On the morning of December 7, 1819, an American flag rose above the roof of the newly renovated Capitol building, signaling for the first time in over six years that the U.S. Congress was in session within.
When the doors opened, legislators and guests were amazed at what they found. The stately entrance led to an almost regal setting; the marble from the Potomac quarry had been put to grand use throughout the building, including in the House chamber (now Statuary Hall), where representatives sat in a semicircle, like in an amphitheater. A significant number of the la borers toiling to complete the work were enslaved men, some rented out by their owners.
Crimson curtains hung beside the long windows and along the gallery, where citizens could look down on their representatives, just below another hung curtain of silk and gold. A crimson canopy, adorned with a gilt eagle, hung over the Speaker’s desk, where a magnificent pair of brass candlesticks complemented the countless brass spittoons. Lush Brussels carpeting failed to prevent orators from inadvertently throwing their voices upward to the Capitol dome: an unintended echo chamber, where lofty rhetoric ascended, misheard and incomprehensible.
Knowledge of this acoustic challenge would not temper the coming battle over admitting Missouri to the union.
The greatest crisis of James Monroe’s presidency had begun months earlier, on Saturday, February 13, 1819, when, in the “Old Capitol,” James Tallmadge rose to speak. At 41, Tallmadge was a distinguished-looking New Yorker with a firm chin, alert eyes set far apart from his nose, and the beginnings of a receding hairline. He had held his seat for only twenty months, becoming best known for his opposition to statehood for Illinois, deeming its constitution not strong enough in banning slavery.
The room fell quiet as Tallmadge cleared his throat, then began to speak. To the colleagues around him he proposed an amendment to the Missouri Enabling Act:
Provided, that the introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited, except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been fully convicted; and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years.
With one long sentence, Tallmadge threatened to topple life as Congress, and the country, knew it. Southern and western congressmen leapt from their seats in anger, equaled by their northern colleagues who also stood, roaring their support.Monroe was about to be tested severely, Adams concluded. Monroe already knew it.
On Monday, debate began in earnest. Tallmadge’s abler New York colleague, John Taylor, led the fight for the antislavery faction, while Henry Clay silently rallied the proslavers. Taylor’s argument welded constitutional law and congressional precedent with a geography lesson thrown in: Indiana and Illinois had been admitted to the union following ordinances banning slavery, with Congress’s permission; Missouri, lying in the same latitude, should also be welcomed. Arthur Livermore of New Hampshire rose to support the amendment. “Let us no longer tell idle tales about the gradual abolition of slavery,” he urged.
The following day, Missouri Territory representative John Scott struck back, citing Madison’s calling the union “a confederacy of republican principles” established to “rail against aristocratic or monarchial innovations.” Everyone in the chamber knew who was in Scott’s “confederacy,” and also from whence cometh those holding such “innovations.” Tallmadge now called for the floor. He insisted that, while he and his supporters “mourn over the evil of slavery,” they recognized “the danger of having free blacks visible to slaves,” which prevented them from proposing such an amendment regarding admission to Alabama, a state surrounded by slave states. But not so Missouri, being “a newly acquired territory unencumbered by such neighbors.”
Congress’s recording secretary noted the mood of the proceedings for posterity. “You have kindled a fire which all of the waters of the ocean can not put out,” Thomas Cobb of Georgia roared at Tallmadge, before adding with chilling foresight, “which seas of blood can only extinguish.” The unthinkable gauntlet thrown, Tallmadge metaphorically picked it up: “Sir, if a dissolution of the union must take place, let it be so!”
The roll was called. Votes were cast on strictly sectional lines. Once tallied, Tallmadge’s amendment passed, 87 to 76 for prohibiting slavery, 82 to 78 for emancipation after statehood. It died a quick death in the Senate, where slave states held a decided numerical advantage, by votes of 31 to 7 and 22 to 16. With just a few days left before recess, both houses let the matter sit for the time being. The Fifteenth Congress was at an end, as was Tallmadge’s only term. His simply worded amendment was an early fissure in the fragile union of North and South, free state and slave, held together by the three fifths clause in the Constitution.
