Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 71 Seeds of Disunion

IN 1819, the great question of the century reared its head. Missouri, I carved out of the Louisiana Territory, now claimed entrance to the Union as a state. That would have been comparatively simple, except for one thing. The proposed constitution for the new state permitted slavery within its borders.

Yet, when the bill was first offered in Congress for the admission of Missouri, no one suspected the storm that would arise. It came suddenly in the form of an amendment in the House prohibiting any further importation of slaves and providing for the emancipation of children born to slave parents once they reached the age of twenty-five. In this revised form, the bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

The fat was in the fire. Congress shortly thereafter adjourned, but the question of slavery or no slavery for Missouri--or, for that matter, for any of the states to be admitted in the future--became the burning issue of the hour. The great debate that ended in secession and bloody war was now commenced.

By the beginning of 1820, after Congress had reassembled, threats and counterthreats were already heating the air to incandescence. Alarmed at the monstrous genie that had been uncorked, a sufficient number of northern Republicans, though themselves opposed to slavery, joined with the embattled Southerners to work out a compromise arrangement. Missouri was to be admitted as a slave state and Maine, cutting itself off from its ancient parent, Massachusetts, as a free state. Thereby the number of free and slave states in the Union were exactly balanced at twelve each. At the same time, slavery was forever prohibited in that section of the Louisiana Territory which lay north of latitude 36° 30′.

Almost immediately the storm was allayed, though here and there could be heard ominous rumblings of discontent. But Jefferson was dearerheaded than most. He had seen with a sense of shock and alarm this sudden raising of the lid, and caught a glimpse of the tremendous passions that had escaped their old confinement. Here was something new in American life; a division along coincident moral and geographical lines that put into the shade any former division in the country.

He raised his voice in prophetic horror. "This momentous question," he warned, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knelt of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographi-

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