The World That Cotton Made

The end of the War of 1812 precipitated one of the great migrations of American history. White settlers eagerly took advantage of Andrew Jackson’s expropriation of 14 million acres from the Creeks. Shortly after signing the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the general sent his topographical engineer to report on the condition of the Alabama River valley. Along his route, Major Howell Tatum could observe farms with all their improvements that had been abandoned by the dispossessed natives (many of whom, ironically, had been Jackson’s allies in the war). The officer concluded in his report that the land was “capable of producing, in great abundance, every article necessary to the sustenance of man or beast.” Jackson encouraged white squatters to move onto the lands immediately, without waiting for survey or legal authorization. In December 1815, President Madison ordered them evicted, but his proclamation proved impossible to enforce. When the army moved people off, they came back again as soon as the soldiers had left.1

Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and his subsequent invasion of Florida further encouraged migration to the Southwest by confirming the strategic security of American control. So did the additional cessions he extorted from the other tribes, beginning with the treaties of September 1816 with the Cherokee and Chickasaw, opening up vast areas adjacent to the Creek Cession. Land-hungry thousands rushed into the Old Southwest, where the new states of Mississippi and Alabama were admitted to the Union in 1817 and 1819 respectively. The migrants included rich and poor, speculators and squatters, slaveholders, slaves, and nonslaveholders, single men, very few single women, and families. The great majority came from upland areas of the nearby states of Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, but some from as far away as Europe; Scots-Irish seem to have been the most prominent ethnic group. Jackson himself purchased land in the area, and acting on his advice, members of his family made profitable investments in Pensacola real estate.2 Seldom in human history

1. Harvey H. Jackson III, Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1995), 42–43; Daniel Feller, The Public Lands in Jacksonian Politics (Madison, Wisc., 1984), 17.

2. Thomas P. Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee (Chapel Hill, 1932), 272. See also David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler, Old Hickory’s War (Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1996), 128.

has so large a territory been settled so rapidly. Between 1810 and 1820, Alabama’s population increased twelvefold to 128,000; Mississippi’s doubled to 75,000 even though the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian tribes still owned the northern two-thirds of the state. The population of Louisiana also doubled to 153,000, as an influx of white American southerners arrived to rival the old multicultural society of colonial New Orleans.3 Fittingly, when the ambitious settlers of Mississippi established a capital for their state, they called the new little settlement Jackson.

This great migration into the Southwest focused on certain particularly attractive areas, including the Mississippi River valley in the vicinity of Natchez and the Tennessee River valley in northern Alabama. The most important of these was in the Creek Cession: the region of central Alabama called the “black belt” because of its rich dark soil. Thousands of farm families came to the black belt from the Piedmont via the Federal Road connecting Columbia, South Carolina, with Columbus, Georgia. A North Carolina planter viewed the exodus from his neighborhood with dismay: “The Alabama fever rages here with great violence and has carried off vast numbers of our Citizens.”4 Mississippi, more remote, drew settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee coming downstream along the Father of Waters. From the frenetic activity of the government land offices in this period comes the American folk expression “doing a land office business.”

The federal government tried to impose a semblance of order on the process of settlement. Only after public lands had been surveyed were they offered for sale. A public auction then provided an opportunity to bid for those willing to pay more than the minimum price of $2 an acre. Large tracts would be bought up by speculators, sometimes working together in syndicates, for resale. The speculators often benefited from inside information acquired through the land agents and surveyors. Any land left after the auction would be sold privately at $2 an acre, with the minimum purchase being 160 acres; buyers had to put 25 percent down and had four years to pay the balance. Credit was easily available in the immediate postwar years. To make sure that even high-risk borrowers could get loans, Alabama Territory abolished limitations on interest in 1818 by repealing the law against usury. Under these terms, the federal government sold over a million acres of public lands in 1815. (By comparison, before the war sales had averaged 350,000 acres.) In the year ending

3. Thomas P. Abernethy, The South in the New Nation (Baton Rouge, 1961), 465–73; Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975), I, 24–37. The population figures do not include tribal Indians.

4. Quoted in Adam Rothman, Slave Country (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), 183.

September 30, 1818, the figure reached 2.5 million acres.5 Reacting to the flood of purchases, incoming president Monroe proposed in 1817 that the minimum price of land be raised so the treasury could realize more benefit from the land boom; Congress turned a deaf ear to the proposal. Instead, the minimum purchase was cut from 160 to 80 acres, to make it easier for small farmers to get a piece of the action. Congress was opting to promote settlement rather than raise revenue. But the pressures of demand bid up the average price of public lands in the Creek Cession to more than $5 an acre in 1818; at the same time they were going for an average of $7.50 an acre in the Tennessee Valley, which had been open to settlement longer. The choicest cotton lands, near water transport, could command $50 an acre at auction.6

The situation on the ground was untidy. Squatters who entered on public lands before they had been surveyed and put up for sale faced an uncertain future. From time to time the authorities would relent and allow them to buy the land they occupied for the minimum price; this was called “preemption.” On the other hand, the place where they were living might be bought at auction by some other private party who would prove less understanding. Preexisting land titles, arising out of grants made by the Spanish colonial and British colonial governments, and by the notorious corrupt Yazoo land grant of 1795, further complicated matters. The Yazoo claims took years to sort out; in 1816, the federal government paid the claimants $4 million in scrip they could redeem at the land offices.7Lawyers found plenty to keep them occupied on the frontier.

Not that everyone settled disputes by legal means. The Old Southwest was a violent society, even by American standards. Institutions of local government could not be set up fast enough to keep pace with needs. In the first few years of settlement, law and order might constitute more an aspiration than a reality. Men fought duels and did not always conduct them according to the conventions of gentlemanly honor; contemporary accounts emphasize brawls, fistfights, shootouts, and knife fights. Natchez and the Natchez Trace road linking it with Nashville had particularly rough reputations for the violence accompanying crime, gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution. The routine cruelty associated with slave discipline and the determination of the whites to maintain their racial supremacy over Indians

5. Meinig, Continental America, 242–43; Daniel S. Dupre, Transforming the Cotton Frontier (Baton Rouge, 1997), 86–87; Feller, Public Lands, 10, 16, 20.

6. Daniel Usner Jr., “American Indians on the Cotton Frontier,” JAH 72 (1985): 316; Dupre, Transforming the Cotton Frontier, 43.

7. Feller, Public Lands, 18.

and free Negroes legitimated other forms of violence, including lynchings. Even the folk humor of the Old Southwest featured tall tales and cruel practical jokes that both portrayed and caricatured the violence of the society. “I’m an alligator, half-man, half-horse; can whip any man on the Mississippi, by G-d,” ran a comic boast that led to a real fight.8

What made migration into this hazardous environment so attractive was the high price of cotton. The difficulties in processing short-staple greenseed cotton into textiles had earlier been surmounted through a series of technological innovations culminating in the development of the “saw” cotton gin (“gin” being short for “engine”). The contribution of the Connecticut Yankee Eli Whitney to this long process has been much exaggerated.9 But the Napoleonic Wars had inhibited international commerce and delayed the mass marketing of cotton for nearly a generation. Now, within a year of the end of hostilities in Europe and North America, the price of raw cotton doubled on the New Orleans market, reaching twenty-seven cents a pound. Wherever the soil was suitable and the farmer could count on two hundred frost-free days in the year, short-staple cotton suddenly became an economically attractive crop. The virgin earth of the New Southwest seemed ideal: While backcountry South Carolina yielded three hundred pounds of cotton per acre, the Alabama black belt could yield eight hundred or even a thousand pounds per acre. In response to an apparently insatiable world demand for textiles, U.S. cotton production soared from seventy-three thousand bales in 1800 to ten times that in 1820—the year the United States surpassed India, long the leading cotton producer.10 Cotton, fueling an expansion of transatlantic industrial capitalism, enormously enhanced the importance of the United States in the world economy. In 1801, 9 percent of the world’s cotton came from the USA and 60 percent from Asia. Half a century later, the United States provided 68 percent of a total world production three times as large.11 The American South was to be the most favored place for the production of a raw material of global significance, as the Caribbean sugar islands had been in the eighteenth century or as the oil-rich Middle East would become in the twentieth.

8. Elliott Gorn, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch,” AHR, 90 (1985): 18–43; D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (Baton Rouge, 1968); quotation from Kenneth Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston, 1960), 27.

9. See Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin (Baltimore, 2003).

10. John Solomon Otto, Southern Frontiers (Westport, Conn., 1989), 84–85; David Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore, 1995), 74.

11. Douglas Farnie and David Jeremy, eds., The Fiber that Changed the World (Oxford, 2004), 17–18; Leonard Richards, The Advent of American Democracy (Glenview, Ill., 1977), 70.