Initially, the public took little interest in Tallmadge’s amendment or the brief verbal conflict it inspired. Congressmen and senators returned home, spending spring, summer, and fall at their law offices, farms, or plantations, devoting time to their families, and currying votes for reelection. Instead, the ongoing Panic and Monroe’s tour dominated newspaper headlines. In Massachusetts, John Adams remained as philosophical as his crusty temperament could allow. “The state of the World is Still alarming,” he wrote Monroe, “But I have heard that ‘The Business of the World will do itself.'”
In December, the issue of slavery was very much on Monroe’s mind, but not due to Missouri. Congress had passed acts prohibiting the slave trade-on international waters. As president, Monroe was responsible for seeing Congress’s wishes carried out, and zealously did so, replying with a detailed plan:
The obligation to instruct the commanders of all our armed vessels to seize and bring into port all ships or vessels of the United States, where soever found, having on board any negro, mulatto, or person of color in violation of former acts for the suppression of the slave trade … was executed without delay It is enjoined on the Executive to cause all negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color who may be taken under the act to be removed to Africa.
But in the interest of “humane policy,” Monroe ordered measures to aid captured Africans “in the return to their former homes.” Shelter and food would be provided and, with “the coast of Africa having been little explored,” Monroe directed that those freed by the navy remain in the United States until a destination be established. The president wanted a ship sent to Africa carrying agents whose mission would be to prepare proper facilities at “the most suitable place on the coast” for the repatriation of any Africans returned to the continent. He appropriated $100,000 to cover the site’s establishment , with the caveat that “no power founded on the principle of colonization” was sanctioned. The United States was not an empire. This was Monroe’s chance to replicate William Wilberforce’s ideas and ideals.
In Washington, 1820 began with a sustained, benumbing cold spell. When the Monroes opened the White House to the public for their third time, the thermometer read minus six degrees. A sizable horde filled the place as much for warmth as for free spirits and food. Several days later, Monroe called on John Quincy Adams at his new office, inside one of the four new structures built for each cabinet department. With the navy now actively intercepting slave ships and agents dispatched to the African coast, Monroe asked Adams, as secretary of state, if he objected to Naval Secretary Thompson’s delivering their instructions. Adams had none whatsoever.
But Adams had more pressing concerns. He believed Monroe’s first three years had “hitherto been the period of the greatest national tranquility en joyed by this Nation, at any portion of its history.” Yet he feared the coming year. Crawford’s friends in Congress were doing everything possible to thwart Monroe’s efforts, purely for Crawford’s benefit, and Monroe’s congressional allies were “neither numerous nor active.” Adams worried about the Spanish treaty, prospective foreign affairs, the bank, and the ongoing Panic, but most of all Missouri. In private, he confided that “it appears to me scarcely avoidable that [Monroe’s] second term will be among the most stormy and violent. The difficulties before him were thickening, and be coming hourly more and more formidable.” Monroe was about to be tested severely, Adams concluded. Monroe already knew it.
The 16th Congress, like most congresses before it and since, was an amalgam of grizzled veterans and fresh-faced newcomers. They did not come to Washington thinking as a whole that “the Missouri question,” as Adams apprehensively put it, would dominate their lives for the next two years.
Indeed, Missouri was not the only territory being considered for statehood. On December 15, Congress admitted Alabama into the union. Still being reviewed was the territory of Maine, whose citizens had sought independence from Massachusetts for years. Its champion was Congressman John Holmes, a balding Federalist turned Republican who opposed exclud ing blacks in Maine from voting, believing “every class of society” should be welcomed there.
