Life of Henry Clay/08 The Missouri Compromise
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THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE.
On March 6, 1818, a petition was presented in the House of Representatives praying that Missouri be admitted as a state. A bill authorizing the people of Missouri to form a state government was taken up in the House on February 13, 1819, and Tallmadge of New York moved as an amendment, that the further introduction of slavery should be prohibited, and that all children born within the said state should be free at the age of twenty-five years. Thus began the struggle on the slavery question in connection with the admission of Missouri, which lasted, intermittently, until March, 1821.
No sooner had the debate on Tallmadge's proposition begun than it became clear that the philosophical anti-slavery sentiment of the revolutionary period had entirely ceased to have any influence upon current thought in the South. The abolition of the foreign slave-trade had not, as had been hoped, prepared the way for the abolition of slavery or weakened the slave interest in any sense. On the contrary, slavery had been immensely strengthened by an economic development making it more profitable than it ever had been before. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 had made the culture of cotton a very productive source of wealth. In 1800 the exportation of cotton from the United States was 19,000,000 pounds, valued at $5,700,000. In 1820 the value of the cotton export was nearly $20,000,000, almost all of it the product of slave labor. The value of slaves may be said to have at least trebled in twenty years. The breeding of slaves became a profitable industry. Under such circumstances the slave-holders arrived at the conclusion that slavery was by no means so wicked and hurtful an institution as their revolutionary fathers had thought it to be. The anti-slavery professions of the revolutionary time became to them an awkward reminiscence, which they would have been glad to wipe from their own and other people's memories.
On the other hand, in the Northern States there was no such change of feeling. Slavery was still, in the nature of things, believed to be a wrong and a sore. The change of sentiment in the South had not yet produced its reflex in the North. The slavery question had not become a subject of difference of opinion and of controversy among the Northern people. As they had abolished slavery in their states, so they took it for granted that it ought to disappear, and would disappear in time, everywhere else. Slavery had indeed, now and then, asserted itself in the discussions of Congress as a distinct interest, but not in such a way as to arouse much alarm in the Free States. The amendment to the Missouri bill, providing for a restriction with regard to slavery, came therefore in a perfectly natural way from that Northern sentiment which remained still faithful to the traditions of the revolutionary period. And it was a great surprise to most Northern people that so natural a proposition should be so fiercely resisted on the part of the South. It was the sudden revelation of a change of feeling in the South which the North had not observed in its progress. "The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls," wrote John Quincy Adams. The slave-holders watched with apprehension the steady growth of the Free States in population, wealth, and power. In 1790 the population of the two sections had been nearly even. In 1820 there was a difference of over 600,000 in favor of the North in a total of less than ten millions. In 1790 the representation of the two sections in Congress had been about evenly balanced. In 1820 the census promised to give the North a preponderance of more than thirty votes in the House of Representatives. As the slave-holders had no longer the ultimate extinction, but now the perpetuation, of slavery in view, the question of sectional power became one of first importance to them, and with it the necessity of having more Slave States for the purpose of maintaining the political equilibrium at least in the Senate. A struggle for more Slave States was to them a struggle for life. This was the true significance of the Missouri question.
The debate was the prototype of all the slavery debates which followed in the forty years to the breaking out of the civil war. One side offered the constitutional argument that any restriction as to slavery in the admission of a new state would nullify one of the most essential attributes of state sovereignty and break the "Federal compact;" the moral argument that negro slavery was the most beneficial condition for the colored race in this country, and for the white race too, so long as the two races must live together; and the economic argument that negro slavery was necessary to the material prosperity of the Southern States, as white men could not work in the cotton and rice fields. The other side offered the constitutional argument that slavery was not directly recognized by the Constitution itself; that the power of the general government to exclude slavery from the territories had always been recognized, and that, in admitting a new state, conditions of admission could be imposed upon it; the moral argument that slavery was a great wrong in itself, and that in its effects it demoralized the whites together with the blacks; and the economic argument that, wherever it went, it degraded labor, paralyzed enterprise and progress, and greatly injured the general interest.