Cotton cultivation required labor-intensive application, but chattel slavery remained legal in the states where the climate was favorable to cotton. The new marketability of short-staple cotton prompted the expansion of slave-plantation agriculture far beyond the areas that would have sustained the traditional export crops, tobacco, rice, and indigo. The spread of cotton cultivation entailed not only the westward migration of free farmers but also the massive forced migration of enslaved workers into the newly acquired lands. Not all cotton planters in the Southwest were self-made pioneers, for some already wealthy men hastened to the area and purchased large holdings, clearing the forest and draining the swamps with slave labor. Whether he owned many slaves or few, a master might bring his bondsmen with him, but sometimes he would go out and select the lands to buy first, returning (or sending agents) later to buy a workforce suited to the property. Most often, the southwestern planter bought slaves who had been transported to that region by a trader. Because the importation of slaves from overseas had been illegal since 1808, the trader’s human merchandise could only come from the seaboard slave states. Contemporaries typically observed the transit of a slave coffle with disgust and shame: “a wretched cavalcade... marching half naked women, and men loaded with chains, without being charged with any crime but that of being black, from one section of the United States to another, hundreds of miles.”12 Such a procession could number anywhere from a dozen to over a hundred souls, who were expected to walk up to twenty-five miles a day and sleep on the ground. The long trek overland from Virginia to Mississippi or Louisiana would consume six to eight weeks and was usually undertaken in winter, when agricultural labor could best be spared. Coastal vessels, more expensive, absorbed some of the traffic when the great slave marketplace in New Orleans was the destination. Only later, after Kentucky and Tennessee acquired surpluses of slaves and began exporting them, did the phrase “sold down the river” come into common use. The slave traders favored people in the prime of life—late teens or early twenties—since they could withstand the rigors of the march and bring a good price as field hands and (in the case of the women) breeders. Small children accompanying their mothers were placed in the supply wagon. The interstate slave trade was big business;

12. Paul Gates, The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815–1860 (New York, 1960), 140–41; James K. Paulding (1815), quoted in Robert P. Forbes, “Slavery and the Meaning of America” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1994), 23.

the Chesapeake Bay region alone exported 124,000 enslaved workers, mostly across the Appalachians, during the decade following 1810.13

Westward migration meant different things to different people. For a white man eager to raise cotton, it could mean a welcome fresh start in life and even a chance at quick wealth—“to hang a crystal chandelier in his frontier log cabin,” as one historian put it.14For white female participants, the move might be less attractive, which helps explain why fewer women than men made it. Women tended to regret the breakup of their accustomed networks of kinfolk and friends. Once living in an isolated frontier home, they might not have a chance to visit their previous companions, because women rarely traveled alone.15 Migrating slaves shared these regrets in even more acute form, since they would probably never again even communicate with those they left behind, who could include spouse or child. For African Americans, the move across the mountains constituted a second giant disruption in the generation following the end of forced migration across the ocean. Accordingly, the historian Ira Berlin has called it a “Second Middle Passage.”16Conditions of slave labor generally worsened in newly settled areas, where there was much backbreaking work to be done clearing the land and little of the paternalism that could soften the brutality of the “peculiar institution” among the planter aristocracy of more stable regions. The most unfortunate were those sent to the sugar plantations of southern Louisiana, where conditions resembled those on the infamous Caribbean islands. Under tight time pressures, sugar planters systematically overworked their slaves during the harvest and grinding season.17

The Great Migration to the Gulf States converted thousands of semi-subsistence farmers from the Piedmont into cotton producers. It was not necessary to trade off all the security of agrarian self-sufficiency for the economic opportunity presented by the new staple. Many a small farmer, possessing few or no slaves, mixed cotton-growing with raising corn and

13. Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves (Madison, Wisc., 1989), 31–41, 70–82; Daniel Johnson and Rex Campbell, Black Migration in America (Durham, N.C., 1981), 22–32; Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville, Va., 1992), 242. See further Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass. 1999).

14. Malcolm Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier (New York, 1978), 199.

15. See Joan Cashin, A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier (New York, 1991).

16. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 161.

17. Gates, Farmer’s Age, 122–24; David J. Libby, “Plantation and Frontier: Slavery in Mississippi, 1720–1835” (Ph.D. diss., University of Mississippi, 1997), 113–17; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 342–44.

hogs, though they were less profitable. He thus insured against the fluctuations in the price of a single cash crop with products that, come what may, his own family could eat. The agricultural rhythm of cotton production left plenty of time in the year to grow corn. Some settlers took to the piney woods, where there was a living to be earned poaching lumber from the public lands, often with the use of slave lumberjacks. Others raised livestock for sale, as the local Indians did. Squatters generally practiced hunting, grazing, and simple subsistence agriculture, because it made little sense for them to invest much in their farms so long as their legal title was insecure.18There were those migrants, mostly men, who loved adventure and their own personal freedom in a new country, but these feelings did not stand in the way of seizing whatever market opportunity presented itself. Versatility and adaptability were at a premium, and a man with five months’ schooling, like Gideon Lincecum, who moved from Georgia to Alabama in 1815, could set himself up by turns as a cotton-and-corn farmer, carpenter, surveyor, Indian trader, and (unlicensed) physician.19 The southwestern humorist Johnson Hooper satirized such men-on-the-make in his character Simon Suggs, who professes the maxim “It is good to be shifty in a new country.”20

The rapid rise of “the Cotton Kingdom” wrought a momentous transformation. Cotton became a driving force in expanding and transforming the economy not only of the South but of the United States as a whole— indeed of the world. While the growing of cotton came to dominate economic life in the Lower South, the manufacture of cotton textiles was fueling the industrial revolution on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of the exported American cotton went to Britain, in particular to the port of Liverpool, convenient to the textile mills of Lancashire. During the immediate postwar years of 1816 to 1820, cotton constituted 39 percent of U.S. exports; twenty years later the proportion had increased to 59 percent, and the value of the cotton sold overseas in 1836 exceeded $71 million. By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital

18. See Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South (New York, 1978), esp. 70–71; Usner, “American Indians on the Cotton Frontier,” 305, 308; John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge, 1988), 140–55.

19. “Autobiography of Gideon Lincecum,” summarized in Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier, 200–203. See also Bradley G. Bond, “Herders, Farmers, and Markets on the Inner Frontier,” in Plain Folk of the South Revisited, ed. Samuel C. Hyde Jr. (Baton Rouge, 1997), 73–99.

20. Johnson Hooper, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (Philadelphia, 1850, c. 1845), 12.

to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.21


“Whoever says industrial revolution says cotton,” observed the great economic historian Eric Hobsbawm.22 The same short-staple cotton that spread plantation agriculture all over the South gave rise to textile mills. In New England, the War of 1812 climaxed a series of interruptions playing havoc with the maritime trade and fishing that had been the mainstays of the regional economy. American commerce was driven from the seas. Watching their ships rot in port, Yankee investors hit upon a solution. As southern planters solved the problem of worn-out lands and low tobacco prices by shifting their workforce to the new cotton fields, New England merchants solved their own problem by shifting capital from shipping to manufacturing. What they started to manufacture was inexpensive cloth, made from local wool and southern cotton.

In 1813, Francis Cabot Lowell formed a business association with Patrick T. Jackson and Nathan Appleton, subsequently incorporated as the Boston Manufacturing Company with other investors. The purpose was to construct a water-powered loom for the manufacture of cotton textiles. Lowell had recently returned from one of the most successful of all enterprises of industrial espionage, conceived even before the war began. He had spent two years in Britain, where he meticulously observed the textile mills of Manchester. The technology of the power loom invented by Edmund Cartwright remained a scrupulously guarded British national secret. When Lowell left Britain just before war broke out, customs officers searched his luggage twice. They did not realize that the sharp-eyed Lowell had carefully memorized the structure of the loom well enough to replicate it once he got back to the United States. By 1814, Lowell and his brilliant mechanic, Paul Moody, could proudly demonstrate to the company directors an operational water-powered loom in Waltham, Massachusetts.23

21. The classic account of the importance of cotton to the American economy is Douglass C. North, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790–1860 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1961); data on 75–76. On the international importance of cotton, see also Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production,” AHR 109 (2004): 1405–38.

22. Quoted in Sally and David Dugan, The Day the World Took Off: The Roots of the Industrial Revolution (London, 2000), 19.

23. Robert F. Dalzell Jr., Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 5–6.

Yankee merchants were famous for their resourcefulness and enterprise. Frederic Tudor had recently discovered that New England’s ice could be exported at a profit to tropical countries, turning a liability into an asset. Nathaniel Wyeth then discovered that the ice could be packed in sawdust, thereby finding a commercial use for this waste by-product of Maine lumber mills. By such practical imagination, New Englanders had overcome their region’s paucity of natural advantages.24 But the vision of Lowell, Jackson, and Appleton went beyond identifying another way to turn a profit; they undertook to create a new industrial order. Their three mills at Waltham having proved successful, the shareholders embarked in 1821 on a still more ambitious project, a custom-built mill town. Jackson and Appleton named it for Lowell, who had died in 1817.

The town of Lowell was created at a point where the Merrimack River drops thirty feet. Irish immigrant laborers dug a canal, and Moody designed a thirty-foot waterwheel to take full advantage of the power. Once their own mill was operational, the associates sold mill sites and water power through the Locks and Canals Company. They had subdued nature to human purposes.25 For a labor supply, the owners turned to the young women of rural New England. Unlike most parts of the United States, New England had a surplus of women over men because so many of the males had migrated west, while the region received at that time few immigrants from overseas.26

Farm women had long supplemented the family income by weaving woolen yarn and cloth, using spinning wheels and hand looms at home. Now cotton from the South provided raw material much more plentiful than local sheep. So young women left home, recruited by company-owned boardinghouses in Lowell. There they put in long hours under unhealthy conditions and contracted not to leave until they had worked at least a year. But twelve to fourteen dollars a month was a good wage, and the new town had attractive shops, social activities, churches, lending libraries, and evening lectures. The “mill girls,” as they called themselves, wrote and published a magazine, the Lowell Offering. Americans had feared industrialization, lest it create an oppressed, depraved, and turbulent

24. See Elizabeth David, Harvest of the Cold Months (London, 1994), 76, 255–64; Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Friends (Mystic, Conn., 2003).

25. Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (Cambridge, Eng., 1991), 38–46, 59–76.

26. On the importance of women as a source of cheap labor, see Claudia Goldin and Kenneth Sokoloff, “The Relative Productivity Hypothesis of Industrialization,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 99 (1984): 461–87.

Table 1 Ratio of Free White Women to Men, 1820

Five Highest States

Rhode Island






New Hampshire




National Average


proletariat. But because these women typically worked for only a few years prior to marriage, and did so in a morally protected environment, they did not seem to constitute a permanent separate working class. To observers, the community looked like an industrial utopia, more successful than the Scottish models that Francis Lowell and Nathan Appleton had toured years before. Lowell, Massachusetts, boasted the largest concentration of industry in the United States before the Civil War.27

Lowell was a stunning innovation in many respects: in its technology, in its labor relations, in the amount of capital raised for it ($8 million), and in the consolidation of all stages of production from raw cotton to finished cloth. Eventually the Lowell capitalists even took over the distribution of their products for sale. Their Locks and Canals Company returned profits on its real estate development averaging 24 percent per annum for twenty years, an even higher rate of return than the manufacturing operations showed. The owners had good reasons to make the mill town a

Table 2 Percentage of Females, 16–44, Among White Population, 1820

Source for both tables: Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1975).