The first day of Congress saw Henry Clay easily reelected Speaker of the House, while Virginian James Barbour was chosen to lead the Senate. Congress got its first clue that Maine’s entry into the union-and Missouri’s were in for a rough passage when Holmes made his motion for statehood. Clay immediately objected, not to Maine’s entry into the union, but that “he was not yet prepared for this question.” Before proceeding, Clay wanted to know “if certain doctrines of an alarming character, mainly any antislavery proposals to Missouri’s admittance, were forthcoming.” If so, “no man could tell where they would end.” The Speaker was all for Maine’s entry into the union, as long as it was under the same restrictions as Missouri. After all, Clay declared, “Equality is equality”—referring to the equal guidelines of a state’s admission, certainly not to its free residents and its enslaved ones.
Holmes saw through Clay’s flimsy point of order. Was Maine only to be allowed in if all restrictions to Missouri’s admittance were dropped? “I hope [Clay’s] doctrine did not extend quite as far as that,” Holmes suggested. Clay’s reply was spoken softly but clearly: “Yes, it did.” With that, the battle over Maine, and the war over Missouri, was joined.
On any day, the packed galleries included cabinet members, foreign ministers, socialites, free African Americans, and those enslaved. During one debate, Timothy Fuller of Massachusetts no sooner quoted the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” when he was interrupted by Edward Colston of Virginia, who, concerned over “the probability that there might be slaves in the gallery listening,” believed Jefferson’s line might give anyone of color in attendance the wrong idea.
There was Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, whose plain broadcloth recalled days even more ancient than Monroe’s breeches and buckled garb. Macon, who actually joined his slaves in their fieldwork, wished his northern colleagues could see “the glad faces and hearty shaking of hands” between his slaves and their enlightened master. Congressman John Taylor of New York saw the spread of slavery to Missouri as an 18th-century domino theory. “Your lust for acquiring is not yet satiated. You must have Florida, Your ambition rises. You must covet Cuba.” When Virginian Alexander Smyth took the floor, a man whose oratory was as sorry as his military career, his colleagues could not help but recall Clay’s perceptive barb that Smyth would not stop speaking until his audience arrived.As the debate dragged on, both factions began eating their own.
But they collectively blanched when Smyth, at long last, arrived at his point. Referring to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which barred slavery in the Northwest Territory, Smyth declared it obsolete, and that not only Missourians, but citizens of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana were as entitled to own slaves as Virginians were. Being Smyth, he could not stop at his great dramatic climax. Instead, he blustered how slaves in the South were “hard worked and ill fed” but would find their labors much easier in Missouri, “where bread and meat are produced in profusion, with little labor.” He ended with a theatrical forecast of civil war or worse, in his parochial mind: slave rebellions. Having done his utmost to “preserve our citizens from massacre, our wives and daughters from violation, and our children being impaled by the most inhuman of savages,” Smyth finally sat down.
In the Senate, another Smith-William, from South Carolina-reached back for earlier precedent, and found it in scripture. Slavery had been sanctioned by God, at least since Noah. He cited Leviticus, allowing the purchase of slaves “from the nations that are around you,” and concluded emphatically that “Christ himself gave a sanction to slavery … not a word in his whole life which forbids it. The Scriptures teach us that slavery was universally practiced among the holy fathers”-even a higher endorsement than the founding ones.
As the debate dragged on, both factions began eating their own. Northern Republicans who favored letting Maine come in with a Missouri unfettered by slavery restrictions were pilloried by their restrictionist colleagues at work and the press at home. Virginia congressman and eternal pot-stirrer John Randolph nicknamed them “doe-faces,” a pejorative for cowardly northern Republicans sympathetic to the South. The nickname stuck, but the spelling changed to “doughface.” Meanwhile, southern Republicans who sought any conciliation instead of absolute opposition to antislavery measures, met the same fate on their side from the hardliners, known as antirestrictionists.