No debate on slavery had ever so stirred the passions to the point of open defiance. The dissolution of the Union, civil war, and streams of blood were freely threatened by Southern men, while some anti-slavery men declared themselves ready to accept all these calamities rather than the spread of slavery over the territories yet free from it. Neither was the excitement confined to the halls of Congress. As the reports of the speeches made there went over the land, the people were profoundly astonished and alarmed. The presence of a great danger, and a danger, too, springing from an inherent antagonism in the institutions of the country, suddenly flashed upon their minds. They experienced something like a first violent shock of earthquake, making them feel that the ground under their very feet was at the mercy of volcanic forces. It is true, wise men had foretold some thing like this, but actual experience was far more impressive than the mere prediction had been. Resolutions earnestly demanding the exclusion of slavery from Missouri were passed by one after another of the Northern legislatures except those of New England, where, however, the same sentiment found vigorous expression in numerous memorials from cities and towns. Of the slave-holding states, one, Delaware, spoke through a unanimous resolve of its legislature in the same sense; and even in Baltimore a public meeting protested against the extension of slavery. But beyond these points no anti-slavery sentiment made itself heard in the South. The legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky pronounced loudly for the admission of Missouri with slavery, and the Maryland legislature joined them. Public sentiment in the other Slave States spoke out with equal emphasis. Thus the country found itself divided geographically upon a question of vital importance.
On February 16, 1819, the House of Representatives adopted the amendment restricting slavery, and thus passed the Missouri bill. But the Senate, eleven days afterwards, struck out the anti-slavery provision and sent the bill back to the House. A bill was then passed organizing the Territory of Arkansas, an amendment moved by Taylor of New York prohibiting the further introduction of slavery there having been voted down. Clay had opposed that amendment in a speech and thrown the casting vote of the Speaker adversely to it on a motion to reconsider. Thus slavery was virtually fastened on Arkansas. But the Missouri bill failed in the fifteenth Congress. The popular excitement steadily increased.
The sixteenth Congress met in December, 1819. In the Senate the admission of Missouri with slavery was coupled with the admission of Maine, on the balance-of-power principle that one free state and one slave state should always be admitted at the same time. An amendment was moved absolutely prohibiting slavery in Missouri, but it was voted down. Then Mr. Thomas, a Senator from Illinois, on January 18, 1820, proposed that no restriction as to slavery be imposed upon Missouri in framing a state constitution, but that in all the rest of the country ceded by France to the United States north of 36° 30', this being the southern boundary line of Missouri, there should be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude. This was the essence of the famous Missouri Compromise, and after long and acrimonious debates and several more votes in the House for restriction and in the Senate against it, this compromise was adopted. By it the slave power obtained the present tangible object it contended for; free labor won a contingent advantage in the future. The South was strongly bound together by a material interest; it obeyed a common impulse and an intolerant will, presenting a solid and determined front. The Northern anti-slavery men were held together, not by a well understood common interest, but by a sentiment; and as this sentiment was stronger or weaker in different individuals, they would stand firm or yield to the entreaties or threats of the Southern men. Thus the bargain was accomplished.
Clay has been widely credited with being the "father" of the Missouri Compromise. As to the main features of the measure this credit he did not deserve. So far he had taken a prominent but not an originating part in the transaction. His leadership in disposing of the Missouri question belonged to a later stage of the proceeding. But the part he had so far taken appeared to be little in accord with his early anti-slavery professions. The speeches he made in the course of these debates, among them one of four hours, have never been reported. But some of the things he said we can gather from the speeches of those who replied to him. Thus we find that he most strenuously opposed the exclusion of slavery from Missouri, and any interference with it; we find him asserting that Congress had no right whatever to prescribe conditions to newly organized states in any way restricting their "sovereign rights;" we find him sneering at the advocates of slavery-restriction as afflicted with "negrophobia;" we find him pathetically, in the name of humanity, excusing the extension of slavery as apt to improve the condition of the negro, and advancing the argument that the evils of slavery might be cured by spreading it; we find him provoking a reply like the following from Taylor of New York: —
"It [labor] is considered low and unfit for freemen. I cannot better illustrate this truth than by referring to a remark of the honorable gentleman from Kentucky [Mr. Clay]. I have often admired the liberality of his sentiments. He is governed by no vulgar prejudices; yet with what abhorrence did he speak of the performance, by your wives and daughters, of those domestic offices which he was pleased to call servile! What comparison did he make of the
"black slaves "of Kentucky and the "white slaves "of the North; and how instantly did he strike a balance in favor of the condition of the former! If such opinions and expressions, even in the ardor of debate, can fall from that honorable gentleman, what ideas do you suppose are entertained of laboring men by the majority of slave-holders!"