Five Highest States

Rhode Island






New Hampshire




National Average


27. Thomas Dublin, Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City (Washington, 1992), 30–40; Edward Everett, “Fourth of July at Lowell” (1830), Orations and Speeches (Boston, 1850), I, 47–66.

stable environment for the workers. They wanted Lowell to be a secure investment, less speculative than ocean commerce, one that would return a reliable income to the investors who had pooled their capital. They delegated the day-to-day running of the mills to capable managers like Kirk Boott so that they themselves could turn their attention to traditional upper-class activities like politics, charity, and high culture.28 These innovative northern capitalists retained some traditional and paternalistic values, just as the southern plantation aristocracy did.

The Waltham-Lowell system presented the most dramatic but by no means the only way that industrialization came to the North. Investment in textile mills, like enthusiasm for the cloths they produced, was widespread. Small capitalists raising money locally could start up mills; they did not need to mobilize large amounts of capital through corporations. These small entrepreneurs would group their activities wherever they found waterpower, at sites either urban or rural. At first these small entrepreneurs might not be much different from master craftsmen. Many of them had immigrated from England or Scotland, trading on the skills they had acquired in the advanced textile industry of their native land. As time went by, consolidation would occur among the businesses, producing a growing differentiation between employers and employees.29 Smaller textile enterprises often continued “putting out” some of their processes to workers at home. This kind of industrialization did not produce the sharp discontinuities that made Lowell so conspicuous.

For their workers on site, some mills followed the practice of Samuel Slater. Back in 1789, Slater had brought the secrets of Sir Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame to America, a transatlantic shift in technological know-how comparable to the one Lowell achieved. Slater contracted with entire farm families to work in and around his mills. Like the proprietors of Lowell, Slater took a paternalistic interest in his workers’ morality and religion; unlike them, he enlisted the authority of the husband/father to keep the other members in line. Under his labor system, daughters did not achieve the degree of personal independence that they got by living away from home and receiving their own wages.30

28. Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 1995), 22–26; Dalzell, Enterprising Elite, 77–78, 225–31.

29. See David Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1981); Philip Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism (Cambridge, Eng., 1983); Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale (New York, 1978).

30. Jonathan Prude, The Coming of Industrial Order (Cambridge, Eng., 1983); Barbara M. Tucker, Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984).

Though its origins and methods of doing business varied, the textile industry proved central to industrialization in America, as in Europe. And large size became characteristic of the industry even if mills did not necessarily start out that way. Enterprises that began with a few local investors could attract more distant capital if and when they proved themselves. In 1832, textile companies comprised 88 of the 106 largest corporations in the United States.31


Historians sometimes make use of hypothetical counterfactual cases in order to illuminate what actually happened. In the case of the trans-Appalachian West, however, we do not have to invent cases for comparison; two examples from real life illuminate each other. The Old Southwest was built around cotton and slavery. The Old Northwest grew up differently. By comparing the two regions, we can develop a sense for how much difference cotton and slavery made in shaping the America of the nineteenth century.

The lands north of the Ohio River experienced their own version of the Great Migration. There, however, no one crop predominated to the extent that cotton did in the South, and slavery had been prohibited since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. After the peace of Ghent, the Great Lakes region was no longer a “middle ground,” where Indian tribes could ally with French or British to resist encroaching American settlers. Hence-forward U.S. hegemony over the Old Northwest stood unchallenged. Lewis Cass’s treaty with the Wyandots and other tribes in 1817 stripped them of almost all the lands they had retained north and west of the Greenville Treaty line of 1795. This set a pattern, and by 1821 most of Indiana and Illinois and even much of Michigan Territory had been ceded. Thereafter the tribes were confined to small reservations, within which Indian agents and missionaries undertook to teach the Natives to become family farmers like the whites. All this contrasted with the South, where the Five Civilized Tribes (as they were called)—Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole—still retained large territorial bases and considerable corporate autonomy.32

Ohio had achieved statehood in 1803, but it continued to grow dramatically, doubling in population from a quarter of a million to half a million in the decade following 1810. By 1820, it had actually become the fourth most

31. François Weil, “Capitalism and Industrialization in New England,” JAH 84 (1998): 1334–54; Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), 60.

32. See R. Douglas Hurt, The Ohio Frontier (Bloomington, 1996); Andrew Cayton, Frontier Indiana (Bloomington, 1996); James E. Davis, Frontier Illinois (Bloomington, 1998).

populous state, exceeded only by New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Indiana and Illinois, admitted into the Union as states in 1816 and 1818, had respectively 147,000 and 55,000 people in the census of 1820.33 The southern parts of the three states were settled faster, because the Ohio River provided both a convenient highway for travelers and the promise of access to market. Most early settlers in this area came from the Upland South, the same Piedmont regions that supplied so many migrants to the Southwest. Often of Scots-Irish descent, they got nicknamed “Butternuts” from the color of their homespun clothing. The name “Hoosiers,” before its application to the people of Indiana, seems to have been a derogatory term for the dwellers in the southern backcountry.34 Among the early Hoosiers was Thomas Lincoln, who took his family, including seven-year-old Abraham, from Kentucky into Indiana in 1816. (Abraham Lincoln’s future antagonist Jefferson Davis, also born in Kentucky, traveled with his father, Samuel, down the Mississippi River in 1810, following another branch of the Great Migration.) Some of these settlers crossed the Ohio River because they resented having to compete with slave labor or disapproved of the institution on moral grounds; Thomas Lincoln shared both these antislavery attitudes. Other Butternuts, however, hoped to introduce slavery into their new home. In Indiana Territory, Governor William Henry Harrison, a Virginian, had led futile efforts to suspend the Northwest Ordinance prohibition against slavery. In Illinois, some slaveowners smuggled their bondsmen in under the guise of indentured servants, and as late as 1824 an effort to legalize slavery by changing the state constitution was only defeated by a vote of 6,600 to 5,000.35

Settlers in the Ohio Valley generally raised corn and hogs, as many of them had done in their previous homes. They found the region too cold for cotton, and by raising their accustomed crops they were able to use seed corn they brought with them and skills they had already mastered. Wooded areas were settled sooner than open country; timber provided building material and fuel, as the settlers well understood.36 Taking advantage of the river system, they could market their produce in far-off

33. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, 1960), I, 24–37.

34. Nicole Etcheson, The Emerging Midwest: Upland Southerners and the Old Northwest (Bloomington, 1996), 5. There are also other theories for the origin of the name.

35. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York, 1995), 24; Cayton, Frontier Indiana, 187–93; Davis, Frontier Illinois, 165–68.

36. Richard Steckel, “The Economic Foundations of East-West Migration,” Explorations in Economic History 20 (1983): 14–36; John Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven, 1986), 62–63.

New Orleans, especially after the coming of the steamboats made the return trip upstream practical. The first western steamboat had been launched from Pittsburgh in 1811, appropriately named the New Orleans. Converting corn to pork made it more efficient to transport. Cincinnati on the Ohio became a meatpacking center nicknamed “Porkopolis,” turning hogs into ham and lard for shipment hundreds or thousands of miles by water. In 1837, two immigrant brothers-in-law, William Procter and James Gamble, formed a partnership to use some of Cincinnati’s mountain of lard in making soap for market, initiating the replacement of an article of household manufacture with a mass consumer product.37

Yankees coming either from upstate New York or New England itself settled across the northern band of the midwestern states. Some came as early as the 1790s to the Western Reserve in Ohio, which Connecticut had long claimed as part of its colonial land grant. But on the whole, the area along the Great Lakes was occupied more slowly than the Ohio Valley; access remained difficult before the Erie Canal opened a water highway across western New York to the Hudson River in 1825. A communal people, the Yankees often moved in families rather than as individuals; sometimes communities of several hundred would migrate together, replicating the name of the town from which they had come. In this way New England place names (deriving ultimately from seventeenth-century East Anglia) came to be repeated across the continent: There are Springfields in Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, and Oregon. Wheat was the favorite crop of these settlers; it withstood the severe climate, and they were used to growing it. In the early days wheat and flour floated downstream to New Orleans; only after the Erie Canal opened could the market orientation of the Upper Midwest shift direction. Until the canal barges came, wheat-growers, like corn-growers, depended on the riverboats for access to world markets.38

Participants in the Great Migration were not purely “economic men”; they remained loyal, often fiercely loyal, to their cultural heritages and resolved to re-create them on the frontier. As a result, geographically distinct culture zones appeared in the West. Yankees and Butternuts spoke with different accents, ate different foods, and practiced agriculture differently. Yankees supplemented their staple crop with dairying and transplanted fruit orchards; the legendary “Johnny Appleseed” was a Yankee visionary named John Chapman. (Apples could be drunk as well as eaten, and hard cider marketed to communities with unsafe water.) Migrants

37. Andrew Cayton, Frontier Republic: Ohio, 1780–1825 (Kent, Ohio, 1986), 112–13.

38. Hurt, Ohio Frontier, 388–96.

from the Upland South, on the other hand, raised animals for their meat, hides, and tallow. Styles of architecture contrasted, even under primitive conditions. Upland Southerners built log cabins, said to have been invented by the Finnish colonists in Delaware while it was still New Sweden. Yankee pioneers built homes of sod, stone, or clapboard; they were more eager to form villages than to live on isolated farmsteads. When the migrants built churches, their theologies differed: Yankees were characteristically Congregationalists or Presbyterians and espoused the relatively liberal “New School” Calvinism; southern settlers included Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians of the “Old School.” Institutions of local government differed too: “Extended New England” preferred townships, “Extended Virginia,” counties. In this cultural rivalry, the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois counted for many purposes as part of Extended Virginia. Not surprisingly, cultural differences gave rise to political conflicts within those states even after the introduction of slavery had been ruled out. Yankees believed in public education; Butternuts, in individualism and low taxes. Yankees thought the Butternuts lazy; the latter resented Yankee condescension.39 A contemporary observer recorded their mutual dislike: Southerners believed the “Yankee was a close, miserly, dishonest, selfish getter of money, void of generosity, hospitality, or any of the kindlier feelings of human nature”; northerners saw the Butternut as “a long, lank, lean, and ignorant animal, but little in advance of the savage state; one who was content to squat in a log-cabin, with a large family of ill-fed and ill-clothed, idle, ignorant children.”40

But the cultural history of the Northwest encompassed more than the rivalry between Yankees and Butternuts. Between their zones of occupancy developed a diverse intermediate zone settled by peoples from the Middle Atlantic states: Pennsylvania Presbyterians, Methodists, and Quakers, Dutch as well as Yankees from New York, and “Pennsylvania Dutch,” who were really German-Americans. (Their name for themselves, Deutsch, had been misunderstood as meaning Dutch.) Cincinnati has been called “a Middle States enclave in an Upland South environment.”41 Amidst them all were the remaining Native Americans, the French settlements that antedated U.S. sovereignty, and free Negroes hoping to encounter less hostility in the West. Later decades would find

39. See also Susan Gray, The Yankee West (Chapel Hill, 1996); Richard Lyle Power, Planting Corn Belt Culture (Indianapolis, 1953).