Not all of the restrictionists based their sentiments on racial equality. More than a few opposed the spread of slavery over race itself. “What is it when reduced to terms of abstraction?” Harrison Gray Otis rhetorically asked from the Senate floor. “It amounts to this: that no State shall hereafter be admitted from a population entirely white.” Holmes’s colleague from Maine, Presbyterian minister Joshua Cushman, was even blunter, predicting that the pestiferous mischief of spreading slavery to the west will take deep root in that luxuriant soil and vigorously flourish. A black population will overflow the land. The sable herds will roll back on you, carrying death and misery in their train, and become more destructive to the American Republic than were the Goths and Vandals to the Roman Empire.
“I shudder at the thought,” Cushman continued, “of being an instrument in the entailing such a pest on my country.” At times, it was hard to tell the sides apart by looking at their reasoning.
It was inevitable that Rufus King would give the climactic speech on the Senate floor. Like Monroe and Macon, King still dressed as from another age. He was nearly 65, portly and bald, but he carried himself with an old man’s pride, ever willing to enter the arena. For nearly a year, he sought to weld remaining Federalists and northern Republicans into a legislative army against slavery. “King has made a desperate plunge into it, and has thrown his last stake upon the card,” Adams would observe. King’s timing was perfect as he took the floor.
He spoke in clear and measured tones. During the Constitutional Convention he had led the fight against the three-fifths solution to slave representation in the South. Now he picked up where he left off, making a constitutional lawyer’s case: Keep the three-fifths clause, keep slavery in the South, but keep it out of Missouri and future western states. “Freedom and slavery are the parties which stand this day before the Senate,” he stated, and either “the empire of one or the empire of the other” would become Missouri’s fate.
But his main thrust went beyond his legislative argument. Slavery, he declared, was against natural law. This was a clear rebuke to William Smith’s biblical assertions. Historian George Dangerfield pointed out that, for educated southerners in 1820, natural law was God’s law. In Congress, God seemed to be on both sides of the Missouri issue.
One could not go anywhere in Washington without Missouri being mentioned. At a dinner hosted by William Gray Otis, “the Missouri subject was very freely canvassed.” Both Adams and King were among the guests, and got into a spirited argument with King speaking “with deep and vehement emotion.” But while “There was difference enough of opinion be tween us,” Adams was grateful there was “no angry discussion” to interrupt dinner.
That was not always the case. Conspiracy theories over responsibility for the Missouri turmoil rose to the surface. After weeks of aimless argument, Georgia congressman Thomas Cobb resurrected his year-old belief that the Missouri question was the brainchild of New York’s governor DeWitt Clinton, a diabolical plot to restore the Federalists to power and Clinton to the presidency. “Everyone now thinks the same,” he bellowed, without saying who “everyone” was. Senator Jonathan Roberts of Pennsylvania, whose search for the moral answer to slavery ran smack into his strict interpretation of the Constitution, went from ardent leader of the antislavery faction to the other side, and was openly ridiculed by other northern representatives. Believing that Cobb’s fictional cabal would install King to the presidency and Clinton to secretary of state, Roberts warned that “only a speedy settlement” could save the country.
Ex-presidents, unencumbered by the restrictions of the job regarding national issues, made their feelings known. “If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrections of the blacks against the whites and massacres by the whites in their turn of the blacks,” John Adams fretted to his daughter-in-law. Madison, threading a line between constitutional precedent and practical politics, believed that expanding slavery out of the South would actually increase the chances of its extinction, their dispersion hastening emancipation.
And Jefferson? He had already been approached by John Holmes, weary of the assault on his state and his own character. Asking the Sage of Monticello’s opinion, Holmes got a reply for the ages:
This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the knell of the Union….
A general and gradual emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Jefferson labeled the banning of slavery in Missouri “this act of suicide.” Holmes showed the letter “to a few select friends,” who urged him to publish it. Jefferson’s sad eloquence offered no immediate solution, but it made his letter’s readers feel better, and smarter, if not wiser.
From James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath, published on May 5, 2020 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2020 by Tim McGrath.