We find him arguing that the provision of the Constitution, "The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states," would be violated by the restriction to be imposed on Missouri as to slavery.
The compromise as proposed he supported heartily, and when the bill embodying it had passed we find him resorting to a very sharp and questionable trick to save it from further interference. The bill passed on March 2. On the morning of March 3, John Randolph, having voted with the majority, offered a motion that the vote be reconsidered. Clay, as Speaker, promptly ruled the motion out of order "until the ordinary business of the morning, as prescribed by the rules of the House, should be disposed of." The House went on receiving and referring petitions. When petitions were called for from the members from Virginia, Randolph moved "that the House retain in their possession the Missouri bill until the period should arrive when, according to the rules of the House, a motion to reconsider should be in order." Speaker Clay "declared this motion out of order for the reason assigned on the first application of Mr. Randolph on this day." When the morning business was at last disposed of, Randolph "moved the House now to reconsider their vote of yesterday." Then Speaker Clay — so the record runs — "having ascertained the fact, stated to the House that the proceedings of the House on that bill yesterday had been communicated to the Senate by the clerk, and that, the bill not being in possession of the House, the motion to reconsider could not be entertained." The bill had been hurried up to the Senate while Speaker Clay was ruling Randolph's motions out of order. It is certain that a mere hint by the Speaker to the clerk would have kept the bill in the House. It is also probable, if not certain, that the first motion by Randolph, being heard by the clerk, would have had the same effect, had not that official received a hint from the Speaker, that he desired the bill to be hurried off, out of Randolph's reach. The history of the House probably records no sharper trick.
Thus it is clear that Clay, who at the beginning of his public life had risked all his political prospects by advocating emancipation in Kentucky, now not only favored a compromise admitting a new slave state — some of the sincerest anti-slavery men did that — but in doing so used some of the very arguments characteristic of those who had worked themselves up to a belief in slavery as a blessing and endeavored to strengthen and perpetuate its rule.
Were these his real sentiments? Clay's conduct with regard to the slavery question appears singularly inconsistent. It is impossible to believe that his condemnations of the system of slavery, and his professions of hope that it would be extinguished, were insincere. His feelings in this respect would occasionally burst out in an unpremeditated, unstudied, and unguarded way, as when, at this same period, while the Missouri struggle was going on in all its fury, he complimented the new South American republics for having emancipated their slaves. But the same man would advocate "with great force," and "in a speech of considerable length," a bill to facilitate the catching of "fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters." He would in the Missouri struggle "go with his section" in doing what could be done at the time to secure the foothold of slavery in new states, and thus to facilitate the growth of its power. It is a remarkable circumstance at the same time that none of the speeches he made on the pro-slavery side, although they were mentioned in the record of the debates, were reported, even in short outline. Did he suppress them? Did he dislike to see such arguments in print coupled with his name? We do not know. We shall find more such puzzles in his career.
