between the grandson of Georgia's most famous patriarch and the accomplished city lawyer. They had tangled on issues before, Cobb eloquently if savagely attacking Andrew Jackson over his campaign in Florida against the Seminoles; Tallmadge had defended the general with equal vigor.
At the moment, Congress was in the midst of discussing Missouri statehood, by now a normal expectation whenever a frontier territory attained the qualifying number of white settlers. Suddenly Tallmadge had electrified the proceedings by introducing a controversial proposal: statehood should only be granted, he insisted, if the further importation of slaves was prohibited. In addition, emancipation would come to all children born to slaves when they reached 25. Cobb and other Southern congressmen were outraged.
"You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish," Cobb told Tallmadge, his eyes blazing. The 41-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 was not one to back down: "If a dissolution of the Union must take place, let it be so! If civil war, which gentlemen so much threaten, must come, I can only say, let it come!" In a moment the smoldering coals of the slavery issue threatened to catch fire and burn out of control.
But at the same time other Americans were determined to transcend sectionalism and create an "era of good feelings." Creative moderates such as President James Monroe, Rep. Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun seized the initiative away from the truculent sectional extremists to avoid civil war. They worked out one of the most memorable compromises of American history.
Tallmadge's proposal resembled the one New York State had adopted two years earlier. Slave owners could hardly complain that their vested interests were disregarded; the plan would have freed no one already enslaved. But what might have proven a step toward peaceful emancipation provoked national consternation.
On behalf of the Tallmadge amendment, Northern congressmen were quick to bring up that many of the South's most revered statesmen, including Thomas Jefferson, had often expressed a desire to find a way out of perpetuating slavery. Yet now the South presented a virtually solid opposition (in which the aged Jefferson himself joined) to forcing emancipation upon a new state. Through days of rancorous debate, the two sides rehearsed arguments that would he used by the North and South for many years to come. Before it was over, not just the consolidation of slavery on the frontier but its existence throughout the whole Union would be challenged. Like the overture to an operatic drama, the Missouri controversy prefigured the coming 45 years of recurring sectional conflict.
While many Southerners had long regretted the introduction of black slavery, they feared that emancipation would invite race war, at least in areas with substantial African American populations. The economic impact of losing western slave markets was one thing, but the palpable fear of living among an ever-increasing population of potential rebels--"dammed up in a land of slaves" was how Virginia judge Spencer Roane put it--was something else again. Besides, how would the federal government continue to enforce gradual emancipation in Missouri over the decades after the territory had become a state?
Southern statesmen such as Jefferson, who had publicly deplored slavery for a long time, now found themselves arguing that it would be better were the institution dispersed ever more thinly into newly settled areas rather than concentrated in the older states. "Diffusion" of slaves "over a greater surface," as Jefferson rationalized it, would "facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation" by better preparing the local whites to see them freed by spreading the burden of compensating slaveholders. …