40. Thomas Ford, History of Illinois... 1818–1847, ed. Milo Quaife (1857; Chicago, 1945), II, 90.

41. Meinig, Continental America, 281.

immigrants from Europe, especially Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland. Accustomed to cultural pluralism, the settlers from the Middle Atlantic states partially blunted the conflict between Yankees and Butternuts. This conflict did, however, persist at least through the Civil War.42

Adding together the Northwest and Southwest, the early nineteenth century witnessed a population movement of stunning magnitude. The census of 1800 identified a third of a million people living beyond the Appalachians; in 1820, the number was over 2 million. Never again did so large a portion of the nation live in new settlements. Later generations of Americans would revere the westward migrants as “pioneers,” a word that originally meant the advance guard of an army, who carried tools to enable them to repair roads and bridges or throw up fortifications as needed.43 It was an apt metaphor insofar as it suggested both occupation of another’s territory and construction for later generations. But the settlers of the Great Migration gave little thought to preserving the natural environment for future use. They concerned themselves primarily with short-term advantage. They employed profligate methods of agriculture and land-clearing, heedlessly burning off timber and valuable ground cover, leaving precious topsoil to wash or blow away. Wildlife they destroyed, often deliberately (if they judged it incompatible with agriculture), sometimes through indifference, but also just for the morbid thrill of killing. Decades of wasteful slaughter plus destruction of habitat led to the extinction of the passenger pigeons, which the first settlers found by countless millions in the Ohio Valley.44

Northwest or Southwest, the frontier did not always deliver a tangible improvement in the lives of those who moved there. Poorer migrants voluntarily accepted travel conditions not much different from those imposed on the slaves sent west. “A cart and single horse frequently affords the means of transfer, sometimes a horse and pack-saddle,” observed Morris Birkbeck along the National Road heading for Ohio in 1817. “Often the back of the poor pilgrim bears all his effects, and his wife follows, naked-footed, bending under the hopes of the family.”45 To be sure, such migrants had been inured to privation in their previous homes. But the trials of the trip itself were only the beginning. Settlers found a land of

42. Andrew Cayton and Peter Onuf, The Midwest and the Nation (Bloomington, 1990), 27; Donald Ratcliffe, Party Spirit in a Frontier Republic: Ohio, 1793–1821 (Columbus, Ohio, 1998), 219.

43. OED.

44. John Mayfield, The New Nation, 1800–1845 (New York, 1982), 59; Arlie Schorger, The Passenger Pigeon (Madison, Wisc., 1955), 199–230.

45. Quoted in Frederick Jackson Turner, Rise of the New West, 1819–1829 (New York, 1906), 79–80.

hardship and disease. Malaria was endemic in the wet valleys of the Midwest. Amidst a thick woods in Indiana in 1819, a traveler came across “a log house built out of slabs without a nail,” with a dirt floor and no chimney. “This small cabin contained a young and interesting female and her two shivering and almost starving children.” Though it was November, all were barefoot. The family had a cow and a pig. The husband “was absent in search of bread,” the visitors learned. “In this situation the woman was polite, smiled and appeared happy. She gave us water to drink.”46 Pioneers like this woman were living on hope, and little more. Her condition differed little from that of the Lincoln family, who started the winter of 1816–17, upon their arrival in Indiana, in a rude shelter enclosed on three sides and open on the fourth until Thomas could build a regular log cabin. In October 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, wife of Thomas and mother of nine-year-old Abraham, died of brucellosis. A frontier household needed two parents. Thomas soon found a widow who also needed to remarry and brought her to the cabin to bring up his children with her own. Sarah Bush Johnson Lincoln did an excellent job of it.47

Absentee speculators who slowed development by withholding their lands from settlement until they had appreciated made themselves understandably unpopular with actual settlers. But settlers North and South, large holders and small, whatever their crop, were speculators too, in the sense that they hoped their lands would increase in value and often held more than they could actually farm. Because the settlers in the Northwest did not invest in slaves, they had even more at stake in their lands than their southern counterparts did; they were “land-lords” but not “labor-lords.” Land titles were always more secure in the Old Northwest because the lands there had been properly surveyed from the outset, whereas in the Old Southwest the hope of making quick profits through cotton and slavery led to rapid and often unregulated settlement, with potential confusion over titles. In the hasty southwestern process, wealthy planters ended up with not only more land but also better land, because they could send advance agents out quickly to identify choice parcels. More towns sprouted up in the Northwest, and one of the reasons for this was the greater incentive northern speculators had to sponsor the growth of urban areas and commercial development so their landholdings would appreciate in value. In the Southwest, on the other hand, population remained more dispersed because slaveowners were free to relocate their labor force as they saw fit. Compared with freedom, slavery proved less

46. Richard Lee Mason, 1819, quoted in Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier, 165–66.

47. Donald, Lincoln, 25–28.

favorable not only to urbanization but also to the development of infrastructure like transportation and public education, all of which made real estate more valuable. But southwestern speculators did not mind; cotton lands with access to natural waterways and an enslaved labor force could be yielding quick profits while northerners waited years for their more complicated plans to bear fruit. River transportation—easier downstream than upstream—worked satisfactorily for cotton-growers because the product they sold was so much bulkier than the items they bought.48

Speculators sometimes win and sometimes lose. Although the Great Migration was a success story from the point of view of American national aggrandizement, it did not constitute a success story for all its individual participants. Some prospered in their new homes. Those who did not might end up as tenants or hired laborers. But often they simply moved on. Sixty to 80 percent of frontier residents moved within a decade of their arrival, the historian Allan Kulikoff has found, though “the wealthier the farmer, the less often his family moved.”49 Many would fail repeatedly, drifting ever farther westward in the hope that their luck would turn. Hope was what it was all about. Tomorrow was more important than yesterday.


The speculative bubble burst in 1819. By then, Europe had recovered enough from the Napoleonic conflicts that postwar shortages had been made up, and a good harvest in 1818 diminished reliance on American foodstuffs. Most importantly, the rapidly expanded supply of raw cotton temporarily outran the ability of the new mills to absorb it, and its price in Liverpool began to drop in late 1818. The value of cotton in the American seaports fell from a high of 32.5 cents a pound in October 1818 to 24 cents by the end of the year and kept going down to 14 cents.50 London banks decided there was no longer a need to extend more credit. The Second Bank of the United States, still only two years old, responded by shifting suddenly away from its own expansionist policy. The reversal reflected an effort by Bank president William Jones to protect his institution, but his

48. See Malcolm Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (New York, 1968), and Wright, Political Economy of the Cotton South.

49. Quotations from Kulikoff, Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism, 218. See also Faragher, Sugar Creek, 51–52.

50. George Dangerfield, The Awakening of American Nationalism (New York, 1965), 73–74. See further Clyde Haulman, “Virginia Commodity Prices During the Panic of 1819,” JER 22 (2002): 675–88.

clumsiness exacerbated the credit contraction. State banks, in debt to the BUS, had no choice but to call in their own loans. Banks in those days issued paper money, backed by gold and silver. Now specie was draining out of the hinterland into the commercial centers, and from there out of the country altogether. When banks began to suspend specie payment (that is, to stop redeeming their currency in gold and silver), confidence in the banking system evaporated. Investors panicked and tried to liquidate. With everyone trying to sell at the same time, the value of investments plummeted.51

Each businessman in the commercial chain was trying to save himself. At the end of the chain, the little people, the farmers and workers, the consumers, had less recourse when their debts were called in. They lost their mortgaged homes and farms. As their demand for goods and services shriveled, those who sold to them went bankrupt and laid off their employees. Historians refer to it as “the Panic of 1819,” from the behavior of the investors. Contemporaries called it “hard times,” reflecting the perspective of the little people.52 Hard times lasted three to four years, longer in some places.

The Great Migration itself ground to a halt, since people could not afford to buy land, prices of agricultural commodities hit rock bottom, and places like Cincinnati no longer offered jobs. The government discovered it had sold $44 million worth of land since 1790 but had collected only half the money. Overextended westerners were now trying to return unimproved lands to the Treasury in return for debt cancellation. Congress acquiesced in 1820, deciding at the same time to end the sale of public lands on credit. To keep the door open to small purchasers, the basic price of land was lowered from $2 an acre to $1.25.53

The Panic of 1819 has been called “a traumatic awakening to the capitalist reality of boom-and-bust.”54 This was the first time that the American public had experienced collectively what would become a recurrent phenomenon, a sharp downward swing of the business cycle. Because it was the first time, people had no perspective from which to judge the events. Previous economic troubles had not been universal and had had more obvious causes in war, natural disaster, or the political paralysis of

51. Murray Rothbard, The Panic of 1819 (New York, 1962), 11–17; North, Economic Growth of the U.S., 182–88; Ratcliffe, Party Spirit, 224.