At the close of the session in May, 1820, Clay announced to the House that he found himself obliged to retire from public life for some time. He had formed that resolution on account of the embarrassed condition of his private affairs. He had lost a large sum of money by indorsing the obligations of a friend, and there was a rumor also, whether true or not, that he had suffered heavily at play. At any rate, his necessities must have been pressing, for he strenuously urged with the President and the Secretary of State an old claim for a "half-outfit," $4,500, due him as a commissioner of the United States in negotiating a commercial convention with Great Britain in 1815. He returned to Kentucky with the hope of repairing his fortunes by industrious application to his legal practice; and at the meeting of the sixteenth Congress for its second session, in November, 1820, a letter from him was read to the House, in which, "owing to imperious circumstances," he resigned the office of Speaker, as he would not be able to attend until after the Christmas holidays. In fact he did not reach Washington until January 16, 1821. Then his services were urgently in demand. The "Missouri question," which in the previous session seemed to have been put to rest by the compromise, had risen again in a new, unexpected, and threatening form. The bill passed at the last session had authorized the people of Missouri to make a state constitution without any restriction as to slavery. The formal admission of the state was now to follow. But the Constitution with which Missouri presented herself to Congress not only recognized slavery as existing there; it provided also that it should be the duty of the legislature to pass such laws as would be necessary to prevent free negroes or mulattoes from coming into or settling in the state. This was more than those Northern men who accepted the compromise of the last session had bargained for. Not a few of them, at heart profoundly dissatisfied with what had been done, and whose scruples had been revived and strengthened by their contact with the popular feeling at home, were ready to seize upon this obnoxious clause in the state Constitution, to reopen the whole question. A good many Southern men, too, disliked the compromise, on account of the exclusion of slavery from the territory north of 36° 30'. The most prudent among them were willing to yield a point on the questioned constitutional clause, rather than put in jeopardy the solid advantage of the admission of Missouri as a slave state. But the bulk of them were for insisting upon the reception of the state without further condition. A few Southern extremists still thought of upsetting the 36° 30' restriction. In the Senate, Eaton of Tennessee offered to the resolution admitting Missouri an amendment providing "that nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to give the assent of Congress to any provision of the Constitution of Missouri, if any there be, that contravenes the clause in the Constitution of the United States that 'the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states," — the point being that, as free persons of color were citizens in some states, for example, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the proposed Constitution of Missouri deprived them in that state of the privileges granted them by the federal Constitution. After long and acrimonious debates, the resolution with this amendment passed the Senate, on December 12, 1820, by a majority of eight.
In the House the struggle raged at the same time. On November 23, Lowndes of South Carolina reported a resolution to admit Missouri, taking the ground that, as Congress at the last session had authorized the people of Missouri to form a state constitution, Missouri had thereby been invested with all the rights and attributes of a state, and all those who in good faith respected the acts of the government would now vote for the formal admission of Missouri as a matter of course. This was vigorously combated by John Sergeant of Pennsylvania, a staunch opponent of slavery, and a man of fine ability and high character, whom we shall meet again in political companionship with Clay under interesting circumstances. He stoutly maintained that Congress, when authorizing the people of Missouri to form a constitution, had not parted with the power of looking into that constitution to see whether it conformed to the prescribed conditions. The debate then ranged again over the whole slavery question, growing hotter as it went on, and finally the resolution admitting Missouri was, on December 13, rejected by a majority of fourteen. The excitement which followed was intense. When the vote was announced, Lowndes rose and solemnly called upon the House to take measures for the preservation of peace in Missouri. The apprehension that the fate of the Union trembled in the balance was again freely expressed. Six weeks later, on January 24, a resolution offered by Eustis of Massachusetts, to admit Missouri on condition that she expunge from her Constitution the provision discriminating against free persons of color, was taken up for consideration. It was voted down by 146 yeas to 6 nays. When the vote had been announced, there was a pause in the proceedings. The deadlock seemed complete. A feeling of helplessness appeared to pervade the House. It was then that Clay, who had arrived a week before, took the matter in hand. Breaking the silence which prevailed, he rose and said that, if no other gentleman made any motion on the subject, "he should on the day after to-morrow move to go into committee of the whole to take into consideration the resolution from the Senate on the subject of Missouri."
He did so on January 29. He declared himself ready to vote for the senate resolution even with the proviso it contained, although he did not deem that proviso necessary. The speeches he delivered on this occasion were again left unreported, but their arguments appear in the replies they called forth. Admitting that the clause in the Missouri Constitution respecting free persons of color was incompatible with the Constitution of the United States, this circumstance could not, he argued, be an objection to the admission of Missouri as a state of the Union, because the legislators of Missouri would be bound by their oaths to support the federal Constitution, and would, therefore, never make any law obnoxious to it. The weakness of this argument did not escape the attention of his audience. But, he said, if the Missouri legislature should enact any law in pursuance of the obnoxious clause in their Constitution, it would be declared void by the courts of the United States. However, he added, a limitation or restriction upon the power of the legislature of Missouri might be imposed by adding to the senate resolution a provision, that no law should be enacted, under the obnoxious clause of the state Constitution, affecting the rights of citizens of other states. Thus he argued on both sides of the question, trying to conciliate the good-will of all, at the same time addressing to them the most fervid appeals to unite in a spirit of harmony, in order to save the country from this dangerous quarrel which threatened the disruption of the Union. But the peacemaker had a complicated task before him. In order to unite, he had to convince or move men who pursued the most different objects, ranging from the absolute exclusion of new slave states to the unconditional admission of them. There were not a few also who thought of postponing the whole subject to the meeting of the next Congress. Several amendments to the senate resolution were moved, but all were voted down. Nothing was found on which a majority could be united. The perplexity and excitement increased. Then, as a last expedient, Clay moved to refer the senate resolution to a special committee of thirteen members. This was agreed to, and Clay was put at the head of the committee.
