Six years after Louisiana entered the Union, Missouri applied for admission as a slave state. A violent agitation at once arose, continued for two years, and was finally allayed by the famous compromise of 1820. The outbreak was so sudden, its course so turbulent, and its subsidence so complete, that for many years it was regarded as phenomenal in our politics, and its repetition in the highest degree improbable if not impossible. The "Missouri question," as it was popularly termed, formally appeared in Congress in the month of December, 1818; tho during the preceding session petitions for a state government had been received from the inhabitants of the territory. When the bill proposing to admit the State came before the House, Mr. James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York, moved to amend it by providing that "the further introduction of slavery be prohibited in said State of Missouri, and that all children born in the State after its admission to the Union shall be free at the age of twenty-five years." The discussion which followed was able, excited, and even acrimonious. Mr. Clay took an active part against the amendment, but his great influence was unavailing in the face of the strong antislavery sentiment which was so suddenly developed in the North. Both branches of Mr. Tallmadge's amendment were adopted and the bill was passed. In the Senate the antislavery amendment encountered a furious opposition and was rejected by a large majority. The House refused to recede; and, amid great excitement in the country and no little temper in Congress, each branch voted to adhere to its position. Thus for the time Missouri was kept out of the Union.
On the second day after the opening of the next Congress, December, 1819, Mr. John Holmes presented a memorial in the House of Representatives from a convention which had been lately held in the District of Maine, praying for the admission of said district into the Union "as a separate and independent State, on an equal footing with the original States." On the same day, and immediately after Mr. Holmes had taken his seat, Mr. John Scott, territorial delegate, brought before the House the memorial presented in the previous Congress for the admission of Missouri on the same terms of independence and equality with the old States as prayed for by Maine.
From that hour it was found impossible to consider the admission of Maine and Missouri separately. Geographically remote, differing in soil, climate, and products, incapable of competing with each other in any pursuit, they were thrown into rivalry by the influence of the one absorbing question of negro slavery. Southern men were unwilling that Maine should be admitted unless the enabling Act of Missouri should be passed at the same time, and Northern men were unwilling that any enabling Act should be passed for Missouri which did not contain an antislavery restriction.
Mr. Clay, then an accepted leader of Southern sentiment—which in his later life he ceased to be— made an earnest, almost fiery, speech on the question. He declared that before the Maine bill should be finally acted on, he wanted to know "whether certain doctrines of an alarming character, with respect to a restriction on the admission of new States west of the Mississippi, were to be sustained on this floor." He wanted to know "what conditions Congress could annex to the admission of a new State; whether, indeed, there could be a partition of its sovereignty."
Despite the eloquence and the great influence of the Speaker, the Southern representatives were overborne and the House adopted the antislavery restriction. The Senate refused to concur, united Maine and Missouri in one bill, and passed it with an entirely new feature, which was proposed by Mr. Jesse B. Thomas, a senator from Illinois. That feature was simply the provision, since so widely known as the Missouri Compromise, which forever prohibited slavery north of 36° 30' in all the territory acquired from France by the Louisiana purchase. The House would not consent to admit the two States in the same bill, but finally agreed to the compromise; and in the early part of March, 1820, Maine became a member of the Union without condition. A separate bill was passed, permitting Missouri to form a constitution preparatory to her admission, subject to the compromise, which, indeed, formed one section of the enabling Act. Missouri was thus granted permission to enter the Union as a slave State. But she was discontented with the prospect of having free States on three sides— east, north, and west.
Altho the Missouri Compromise was thus nominally perfected, and the agitation apparently ended, the most exciting, and in some respects the most dangerous, phase of the question was yet to be reached. After the enabling Act was passed the Missouri Convention assembled to frame a constitution for the new State. The inhabitants of the Territory had become angered by the long Relay imposed upon them, caused, as they believed, by the introduction of a question which concerned only themselves, and which Congress had no right to control. In this resentful mood they were led by the extremists of the convention to insert a provision in the constitution, declaring that "it shall be the duty of the General Assembly, as soon as may be, to pass such laws as may be necessary to prevent free negroes or mulattoes from coming to or settling in this State under any pretext whatsoever." As soon as the constitution with this obnoxious clause was transmitted to Congress by the President, the excitement broke forth with increased intensity and the lines of the old controversy were at once reformed.