52. David Lehman, “Explaining Hard Times: The Panic of 1819 in Philadelphia” (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1992), 28.

53. Otto, Southern Frontiers, 91; Feller, Public Lands, 26–38.

54. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 137.

the Articles of Confederation. By 1819, economic relationships had become strongly interconnected; more people were producing for national or international markets rather than home or local consumption. With the advantages of such commercial ties went a corresponding exposure to risk. It was profoundly disturbing that a change in personal fortunes could be unrelated to personal merit, yet the hardworking and honest suffered along with the undeserving. The United States had been hit harder than Europe by the downturn. Today economists recognize that less developed, staple-producing economies are especially vulnerable to the international business cycle. No such frame of reference existed then. Who was to blame?

The Bank of the United States, said some. This was not altogether inaccurate; if the BUS had not been ultimately responsible for the panic, it had certainly made matters worse than necessary. William Jones, who had been culpably lax in extending credit during the boom years, resigned as its president early in the crisis; Langdon Cheves of South Carolina replaced him. Cheves’s policy of contraction rescued the Bank’s solvency but not its popularity. “The Bank was saved but the people were ruined,” a bitter commentator observed.55 Feeling ran especially high against the Bank in Maryland, where the managers of the Baltimore branch had not only mismanaged the panic but also embezzled something in excess of $1.5 million (the equivalent of $19 million in 2006). Reflecting public outrage, the state legislature levied a tax of fifteen thousand dollars on the Baltimore branch. When the Bank refused to pay, Maryland sued the branch cashier, James M’Culloh, one of the embezzlers, and the tax case went up to the United States Supreme Court. (In their separate, later trial for embezzlement, M’Culloh and his two friends won acquittal by claiming their prosecution was politically motivated.)56

John Marshall used the opportunity presented by McCulloch v. Maryland to render what may have been the most important of his many important judicial decisions. The first question he had to decide was whether Congress had been within its rights to incorporate the Bank. Endorsing the line of argument used by Alexander Hamilton to justify the first national bank, Marshall held that the power of Congress to charter

55. William Gouge, quoted in George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (New York, 1952), 187.

56. Mark Killenbeck, M’Culloch v. Maryland (Lawrence, Kans., 2006), 90–94, 184–90. The court reporter misspelled M’Culloh’s name, and so have most historians. The spelling “McCulloch” having become common, I use it to refer to the Supreme Court case but not to the person.

corporations, while not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, was implied. The Constitution enumerates a list of powers of Congress and then authorizes it “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” Marshall adopted a broad construction of the phrase “necessary and proper,” defining it so as to approve not merely “indispensable” measures but whatever means seemed “appropriate,” “plainly adapted” to a constitutional objective, and “not prohibited” explicitly. Having confirmed the constitutionality of the Bank, Marshall then went on to ask whether the state had the right to tax it. The power to tax was the power to destroy, as the Bank’s lawyer Daniel Webster had argued. States must not be allowed to frustrate the legitimate authority of Congress. “The states have no power, by taxation or otherwise,” Marshall concluded, “to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the Federal Government, or its agencies.”57

The chief justice had made great law, but in the political context of 1819 he had also inflamed great controversy. His decision demonstrated insensitivity to public resentment of the BUS, and there was difficulty enforcing it. The state of Ohio had just enacted a tax heavier than Maryland’s on its own two branches of the Bank, and the Ohio state treasurer seized the money by force—six months after the McCulloch decision! This case too reached the Supreme Court—though not until 1824— when Marshall reaffirmed his position.58 The BUS decided it was the better part of valor to close down its Ohio branches.

Actually, a decision upholding the constitutionality of the Bank did not in itself surprise observers, since the Republican Party had come around to endorsing it in 1816. The controversial parts of Marshall’s opinion were the extremely broad interpretation he gave to the powers of Congress, his insistence that the Constitution rested on the sovereignty of the American people as a whole and not on a compact among the states, and his denial that the states possessed any concurrent authority over the BUS. Marshall treated the Bank as if it were entirely a government agency, ignoring the fact that it was also a private corporation operated for profit. Plenty of constitutional lawyers disagreed with his position—including seventy-one-year old Luther Martin, Maryland’s chief counsel in the case, who as a young man in 1787 had attended the Constitutional Convention.

57. McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheaton) 316–437 (1819); Bernard Schwartz, History of the Supreme Court (New York, 1993), 45–47; Charles Hobson, The Great Chief Justice (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 116–24.

58. Cayton, Frontier Republic, 132; Ratcliffe, Party Spirit, 225–27; Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 23 U.S. (9 Wheaton) 738 (1824).

Prolonged criticism of Marshall’s opinion in the press led the chief justice himself to respond in print (under a pseudonym). Among those publishing critiques was his old adversary Spencer Roane.59

Beyond the question of blame for the panic was the question, Where do we go from here? Some people argued that the most urgent priority must be economic recovery. They advocated restoration of business confidence, the reconstitution of the banking system, more tariff protection for producers, government-sponsored transportation projects, and renewed expansion of credit. Others, however, thought the most important issue was reform, moral as much as economic, to make sure no more panics occurred. To prevent another round of speculative frenzy, they advocated retrenchment of government spending, called for controls to curb the irresponsible issue of banknotes, and urged consumers to live within their means. On the state level, other battles revolved around relief legislation like “stay laws” to postpone the foreclosure of mortgages and the issue of paper money by state banks with no specie reserves. In Sturges v. Crowninshield (1819) the Marshall Court invalidated a New York state law facilitating bankruptcies as a violation of the constitutional rule against “impairing the obligation of contracts.” Desperate for solutions, people did not necessarily adopt consistent positions on all these issues. Pro-debtor politicians might, for example, back inflationary schemes to make debts easier to pay off and then switch to a “hard money” policy to discourage speculation and fraud.60

Probably because this was the first depression in national history, the citizenry did not assume the administration in Washington could have prevented it. The blame that attached to the Bank of the United States did not rub off on the Monroe administration. In any case, no organized opposition stood ready to provide an alternative government. Monroe was reelected with no difficulty in 1820. Even the thirty-four Federalist presidential electors (from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware) backed him, though they couldn’t stomach his running mate, Daniel Tompkins of New York, and scattered their vice-presidential votes, as they had in 1816, among several candidates. Monroe wound up with every electoral vote except one, which was cast for John Quincy Adams by a maverick

59. Harold Plous and Gordon Baker, “McCulloch v. Maryland: Right Principle, Wrong Case,” Stanford Law Review 9 (1957), 710–30; G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change (New York, 1988), 238–40, 544–66; Saul Cornell, The Other Founders (Chapel Hill, 1999), 278–88.

60. 17 U.S. (4 Wheaton) 122 (1819); Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore, 1995), 40–45; Sellers, Market Revolution, 164–71.

New Hampshire elector. (The elector did not do so in order to protect George Washington’s record as the only unanimously elected president but simply because he thought Adams would make a better chief executive.)61 The Panic of 1819 remains the only nationwide depression in American history when the voters did not turn against the administration in Washington.62


Although the Panic of 1819 did not prevent the reelection of Monroe, another crisis occurred simultaneously that gave the administration a bad scare: the Missouri Controversy.

By 1819, enough settlers had crossed the Mississippi River that Missouri Territory could meet the usual population criterion for admission to the Union. Accordingly, an “enabling act” was presented to Congress authorizing Missouri voters to elect a convention to draft a state constitution. On Saturday the thirteenth of February, a congressman from Poughkeepsie, New York, tossed a bombshell into the Era of Good Feelings. Representative James Tallmadge proposed that as a condition of Missouri statehood, further importation of slaves should be prohibited and all children of slaves born after Missouri’s admission to the Union should become free at the age of twenty-five. Tallmadge was an independent-minded Republican, allied at the time with DeWitt Clinton’s faction in New York state politics. The year before, he had objected to the admission of Illinois on the (well-founded) grounds that its constitution did not provide enough assurance that the Northwest Ordinance prohibition of slavery would be perpetuated. In 1817, he had helped speed up the gradual emancipation of the remaining slaves in his own state. The number of blacks in Missouri, ten thousand, was about the same as the number remaining in New York in 1817, and the emancipation plan Tallmadge proposed for Missouri resembled the one adopted in New York. Masters could hardly complain that their vested interests were being disregarded; the plan would have freed no one already enslaved. But what might have proved a constructive step toward peaceful emancipation provoked consternation in the House of Representatives.63

61. See Lynn Turner, “Elections of 1816 and 1820,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (New York, 1985), I, 316–19.

62. After the Panic of 1873, the opposition Democrats won the popular vote in the election of 1876, although the Republicans retained the White House as a result of the Compromise of 1877.

63. Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 1170; Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 144.

On behalf of the Tallmadge amendment, northern members invoked morality, religion, economics, and the Declaration of Independence. They reminded southerners that their own revered statesmen, led by Thomas Jefferson, had often expressed the hope to find a way out of perpetuating slavery. Yet now, the South presented a virtually solid and implacable opposition (in which the aged Jefferson himself joined) to mandating emancipation in a new state. Through days of rancorous debate, the two sides rehearsed arguments that would be used by the North and South for many years to come. Before it was over, not just the extension of slavery on the frontier but the existence of slavery throughout the whole Union would be challenged. Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia fixed Tallmadge in his gaze: “You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.” But Tallmadge defended his moderate proposition with a steadfastness not at all moderate: “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!”64 Like the overture to an operatic drama, the Missouri Controversy prefigured the coming forty-five years of sectional conflict.