On February 10 he brought in a report, which was rather an appeal than an argument. "Your committee believe that all must ardently unite in wishing an amicable termination of a question, which, if it be longer kept open, cannot fail to produce, and possibly to perpetuate, prejudices and animosities among a people to whom the conservation of their moral ties should be even dearer, if possible, than that of their political bond." The committee then proposed a resolution to admit Missouri into the Union "on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatever, upon the fundamental condition that the said state shall never pass any law preventing any description of persons from coming to and settling in the said state who now are, or hereafter may become, citizens of any of the states of this Union." This was to satisfy the Northern people. The resolution provided further that, as soon as the Missouri legislature should, by solemn public act, have declared the assent of the state to this fundamental condition, the President should by proclamation announce the fact, whereupon the admission of the state should be considered complete. This was to prevent further trouble in Congress. Finally the resolution declared that nothing contained in it should "be construed to take from the said state of Missouri, when admitted into this Union, the exercise of any right or power which can now be constitutionally exercised by any of the original states." This was to conciliate the extreme state-sovereignty men. "Thus consulting the opinions of both sides of the House," he said in opening the debate, "in that spirit of compromise which is occasionally necessary to the existence of all societies, he hoped it would receive the countenance of the House." He concluded by "earnestly invoking the spirit of harmony and kindred feeling to preside over the deliberations of the House on the subject." But this appeal still failed. After a heated debate the resolution was voted down in committee of the whole by a majority of nine, in the House by a majority of three, and upon reconsideration by a majority of six. Among the yeas there were but few Northern, among the nays only four Southern votes, and these were extremists of the John Randolph type. This was on February 13. There were not many days of the session left. The situation became more and more critical and threatening.
On February 14 the electoral vote was to be counted, Monroe having in the preceding autumn been reëlected President. The people of Missouri had chosen electors. The question occurred, should their votes be counted? Some Southern members hotly maintained that Missouri was of right a state. Northern men asserted with equal warmth that she was only a territory, having no right to take part in a presidential election. The Missouri quarrel threatened to invade, and perhaps to break up in disorder, the joint convention of the two Houses sitting to count the electoral vote. The danger was averted by skillful management. Clay reported, from the joint committee to which the matter had been referred, a resolution "that, if any objection be made to the votes of Missouri, and the counting or omitting to count which shall not essentially change the result of the election, — in that case they shall be reported by the President of the Senate in the following manner: Were the votes of Missouri to be counted, the result would be, for A. B. for President of the United States, ----- votes; if not counted, for A. B. as President of the United States, ----- votes; but in either case A. B. is elected President: and in the same manner for Vice-President." This resolution was adopted and served its purpose. Fortunately the three electoral votes of Missouri were of no practical importance, Monroe having received all the votes but one, and Tompkins, for Vice-President, a very large majority.
But as soon as Missouri was reached in the electoral count, objection was made by a Northern member to the counting of her votes, on the ground that she was not a state of the Union. The Senate then withdrew, and the House having been called to order, Floyd of Virginia moved a resolution that Missouri was a state of the Union, and that her vote should be counted. He thought he had now forced the issue, so that it could not be avoided. "Let us know," he exclaimed in closing his speech, "whether Missouri be a state of the Union or not. Sir, we cannot take another step without hurling this government into the gulf of destruction. For one, I say I have gone as far as I can go in the way of compromise; and if there is to be a compromise beyond that point, it must be at the edge of the sword." After some more speaking in a similar vein, mainly by John Randolph, Clay rose to pour oil on the troubled waters. He calmly reminded the House of the fact that a resolution had been adopted covering the treatment of the vote of Missouri, to bridge over the very difficulty now presenting itself. He therefore moved that Floyd's resolution be laid on the table, which was done by a large majority. The Senate then was invited to return, and the counting of the electoral vote proceeded to the end. When the result was to be announced, Randolph and Floyd tried once more to interpose, but were ruled out of order; the President of the Senate finished his announcement, and the act of vote-counting was happily concluded.