The parliamentary struggle which ensued was bitter beyond precedent; threats of dissolving the Union were frequent, and apprehension of an impending calamity was felt throughout the country. The discussion continued with unabated vigor and ardor until the middle of February, and the Congress was to terminate on the ensuing fourth of March. The House had twice refused to pass the bill admitting Missouri, declaring that the objectionable clause in her organic law was not only an insult to every State in which colored men were citizens, but was in flat contradiction of that provision in the Federal Constitution which declares that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States."
The defeat, apparently final, of the admission of Missouri, created intense indignation. Southern senators and representatives charged that they were treated unjustly by the North, and dealt with unfairly in Congress. In pursuance of the compromise of the year before, Maine had been admitted and her senators were in their seats. The organs of Southern opinion accused the North of overreaching the South in securing, under the name of a compromise, the admission of Maine, while still retaining the power to exclude Missouri. A feeling that bad faith has been practiced is sure to create bitterness, and the accusation of it produces increased bitterness in return. The North could easily justify itself by argument, but the statement without argument apparently showed that the South had been deceived.
The course pursued by the senators from Maine —John Holmes and John Chandler—in voting steadily for the admission of Missouri, tended greatly to check recrimination and relieve asperity of feeling. Mr. Holmes was a man of ability, of experience in public affairs and of eminent distinction at home. With a rare gift of humor, and with conversational talent almost unrivaled, he exerted an influence over men in private and social intercourse which gave him singular power in shaping public questions. It was an intimate friend and political supporter of Mr. Clay, and their cordial cooperation at this crisis evoked harmony from chaos, and brought a happy solution to a question that was troubling every patriotic heart. They united in a final effort, and through the instrumentality of a joint committee of seven senators and twenty-three representatives — of which Mr. Holmes was chairman on the part of the Senate, and Mr. Clay on the part of the House—a second and final compromise was effected, and the admission of Missouri secured.
This compromise declared that Missouri should be admitted to the Union upon the fundamental condition that no law should ever be passed by her Legislature enforcing the objectionable provision in her constitution, and that by a solemn public act the State should declare and record her assent to this condition, and transmit to the President of the United States an authentic copy of the Act. Missouri accepted the condition promptly but not cheerfully, feeling that she entered the Union under a severe discipline, and with hard and humiliating conditions.
It was in this compromises not in the one of the preceding session, that Mr. Clay was the leading spirit. Tho the first was the more important, and dealt with larger questions of a more enduring nature, it did not at the time create so great an impression on the public mind as the second, nor did its discussion produce so much antagonism between the North and the South. Thirty years after these events Mr. Clay called attention to the fact that he had received undeserved credit for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which he had supported but not originated. On the other hand, he had received only the slightest mention for his agency in the second compromise, which he had really originated and carried through Congress. The second compromise had passed out of general recollection before Mr. Clay's death, tho it had made him a Presidential candidate at forty-three years of age....
The Missouri question marked a distinct era in the political thought of the country, and made a profound impression on the minds of patrotic men. Suddenly, without warning, the North and the South, the free States and the slave States, found themselves arrayed against each other in violent and absorbing conflict. During the interval between the adoption of the Federal Constitution and the admission of Missouri, there had been a great change in the Southern mind, both as to the moral and the economic aspects of slavery. This revolution of opinion had been wrought in large degree by the cotton-plant.
When the National Government was organized in 1789, the annual export of cotton did not exceed three hundred bales. It was reckoned only among our experimental products. But, stimulated by the invention of the gin, production increased so rapidly, that, at the time of Missouri's application for admission to the Union, cotton-planting was the most remunerative industry in the country. The export alone exceeded three hundred thousand bales annually. But this highly profitable culture was in regions so warm that outdoor labor was unwelcome to the white race. The immediate consequence was a large advance in the value of slave labor, and in the price of slaves.