The Missouri debate revealed—to the surprise of some observers—that the South had quietly become much more committed to slavery than it had been during the Revolutionary generation. The opening of the Southwest to cotton cultivation, providing a vast new demand for slave labor, had caused the value of slave property to soar. A prime field hand worth four to five hundred dollars in 1814 commanded a price of eight to eleven hundred dollars by early 1819.65 Though the price then fell back with hard times, everyone expected it would rise again. As tobacco became less profitable, the Chesapeake had come to rely more and more on selling off some of the region’s human increase. Slave children represented capital gains. So a respected Virginia planter could advise his son-inlaw in 1820: “A woman who brings a child every two years [is] more valuable than the best man of the farm.”66 To restrict the expansion of slavery into the West threatened to snatch away this lucrative market permanently. Missouri was not a cotton-growing region, but slave-exporting

64. Glover Moore, The Missouri Controversy (Lexington, Ky., 1953), 41; Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 1204.

65. Roger Ransom, Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), 42–47; Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, intro. by Eugene Genovese (New York, 1969), 370–71.

66. Thomas Jefferson to John W. Eppes, June 30, 1820, quoted in Steven Deyle, “Origins of the Domestic Slave Trade,” JER 12 (Spring 1992): 51.

areas like Virginia and South Carolina reacted with horror to what looked like a bad precedent.

Reflective southerners had long regretted the introduction of black slavery but feared that emancipation would invite race war, at least in areas with substantial black populations. To the economic fear of losing western slave markets was added the physical fear of living amidst an ever-increasing population of potential rebels—“dammed up in a land of slaves,” as Judge Spencer Roane put it.67 Southern statesmen on record as deploring slavery, such as ex-president Jefferson, now found themselves having to argue that it would be better if the institution were diffused thinly into newly settled areas rather than concentrated in the older states. “Diffusion” of slaves “over a greater surface,” as Jefferson explained it, would “facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation” by making local white populations more willing to contemplate the possibility of freeing them and by spreading the burden of paying compensation to masters. So the extension of slavery actually would help long-term prospects for bringing an end to slavery! What makes the argument so unconvincing is that it was being used to prevent gradual emancipation in a place where blacks constituted no more than 16 percent of the population. In the last analysis, even those white southerners who regretted slavery and hoped to eliminate it would not tolerate northern participation in planning how to end it.68

In one respect the Missouri debates were not representative of later ones: Only a few of the participants actually defended slavery as a positive moral good at this time. Most southern spokesmen preferred to talk about constitutional issues. Jefferson, for example, refused to take northern antislavery professions seriously and defined the issue instead as an attempt to deprive the sovereign (white) people of Missouri of their constitutional equality.69 But northern legislators did not lack for constitutional arguments of their own. Restrictionists observed that the Constitution authorized Congress to “make all needful rules and regulations” for the territories and to control the “migration” of slaves across state lines after the year 1808. The power to admit new states seemed to imply the power to set conditions for

67. Quoted in Harry Ammon, James Monroe (Charlottesville, Va., 1990), 455. Roane misspelled the word as “damned,” which looks like a Freudian slip.

68. Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in TJ: Writings, 1434; see also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), 326–42; Drew McCoy, The Last of the Fathers (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), 267–76; Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 150–57.

69. See Peter Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire (Charlottesville, Va., 2000), 111.

their admission. Some slavery restrictionists also argued that the constitutional duty to “guarantee to each state in this Union a republican form of government” created a presumption against the introduction of slavery into new areas. But southerners replied to all this that once a state had been admitted, it became the equal of the original states, so there would be no constitutional way to prevent it from altering or revoking whatever scheme of gradual emancipation had been imposed by Congress.70

The Missouri Controversy also concerned political power. Northern whites were not all humanitarians concerned for the welfare of African Americans, but many of them were increasingly alarmed at the disproportionate political influence of southern slaveholders. The North had come to resent the constitutional clause by which three-fifths of the slave population counted for purposes of representation in Congress and the electoral college. The rule helped perpetuate the Virginia dynasty of presidents that reigned for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years under the Constitution; specifically, it had cost John Adams the presidency in the close election of 1800. In 1819, the three-fifths clause was boosting southern membership of the House by seventeen.71 To free the slaves in Missouri, or any other state, would not reduce the state’s representation in the federal House but potentially add to it, since freedpeople would be fully counted (unless they were colonized elsewhere). But if slavery were on the road to ultimate extinction in Missouri, the state might not vote with the proslavery bloc. In such power calculations, the composition of the Senate was of even greater moment than that of the House. Despite the three-fifths rule, the northern majority in the House of Representatives increased with every census reapportionment. So the South looked to preserve sectional equality in the Senate, where each state had two members regardless of population. The recently approved admission of Alabama would balance the scales at eleven free and eleven slave states.

Voting on the Tallmadge amendment reflected these political realities. The House of Representatives narrowly approved gradual emancipation for Missouri, with the North supporting it 80 to 14 and the South opposing 64 to 2. But in the Senate the slave states had greater strength; furthermore, three of the four senators from Illinois and Indiana reflected Butternut sentiment and voted with the South. The Senate refused to

70. William M. Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), 110–22.

71. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 153; John McCardell, The Idea of a Southern Nation (New York, 1979), 23.

accept any restriction on slavery. With the two houses deadlocked, the Missouri statehood bill lapsed when Congress adjourned.72

The opponents of slavery extension now took their case to the people. They organized antislavery demonstrations in northern states, though it was hard to mobilize popular sentiment while the panic distracted the public. Rufus King, Federalist senator from New York, rallied other northern members of his party behind the Tallmadge amendment. King had been a critic of the three-fifths clause back in 1787, when he attended the Constitutional Convention as a young man; now, he was a political ally of the African American voters of Manhattan.73 Republicans accused him of fanning the flames of northern sectionalism to revitalize the Federalist Party. Motives on both sides of this emotional issue were mixed with politics. But it is not clear how much King and other Federalists can have hoped to achieve for their party by exploiting the Missouri Controversy when they were not even contesting the presidency. The election returns of 1820 show no Federalist resurgence at either state or congressional level.74 A rebirth of the Federalist Party seems to have been a bugaboo that some Republican politicians used to frighten northern voters into appeasing the slaveholders.

The Jeffersonian Republican Party leadership, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, interpreted Tallmadge’s amendment as a challenge to their power, a revolt by northern political outsiders threatening to split the party. They were determined to get Missouri admitted without restrictions on slavery. After the Sixteenth Congress convened in December 1819, the debate over Missouri resumed. The speeches seemed interminable as well as intemperate. When Felix Walker of North Carolina was urged to sit down, he replied that he had to give his speech for the folks back home, “for Buncombe County.” Ever since, Americans have called a certain kind of inflated political oratory “buncombe”—or “bunk” for short.75

Meanwhile, President Monroe, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, and the Senate Republican leaders busied themselves behind the scenes.76What is now the state of Maine had been a part of Massachusetts ever since

72. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 149; Donald L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics (New York, 1971), 402–12.

73. Sellers, Market Revolution, 129–30; Robert Ernst, Rufus King (Chapel Hill, 1968), 369–74, 377–78.

74. Shaw Livermore, The Twilight of Federalism (Princeton, 1962), 88–112.

75. OED, s.v. “buncombe,” also spelled “bunkum.”

76. See Noble Cunningham, The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence, Kans., 1996), 93–104; Ammon, James Monroe, 450–55.

colonial times. In June 1819, the Massachusetts legislature consented to separate statehood for what had been “the District of Maine.” The Senate leadership promptly linked the admission of Maine and Missouri into a single bill, in effect holding Maine hostage for the admission of Missouri without the Tallmadge amendment. Most of the congressmen from the Maine portion of Massachusetts were thus eventually persuaded to accept Missouri with slavery permitted.

But to bring about the desired result required one further concession. Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois, who had been voting with the proslavery side (he himself owned what his state euphemistically called “indentured” workers), made the offer. He proposed that slavery should be prohibited, not in Missouri, but in all the rest of the Louisiana Purchase lying north of 36° 30’ north latitude, that is, the southern boundary of Missouri. Even then, most northern congressmen would not vote to admit Missouri without the Tallmadge amendment, but enough of them eventually came around to permit enactment of the famous “Missouri Compromise.” Considering that slavery on the frontier was remote from the daily lives of most northern whites, and that the country was in the grip of a depression, it is surprising that the antislavery congressmen held their ground as long as they did. In the end, eighteen northern representatives either voted for Missouri without restriction on slavery or else abstained—enough for it to pass with the support of a solid South. The acid-tongued Virginian John Randolph derided the eighteen as “dough faces,” and the epithet stuck as a name from then on applied to northerners who betrayed their section. As a group, doughfaces fared badly in the next election.77

The Thomas proviso passed the House with the support of 95 out of 100 northern Representatives and even a majority of southern ones, 39 to 37. The Senate considered all the compromise measures together as a package: The South voted 20 to 2 in favor; the North, 18 to 4 against. It is remarkable how many southern Congressmen felt willing, in 1820, to concede a ban on slavery in the greater part of the territories. In general, the slave-exporting states of the Atlantic seaboard insisted more strongly on keeping the territories open to slavery than did the slave-importing

77. As tabulated in Robert Forbes, “Slavery and the Meaning of America, 1819–1837” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1994), 285–90. Randolph, mocking the northerners intimidated by the South, referred to a children’s game in which the players daubed their faces with dough and then looked in a mirror and scared themselves. Sean Wilentz, “The Missouri Crisis Revisited,” Journal of the Historical Society 4 (2004): 397.


states, where masters had less at stake in keeping the price of slaves high. Intense opposition to any prohibition of slavery in the territories came especially from two pockets of “Radicalism” (as proslavery extremism was called): Virginia and Georgia. As time went by, southern Radicalism would become more widespread.78

Had the Missouri statehood bill passed Congress with the Tallmadge amendment, Monroe would have vetoed it. Now, the question arose whether he should sign the Thomas proviso. Actually, Monroe favored this concession to northern sentiment, but first he polled his cabinet on the constitutionality of restricting slavery in the territories; this way the president covered himself with the Radicals of his home state. Although tensions between the New Englander Adams and the Georgian Crawford surfaced at the meeting, in the end the cabinet secretaries unanimously endorsed the prohibition of slavery in the territory north of 36° 30’. Secretary of War Calhoun, still in his nationalist phase, went along, and his followers in the South Carolina congressional delegation voted for the Thomas proviso.79

At the time, the South felt much better satisfied with the Missouri Compromise than the North. The South had got what its leaders felt was essential: preservation of the principle that there could be no emancipation against the wishes of a local white majority. The compromise also created a new principle out of what had been happening more or less by accident, that states would be admitted in pairs so as not to alter the sectional balance. The South benefited from this custom, because southern territories were often admitted to statehood before achieving requisite population just to keep up the balance.80 To be sure, the North got by far the largest share of the Louisiana Purchase, but this mattered less in practice than it seems when one looks at a map. The only portion of the purchase actually open to settlement in 1820 was the part open to slavery, Arkansas, which went on to became a slave state in 1836. Settlement of the area above 36° 30’ proceeded more slowly. Before the North could realize its full benefits under the compromise, the South would secure repeal of the restriction against slavery by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

78. William Cooper, Liberty and Slavery (New York, 1983), 141. See also Don Fehrenbacher, Sectional Crisis and Southern Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, 1995), 17–21.