But after all this, the Missouri question seemed to be no nearer its solution. As the end of the session approached, the excitement rose and spread. Some attempts were made in the Senate and the House to find a basis of agreement, but without avail. Then, as a last resort, Clay moved the appointment of a committee, together with a similar committee to be appointed by the Senate, to consider and report "whether it be expedient or not to make provision for the admission of Missouri into the Union, and for the execution of the laws of the United States within Missouri; and if not, whether any other and what provision, adapted to her condition, ought to be made by law." This was adopted by 101 yeas to 55 nays. The committee was to consist of twenty-three members, the number of the states then in the Union. Although it was to be elected by ballot, Clay was by tacit consent permitted to draw up a list to be voted for. The Senate elected a committee of seven to join the twenty-three of the House. On February 28 Clay reported a resolution, the same in effect as that which he had previously reported from his committee of thirteen, and in introducing it he said that the committee on the part of the Senate was unanimously in its favor, and that on the part of the House nearly so. After a short debate the resolution was adopted by 86 yeas to 82 nays. The bulk of the Northern vote went against it; of the Southerners, only a few extreme men under Randolph's lead. The resolution passed the Senate likewise. Missouri promptly complied with the fundamental condition, and thus the struggle which had so violently agitated Congress and the country came to an end.
It was generally admitted that this final accommodation was mainly due to Clay's zeal, perseverance, skill, and the moving warmth of his personal appeals. He did not confine himself to speeches addressed to the House, but he went from man to man, expostulating, beseeching, persuading, in his most winning way. Even his opponents in debate acknowledged, involuntarily sometimes, the impressive sincerity of his anxious entreaties. What helped him in gaining over the number of votes necessary to form a majority was the growing fear that this quarrel would break up the ruling party, and lead to the forming of new divisions. His success added greatly to his reputation and gave new strength to his influence. Adams wrote in his journal that one of "the greatest results of this conflict of three sessions" was "to bring into full display the talents and resources and influence of Mr. Clay." In newspapers and speeches he was praised as "the great pacificator." As a measure of temporary pacification the compromise could not indeed have been more successful. Only a short time before its accomplishment the aged Jefferson, from his retreat at Monticello, had sent forth a cry of alarm in a private letter, which soon became public: "The Missouri question is the most portentous one that ever threatened the Union. In the gloomiest moments of the Revolutionary War I never had any apprehension equal to that I feel from this source." No sooner had the compromise passed than the excitement and anxiety subsided. With that singular carelessness, that elasticity of temper, which is characteristic of the American, the danger, of which the shock of earthquake had warned him, was forgotten. The public mind turned at once to things of more hopeful interest, and the Union seemed safer than ever.
The American people have since become painfully aware that this was a delusion; and the question has often been asked whether, in view of what came afterwards, those who accommodated the Missouri quarrel really did a good service to their country. It is an interesting question. The compromise had in fact settled only two points: the admission of Missouri as a slave state; and the recognition of the right of slavery to go, if the settlers there wanted it, into the territory belonging to the Louisiana purchase south of 36° 30'. It was practically so recognized in the newly organized territory of Arkansas. So far, the compromise directly and substantially strengthened the slave interest. On the other hand, the slave interest had, in order to secure these advantages, been compelled to acquiesce in two constitutional doctrines: that Congress had the power to exclude slavery from the territories of the United States, and that the admission of new states could be made subject to conditions. But these points, especially the first one, were yielded only for the occasion, and might be withdrawn when the interests of slavery should demand that the territory north of 36° 30' be opened to its invasion, as actually happened some thirty-four years later in the case of Kansas.
The compromise had another sinister feature. The anti-slavery sentiment in the North, invoked by the Missouri controversy, was no doubt strong and sincere. The South threatened the dissolution of the Union; and, frightened by that threat, a sufficient number of Northern men were found willing to acquiesce, substantially, in the demands of the South. Thus the slave power learned the weak spot in the anti-slavery armor. It was likely to avail itself of that knowledge, to carry further points by similar threats, and to familiarize itself more and more with the idea that the dissolution of the Union would really be a royal remedy for all its complaints.
Would it not have been better statesmanship, then, to force the Missouri question to a straight issue at any risk, rather than compromise it?
It was certain that the final struggle between slavery and free labor would ultimately come, and also that then, as slavery was an institution utterly abhorrent to the spirit of modern civilization, it would at last be overcome by that spirit and perish. The danger was that in its struggle for life slavery might destroy the Union and free institutions in America. The question, therefore, which the statesmanship of the time had to consider was, which would be the safer policy, — to resist the demands of the South at any risk, or to tide over the difficulty until it might be fought out under more favorable circumstances?
Had the anti-slavery men in Congress, by unyielding firmness, prevented the admission of Missouri as a slave state, thus shutting out all prospect of slavery extension, and had the South then submitted, without attempting the dissolution of the Union, the probability is that the slave power would have lost hope, that emancipation movements would have sprung up with renewed strength, and that slavery would have gradually declined and died. But would the South in 1820 have submitted without attempting dissolution? There is good reason to believe that it would not. The Union feeling had indeed been greatly strengthened by the war of 1812, but it had not grown strong enough in the South to command the self-sacrifice of an interest which at that time was elated by the anticipation of great wealth and power. In New England all there was of anti-Union sentiment had been crushed, but not so in the South. The dissolution of the Union was not then, in the popular imagination, such a monstrous thing as it is now. The Union was still, in some respects, regarded as an experiment; and when a great material interest found itself placed at a disadvantage in the Union, it was apt to conclude that the experiment had failed. To speculate upon the advisability of dissolving the Union did not then appear to the popular mind politically treasonable and morally heinous.
That the dissolution of the Union was freely discussed among the Southern members of the Sixteenth Congress is certain. James Barbour of Virginia, a man of very high character, was reported to be canvassing the free-state members as to the practicability of a convention of the states to dissolve the Union, and to make arrangements for distributing its assets and liabilities. At one period during the Missouri struggle, the Southern members seriously contemplated withdrawing from Congress in a body; and John Randolph, although he had not been for some time on speaking terms with Clay, one evening approached him, saying: "Mr. Speaker, I wish you would leave the chair. I will follow you to Kentucky, or anywhere else in the world." "That is a very serious proposition," answered Clay, "which we have not now time to discuss. But if you will come into the Speaker's room to-morrow morning, before the House assembles, we will discuss it together." They met. Clay strongly advised against anything like secession, and in favor of a compromise, while Randolph was for immediate and decisive action. The slave-holders, he said, had the right on their side; matters must come to an extremity, and there could be no more suitable occasion to bring them to that issue.
The secession of the Southern delegations from Congress did indeed not come to pass; it was prevented by the compromise. But Clay himself, when the excitement was at its height, gloomily expressed his apprehension that in a few years the Union would be divided into three confederations, — a Southern, an Eastern, and a Western.
While thus the thought of dissolving the Union occurred readily to the Southern mind, the thought of maintaining the government and preserving the Union by means of force hardly occurred to anybody. It seemed to be taken for granted on all sides that, if the Southern States insisted upon cutting loose from the Union, nothing could be done but to let them go. It is true there was talk enough about swords and blood; but the wars were expected to turn upon questions of boundary and the like, after dissolution, not upon the right of states to go out. Even such a man as John Quincy Adams, not only an anti-slavery man but a statesman always inclining to strong measures, approved of the compromise as "all that could be effected under the present Constitution, and from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard;" and then wrote in addition: "But perhaps it would have been a wiser as well as a bolder course to have persisted in the restriction upon Missouri, till it should have terminated in a convention of the states to revise and amend the Constitution. This would have produced a new Union of thirteen or fourteen states unpolluted with slavery, with a great and glorious object to effect, — namely, that of rallying to their standard the other states by the universal emancipation of their slaves. If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break." Thus even this patriotic statesman thought rather of separating in order to meet again in a purer condition of existence — a remarkably fantastic plan — than of denying the right of secession, and of maintaining by a vigorous exertion of power the government of which he was a leading member, and the Union of which his father had been one of the principal founders. It must be admitted also that, while the North was superior to the South in population and means at that period, yet the disproportion was not yet large enough to make the maintenance of the Union by force a promising task.