79. Cunningham, Monroe, 101–3; Sellers, Market Revolution, 142; John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge, 1988), 83–85.

80. Leonard Richards, The Slave Power (Baton Rouge, 2000), 48–49.

What the Missouri Compromise really prevented was not the rebirth of the Federalist Party but the breakup of the Republican Party along sectional lines.81 Another effect of the compromise was to confirm the growing power of the Senate, which had prevailed over the House in their conflict over the Tallmadge amendment. In the early years of the Republic, the House had been the more influential branch of Congress; in a few more years the Senate would enter what is called its golden age. A third result was to enhance the reputation of Henry Clay, whose role in effecting the outcome (unlike that of President Monroe) everyone recognized.

But probably the most important outcome of the Missouri Controversy was not the compromise itself but the startling solidity of southern opposition to gradual emancipation in Missouri. Jefferson and the other southern “conditional terminators” (those who favored terminating slavery under the right conditions) had sided not with the restriction of slavery but with those who wanted to extend it. Their essential condition was the consent of the local white population, not obtained in Missouri. Their theoretically antislavery position had become proslavery in practice. Hope for a moderate, peaceful resolution of America’s number one social problem dimmed.82

The action now shifted to the western frontier, where most white Missourians came from the South. Although Henry Clay let it be known that he hoped they would adopt a gradual emancipation plan of their own, there was never any chance of this.83 In the election for a Missouri constitutional convention in 1820, the opponents of slavery were routed. The framers of the new state constitution, taking precautions against future settlement coming from the free states, legalized slavery in perpetuity and also forbade “free negroes and mulattoes from coming to and settling in this State.”84 Later, German American immigrants would bring a substantial antislavery vote into Missouri, but in the meantime, the minority of antislavery settlers often found themselves targets of violence.

81. Two thought-provoking discussions of this are Major Wilson, Space, Time, and Freedom, 1815–1861 (Westport, Conn., 1974), 22–48, and Richard H. Brown, “The Missouri Crisis, Slavery, and the Politics of Jacksonianism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 65 (Winter 1966): 55–72.

82. See Matthew Mason, Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill, 2006), 205–7; and, on “conditional termination,” Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 121–27.

83. Moore, Missouri Controversy, 94–95; Annals of Congress, 16th Cong., 1st sess., 1206; Henry Clay to Thomas Wharton, Aug. 28, 1823, Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York, 509.

84. Quoted in Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 232.

By their provocative conduct the Missourians almost undid the compromise, for some northerners threatened not to consent to the Missouri constitution when it came back to Congress for final approval. The ban against free blacks conflicted with the clause in the federal Constitution requiring states to respect the “privileges and immunities” of citizens of other states, for a few northern states accorded citizenship to their black residents. Secretary of State Adams made no secret of his outrage. As he told Representative Henry Baldwin: “If acquiesced in, [the Missouri state constitution] would change the terms of the federal compact—change its terms by robbing thousands of citizens of their rights.”85 The southern bloc responded by denying that any review of Missouri’s constitution was in order; the admission had already been finalized. This dispute had not been resolved when it came time for a joint session of Congress to count, officially, the votes of the presidential electors. Of course, everyone knew that Monroe had been reelected almost unanimously, but was Missouri entitled to cast three electoral votes? The clerk announced the total both with and without the disputed votes of Missouri, concluding, “But in either case James Monroe is elected President of the United States.” This did not prevent the dignity of the occasion from being marred by shouting, disorder, and a walkout by angry senators.86

The second Missouri controversy was finally resolved by a second Missouri compromise, largely the work of Henry Clay. The Missouri constitution would be approved provided the state legislature promised not to pass any law violating the “privileges and immunities” clause of the federal Constitution. The promise was redundant, since no state has the right to violate the federal Constitution, but it served its purpose of allowing an exhausted Congress to check Missouri off its agenda. Really at issue in the second Missouri debate was the interpretation of the “privileges and immunities” clause: whether free African Americans could enjoy its protection if they were citizens of their home state. Congress left this issue unresolved, and Missouri proceeded to exclude all free blacks except those who were citizens of their home states. The bad example of Missouri was followed by other states (including some northern ones) legislating against settlement by free Negroes on the assumption that they were not protected by the “privileges and immunities” clause. By 1847,

85. JQA diary entry for Nov. 29, 1820, in Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoir of John Quincy Adams (Philadelphia, 1875), V, 209–10.

86. See Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 240–41; Robert Remini, Henry Clay (New York, 1991), 188–90.

Missouri felt secure in banning all free black settlers, period. The second Missouri compromise proved even less durable than the first.87

When it was all over, the most famous comment on the Missouri crisis came from seventy-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson:

This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence....I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.88

These sad words have often been quoted out of context. Jefferson wrote them in a letter to John Holmes, a Maine Republican who had recruited northern supporters for the compromise. Now Holmes found himself in political trouble for not having fought for the Tallmadge amendment. Holmes showed the letter around, as Jefferson expected he would, to vindicate his conduct as saving the Union. Holmes’s invocation of the patriarch’s authority worked; he saved his career. Assessing Jefferson’s state of mind at this time is not easy. He certainly feared that emancipation, if imposed from outside, would be a disaster for the South. He also worried about the political party he had founded and its continued hegemony. Yet he found other contemporaneous events cheering. He felt extremely pleased with the acquisition of Florida and was encouraging Monroe to acquire Texas as well.89

The prospect of the North uniting and using its greater population to force a resolution of the slavery problem upon the South worried Jefferson and his fellow southern politicians for two reasons. Not only did it threaten emancipation, it posed a real danger to the Jeffersonian Republican political ascendancy. Such a united North might use its power for other purposes too, promoting economic policies contrary to southern interests. The stronger the federal government, the greater the potential danger if it fell under hostile northern control.

87. Dangerfield, Era of Good Feelings, 242. See also Peter Knupfer, The Union as It Is (Chapel Hill, 1991), 98–102.

88. TJ to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in TJ: Writings, 1434.

89. See Stuart Leibiger, “Thomas Jefferson and the Missouri Crisis,” JER 17 (Spring 1997): 121–30; Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath (Chapel Hill, 2007), 103–6; Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 154–57.

Nowhere did politicians show more acute awareness of this danger than in Jefferson’s home commonwealth. There a collection of Old Republican politicians known as the “Richmond Junto” controlled state politics and influenced opinion through Thomas Ritchie’s Richmond Enquirer. These politicians worried not only about the declining influence of the South as a section but more particularly about the declining influence of Virginia. Once “the Prussia of the American confederation,” Virginia was no longer even the most populous state; New York had taken the lead and would hold it for over a century. Prompted by declining fertility of the soil, too many of Virginia’s sons and daughters migrated out of state—about a million of them in the antebellum era, by far the most from any state. By 1850, 100,000 former Virginians would live in Kentucky and Tennessee; 150,000 in the Old Northwest. These numbers do not include their children, lost to the Old Dominion. In 1820, cotton had already replaced tobacco as the country’s leading export. The Virginia dynasty of presidents had clearly come to an end with Monroe. Like some embittered New England Federalists, the politicians of the Richmond Junto sought refuge from their declining national influence behind the barricades of state rights.90

In 1820 the Virginia House of Delegates passed two resolutions affirming state rights, one denouncing the Tallmadge amendment and the other denouncing John Marshall’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. In 1821, Marshall would provoke another jurisdictional confrontation with Spencer Roane in the case of Cohens v. Virginia, affirming the right of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear criminal appeals from the highest state courts when a federal issue is involved. This was one more judicial humiliation for state rights as the Virginians understood them. Once again Spencer Roane took up the cudgels in the public press, this time writing under the pen name of a seventeenth-century defender of English liberty, Algernon Sidney.91

But in the hands of the Virginians of the 1820s, the strict construction of the Constitution, which Jefferson had originally conceived as a defense of liberty, was becoming identified with the defense of slavery. The transition can be observed in a volume calledConstruction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated, published in 1820 by John Taylor, a planter, philosopher, and statesman of Caroline County, Virginia. Over the years,

90. David Fischer and James Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Charlottesville, Va., 2000), 137; Mason, Slavery and Politics, 198–99; Feller, Jacksonian Promise, 55–58.

91. 19 U.S. (6 Wheaton) 254 (1821); White, Marshall Court, 504–24.