An attempt by the South, or by the larger part of it, to dissolve the Union would therefore, at that time, have been likely to succeed. There would probably have been no armed collision about the dissolution itself, but a prospect of complicated quarrels and wars afterwards about the property formerly held in common, and perhaps about other matters of disagreement. A reunion might possibly have followed after a sad experience of separation. But that result would have had to be evolved from long and confused conflicts, and the future would at best have been dark and uncertain. Even in the event of reunion, the fatal principle of secession at will, once recognized, would have passed into the new arrangement.
In view of all this, it seemed good statesmanship to hold the Union together by a compromise, and to adjourn the final and decisive struggle on the slavery question to a time when the Union feeling should be strong and determined enough to maintain the integrity of the Republic, if necessary, by force of arms, and when the Free States should be so superior in men and means to the slave-holding section as to make the result certain.
That this train of reasoning was Clay's conscious motive in doing what he did will not be asserted. It is more likely that he simply followed his instinct as a devoted friend of the Union, leaving for the moment all other interests out of view. Although he had not originated the main part of the compromise, having exercised decisive influence only at the close of the controversy, yet, by common consent, he carried off the honors of the occasion. As the peculiar brilliancy of the abilities he possessed, his involuntary showiness, made him always the most conspicuous figure whenever he appeared in a parliamentary contest, so he had impressed himself in this instance upon the popular mind as the leading actor in the drama. He retired, therefore, to private life with a larger stock of popularity than he had ever possessed. What he had lost by the appearance of captiousness in his opposition to Monroe's administration was now amply retrieved by the great patriotic service rendered in bringing a very dangerous controversy to what was considered a happy conclusion. It is interesting to hear the judgment passed upon him at that period by another public man of high distinction. After a visit he had received from Clay, John Quincy Adams delivered himself in his Diary as follows: —
"Clay is an eloquent man, with very popular manners and great political management. He is, like almost all the eminent men of this country, only half educated. His school has been the world, and in that he is proficient. His morals, public and private, are loose, but he has all the virtues indispensable to a popular man. As he is the first distinguished man that the Western country has presented as a statesman to the Union, they are profoundly proud of him. Clay's temper is impetuous and his ambition impatient. He has long since marked me as the principal rival in his way, and has taken no more pains to disguise his hostility than was necessary for decorum, and to avoid shocking the public opinion. His future fortunes and mine are in wiser hands than ours. I have never even defensively repelled his attacks. Clay has large and liberal views of public affairs, and that sort of generosity which attaches individuals to his person. As President of the Union, his administration would be a perpetual succession of intrigue and management with the legislature. It would also be sectional in its spirit, and sacrifice all interests to those of the Western country and the slave-holders. But his principles relative to internal improvements would produce results honorable and useful to the nation."
This was not the judgment of a friend, but of a man always inclined to be censorious, and, when stung by conflicts of opinion, uncharitable. It was the judgment, too, of a rival in the race for the presidency, a rival careful to admit to himself the strong qualities of the adversary, while dwelling with some satisfaction upon his weak points. When speaking of Clay's "loose" public morals, Adams can have meant only the apparently factious opposition to Monroe's administration, and his resort to tricky expedients in carrying his points in the House. He cannot have meant anything like the use of official power and opportunities for private pecuniary advantage, for in this respect Clay's character was and remained above reproach. No species of corruption stained his name. Neither could Clay be justly charged with a sectional spirit. His feelings were, on the contrary, as largely and thoroughly national as those of any statesman of his time. Although he had at first spoken the language of the slave-holder in the Missouri debate, it could certainly not be said that he was willing to "sacrifice all interests to those of the slave-holders." He would have stood by the Union against them at all hazards, and his tariff and internal improvement policy soon became obnoxious to them. But, barring these points, Adams's judgment was not far astray. In the course of this narration we shall find more opinions of Adams on Clay, expressed at a time when the two men had learned to understand each other better.
When Clay left Washington, his professional prospects were very promising. The Bank of the United States engaged him, upon liberal terms, as its standing counsel in Ohio and Kentucky. He expected his practice to retrieve his fortunes in three or four years, and to enable him then to return to the service of the country.