Taylor had been a prolific exponent of Jeffersonian Republicanism of the old school. He had attacked the Hamiltonian doctrine of “implied powers”; he had subjected to searching criticism John Adams’s defense of an aristocratic component in government; he had maintained the superior virtue of agriculture as compared with commerce, manufacturing, and finance. While Republican nationalists had waged war and established banks, Taylor had kept alive the flame of pure limited government. Like Spencer Roane invoking Sidney, Taylor respected the tradition of the English “commonwealthmen” who had protested against the growth of government power, executive influence, and finance capitalism in eighteenth-century Britain; like Jefferson, he synthesized their views with Enlightenment faith in individual rights. It has been well said that Taylor treated political theory as “a mode of indignation.”92 His discernment of the conspiratorial power of high finance anticipated Charles Beard’s analysis of the Constitutional Convention. Not surprisingly, Taylor’s new book denounced John Marshall’s McCulloch decision as well as the depression-induced proposals for more tariff protection; he charged that both of these were power grabs by the moneyed interests.

Like many southern thinkers of his generation, Taylor had earlier expressed regret at the introduction of slavery. But now he marshaled his intellectual weapons against efforts to tamper with the institution. He denounced the Tallmadge amendment, along with other attempts to broaden the interpretation of the Constitution, as hypocritical frauds designed to subject the South and the country as a whole to a conspiracy of bankers, manufacturers, and government pensioners.93 The Virginia legislature rewarded the author with election to the U.S. Senate. John Taylor of Caroline showed how the Old Republican political thought and strict constitutional construction now provided a rationale for the new pro-slavery Radicalism. (The name Radicalism was intended to connote a friend of the constitution, for it was taken from the Radical party in France who defended the charter granted by Louis XVIII.)94

Virginians, however, were not the only ones to ponder carefully the meaning of the Missouri controversies. John Quincy Adams entered the

92. Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the Old South (Chapel Hill, 2004), II, 798.

93. John Taylor, Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated (Richmond, Va., 1820), 298; Duncan MacLeod, “The Political Economy of John Taylor,” Journal of American Studies 14 (1980): 403; Robert Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline (Columbia, S.C., 1980), 188–202; Andrew C. Lenner, “John Taylor and the Origins of American Federalism,” JER 17 (1997): 417–20.

94. Norman Risjord, The Old Republicans (New York, 1965), 229–30.

most perceptive, profound, and far-sighted of such contemporary reflections in his diary on November 29, 1820:

If slavery be the destined sword of the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States, combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result might be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and, calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.95

When Adams’s prophecy came to fulfillment, Abraham Lincoln too saw the hand of God in it, for as he pointed out in his Second Inaugural, “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”96


Denmark Vesey, a free black man in his fifties, practiced the carpenter’s trade in Charleston, South Carolina. A man of the world who could read and write, and who spoke several languages, Vesey had led a life of adventure and excitement. He spent his childhood in slavery on the island of St. Thomas, in what was then the Danish West Indies, and as a youthful sailor visited Africa as well as various Caribbean ports. At the age of fourteen he had been sent to the living hell of a sugar plantation on Haiti; luckily the French planter found the boy unsatisfactory and returned him to the slave dealer for a refund. In 1785, Vesey had come to Charleston, where like many other enslaved urban workers he was allowed to hire his own time so long as he turned over most of his earnings to the man who owned him. Late in 1799 Denmark Vesey got lucky again: he won fifteen hundred dollars in the lottery, enough to buy his freedom and open a carpenter’s shop of his own. He joined a free Negro community in Charleston County that numbered 3,615 persons in 1820. Vesey worked

95. Memoir of John Quincy Adams, V, 210.

96. Collected Works of AL, VIII, 333.

hard and saved his money; by 1822 his net worth was eight thousand dollars. A proud man, Vesey hated the whites for what they had done to him and his people. Charismatic, determined, and by some accounts ruthless, he meant to do something about it.97

During the Missouri Controversy, southern spokesmen accused the slavery restrictionists of encouraging, inadvertently if not on purpose, the violence of insurrection. Such fears were not altogether groundless. To the alarm of southern whites, blacks living in the District of Columbia, both slave and free, crowded into the galleries of Congress to listen to the debates.98 By word of mouth as well as by print among the literate black minority, news of the Missouri debates and their criticism of slavery spread through African American communities. Among those who took an interest was Denmark Vesey, who cherished a copy of Rufus King’s speech denouncing slavery in the name of natural rights.99 But Vesey had other sources of inspiration too. Informers claimed he originally scheduled his revolt for Bastille Day: July 14, 1822. Firsthand reports circulated in South Carolina of the only successful slave uprising in history, the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s. Most important of all, Vesey had his Bible with the Book of Exodus. Vesey was a class leader in the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. When preaching religion, he usually came around to the injustice of slavery.100

Vesey’s leading co-conspirators included an awesome African-born conjurer named Gullah Jack, a number of craftsmen and sailors, and two trusted household servants of the state governor. Vesey’s lieutenants visited the countryside to make recruits on the plantations, but it is difficult to know the extent of their success; his claim that nine thousand were ready to rise was surely an exaggeration meant to steel the nerves of his urban followers. Their plan, as investigators later pieced it together, relied on complete surprise and simultaneous coordinated actions for success. It called for attacks on the city’s arsenal, gun stores, and other places where

97. See John Lofton, Denmark Vesey’s Revolt (Kent, Ohio, 1983); the population figures are on 80.

98. Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 2nd sess., 1179, 206; 16th Cong., 1st sess., 1016–17; Taylor, Constructions Construed, 301; Moore, Missouri Controversy, 91.

99. Confession of Jack Purcell, quoted in David Robertson, Denmark Vesey (New York, 1999), 121.

100. Testimonies of William Paul and Benjamin Ford, quoted in Douglas Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free, 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md., 2004), 115–16. For Vesey’s opportunity to learn about the Haitian Revolution, see Robert Alderson, “Charleston’s Rumored Slave Revolt of 1793,” in The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, ed. David P. Geggus (Columbia, S.C., 2001).

weapons were held; these were known to be guarded lightly if at all. Taking their masters’ horses, some rebels would form a cavalry unit. All whites in the city were to be killed, along with any blacks who refused to join the cause. To those who expressed moral qualms, Vesey invoked a God of wrath. Charleston should suffer the fate of Jericho: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). Revolution was not for the faint of heart.101

As the size of the conspiracy grew, so did the risk of revealing it to someone who could not be trusted. On May 25, 1822, a slave informed his master that a conspirator had attempted to recruit him. The authorities began an investigation. But so tight was the conspirators’ security and so convincing their denials that for weeks the investigation went nowhere. On June 14, a slave who had been sent out as a spy reported back that the Hampstead neighborhood AME church was the center of the conspiracy and that the rising was now slated for midnight June 16. Galvanized, the authorities mobilized troops, forestalled any action by would-be rebels, and commenced a serious crackdown. A special tribunal met in secret. Suspects were held without bail. Vesey himself was not apprehended until June 22, when about to flee the city; Gullah Jack, not until July 5, as he was attempting to carry out the uprising.

Such is the story the investigating tribunal claimed to uncover. The special tribunal arrested 135 persons, of whom 35 were executed, 43 transported and sold (an especially severe punishment for those who left families behind), 15 tried and acquitted, and 38 questioned and not charged. Four white men were convicted of encouraging the rebels and sent to prison. Two slave and two free black traitors to the plot received handsome rewards for informing. Vesey himself and most of his principals remained faithful to their cause and met their deaths with courage. The last words of one of them, Peter Poyas, were “Die silent, as you see me do.”102 This silence, and the fact that the conspirators had the chance to destroy evidence, makes the historian’s task difficult. Two prominent contemporaries criticized the tribunal for procedural irregularities: South Carolina’s Governor Thomas Bennett and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Johnson, a Charleston resident speaking in his private, not judicial, capacity. Some slaveowners refused to believe in the involvement of their own bondsmen and defended them before the tribunal earnestly but in vain.

101. Lofton, Denmark Vesey’s Revolt, 141–42.

102. The sentences are tabulated in Robert S. Starobin, ed., Denmark Vesey (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), 60; Poyas is quoted in Lofton, Denmark Vesey’s Revolt, 169.

Modern historians have reached differing conclusions about the investigation and trial.103 Some believe the tribunal’s findings, so far as they went, substantially accurate, but others question the credibility of the coerced confessions and view the tribunal’s prosecutions as revealing more about white fears than black intentions. Surely Vesey was indeed at the center of an antislavery cell in the AME church, but the form his movement took, the extent of his contacts, and the specifics of their plans we shall never know for certain. If Vesey and his fellows had been simply victims of white paranoia, it is hard to see why they steadfastly went to their deaths silently instead of protesting their innocence. The congregation of Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal church know enough to have revered Vesey ever since as a hero of resistance to oppression. Whether he planned to massacre the whites of Charleston or not, Vesey faced his executioners convinced that he died in a “glorious cause.”104

Denmark Vesey’s rebellion had surprisingly far-reaching consequences for a nonevent. It convinced white Charlestonians that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.”105 It led not only to tighter security measures but also to stricter limitations on black religious gatherings and on the ability of free Negroes to communicate out of state. Fearing subversives from outside, the state authorities decided to keep any arriving free black sailor locked up until his ship prepared to weigh anchor. This rule, when applied to British subjects, violated a treaty, and, when applied to northern citizens, violated the national Constitution. Defying repeated protests and the federal judiciary, Charleston harbor enforced the rule until the Civil War, and other southern port cities imitated it.106 In South Carolina politics, Vesey’s conspiracy had profound implications, which included influencing the momentous transformation of John C. Calhoun from a nationalist into the most famous champion of state rights.

103. For conflicting viewpoints, see William Freehling, The Reintegration of American History (New York, 1994), 34–58; Michael P. Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” WMQ 58 (2001): 915–76; the Forum on “The Making of a Slave Conspiracy,” WMQ 59 (2002): 135–202; Robert Paquette, “From Rebellion to Revisionism,”Journal of the Historical Society 4 (2004): 291–334; Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free, Appendix II, 233–60.

104. Reported by Mary Beach, quoted by Michael P. Johnson, “Reading Evidence,” WMQ 59 (2002): 195–96.

105. Edwin C. Holland, quoted in William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (New York, 1965), 59.

106. See W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 192–214. In those days federal judges did not have the authority to issue habeas corpus writs to state courts.

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