The Missouri Controversy

According to the current conventional wisdom, the South gave up the attempt to abolish slavery after reformers’ first real test. The Missouri Controversy of 1819–20 supposedly annihilated “Jeffersonian antislavery,” with Thomas Jefferson himself slaying his offspring. Jefferson’s 1820 letter after the Missouri Compromise to Congressman John Holmes is the supposed critical proof that the Sage of Monticello drew close to John C. Calhoun.

Jefferson’s Holmes letter does reveal revised tactics. But this and other evidence hardly shows that southern apologists became warriors for slavery’s perpetuation. Instead, the Missouri Controversy scared the Jeffersons towards new efforts to remove slaves from America.


The Missouri Controversy differed from almost every pre-Civil War congressional crisis in that a Northerner attacked first. On the unlucky (for the Union) 13th of February, 1819, James Tallmadge, Jr., congressman from New York, moved twin amendments to a bill enabling enslaved Missouri to write a constitution and then be admitted into the Union. The first amendment would bar future slaves from entering the admitted state. The second amendment would free Missouri slaves born after admission at age 25.1

Tallmadge was the man and Missouri was the place to spread abolition achieved in the North down to the Border South. In 1817, the congressman had helped secure New York’s final emancipation act, freeing all slaves ten years hence. In 1819, the Tallmadge Amendments proposed a more limited abolition, reserved exclusively for slaves thereafter born in Missouri. Tallmadge’s proposed age for freeing post-nati slaves in Missouri, 25, was exactly what New York had enacted in 1799 for post-nati black females (New York post-nati males had been declared freed at 28). In 1819, Missouri had about the same small number of blacks, around 10,000, as did New York. Missouri’s relatively low slave percentage, around 16%, was about the same as New York’s in the colonial period. The proposed new state of Missouri, not very enslaved or very black or very far south, invited a Yankee attempt to nudge southern apologists away from procrastination.


James Tallmadge proposed Thomas Jefferson’s sort of gingerly nudge. No black born before 1820 would be freed. No slave born after the law passed need be freed before 1844, or indeed ever. Nor need a large Missouri free black population ever exist. Black ratios were low, no slave could enter in the future, and blacks could be sold down river before emancipating birthdays, as had been done in Tallmadge’s state.

James Tallmadge, Jr., was a Republican. But northern Federalists, especially Rufus King of New York, supported Tallmadge with special venom. Shocked slaveholders no longer faced John Woolman’s tactful probing. Yankees now urged that the South was too depraved to expand.

Behind the new vituperation lay an old wound. The Tallmadge Amendments revived and brought center stage an important secondary issue in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. At the historic conclave where the United States Constitution was designed, North and South had differed over how to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Northerners would base each state’s number of representatives solely on its percentage of the nation’s white citizenry. Southerners would swell their power by counting both white citizens and black noncitizens.

The issue’s importance transcended the House. Sway over the entire government was at stake. The less-populated South was already scheduled to wield power disproportionate to its white numbers in the Senate, for each state, no matter how extensively populated, would elect two senators. In the Electoral College, each state would receive one presidential elector for each senator and representative. Thus extra southern power in the House, when added to extra power in the Senate, would lead to enhanced power in selecting Presidents, which would lead to added control over a Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Executive. Such special leverage, over and above a one-white-man, one-vote basis, denoted that loaded antebellum word, Slavepower.

In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention resolved this issue, conventional republican wisdom justified the Slavepower’s right to extra power. Independent gentlemen were expected to supply civic virtue from above. Dependent plebeians had to be blocked from seizing their betters’ property from below. Slaves were special property but property still and arguably in need of extra protection because special. A properly balanced elitist republic, argued the South’s eighteenth-century patricians, must give slaveholders extra power to balance nonslaveholders, just as the ideal constitution must give the propertied extra power against the propertyless and small states extra power against large states.

Northern elitist republicans still objected to augmented power for the southern propertied elite in the one government branch, the House, where white numbers alone were supposed to dictate each state’s sway. Both North and South had to give in a little if aristocratic Union was to begin. Hence the resulting compromise, with each white counting as one soul and each slave as three-fifths of a human when apportioning each state’s share of House seats. Slaves were also made to count as three-fifths of persons in determining each state’s proportion of those “direct taxes” Congress was authorized to charge state governments. The Slavepower was to pay extra dollars for extra power.2

The three-fifths clause only slightly boosted the Slavepower’s power. In 1790, southern states, possessing around 40% of the nation’s white population, controlled around 47% of the House and Electoral College. That small expanded leverage became decisive only in the closest presidential and House votes. In the most important political contest in the early republic, the Election of 1800, the three-fifths clause probably turned what might otherwise have been the Age of Adams into the Age of Jefferson. In an Electoral College where the three-fifths clause gave Southerners 14 extra electors, the Republicans’ Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalists’ John Adams, 73–65. Jefferson swept the South’s extra electors, 12–2. If no three-fifths clause had existed and House apportionment had been based strictly on white numbers, Adams would have likely squeaked by, 63–61.

So ended Massachusetts’s Adams’s one-term interruption in Virginia slaveholders’ dominion over the White House. Thomas Jefferson served out two presidential terms, as had George Washington before Adams and as would James Madison and James Monroe after Jefferson. Virginia’s elite thus controlled the new nation’s highest office for 32 of the republic’s first 36 years: truly a Virginia Dynasty.

Partisans of the Virginia Dynasty often charged that Federalists were dangerously undemocratic. Younger Federalists, not a tad less democratic than Jeffersonians, especially resented the slur on their democratic sensibilities, particularly since the very establishment of the Age of Jefferson had depended on the arguably undemocratic three-fifths clause. Dynastic aspects of the Virginia Dynasty bothered Federalists’ opponents too. Northern Republicans such as James Tallmadge, Jr., resented Virginians for monopolizing high office. The Jeffersons, Madisons, and Monroes passed power to each other as if only slaveholders possessed republican virtue. But did the Virginia Dynasty, spawned by the three-fifths clause, begin its reign democratically?3

That question became increasingly disturbing as the American definition of legitimate republicanism shifted. The nineteenth-century change from elitist to egalitarian republican sensibilities best explains why the first mainstream northern assault on the Slavepower came not after the American Revolution but 40 years later, during the transition from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Jackson. The three-fifths clause, which seemed republican according to aristocratic assumptions of the Age of the American Revolution, became anti-republican according to egalitarian assumptions of the Age of the Common Man. In state legislatures, city councils, and national presidential elections, leaders and followers insisted that the people, not the propertied, must rule. “The people” meant adult white males, ruling on a one-citizen, one-vote base. The three-fifths clause, awarding the Slavepower extra representatives for enslaved noncitizens, was the most anti-republican relic of a repudiated political outlook.

The three-fifths clause seemed outmoded in a crasser way. The Slavepower’s constitutionally prescribed bargain, larger taxes for larger power, had grown anachronistic. Before 1787, requisitions charged to each state supplied federal revenues. The Constitution established each state’s share of such direct taxes on the federal basis: whites plus three-fifths of slaves. In 1798, a federal direct tax charged the Slavepower three-fifths extra for its three-fifths extra power. But in the nineteenth century, taxes levied directly on states were no longer needed. Instead, Congress secured money through land sales and external tariffs. The Slavepower, having contracted to pay extra dollars for extra House seats, now had to pay not one cent.

Missouri’s bid to enter the Union brought such bitter thoughts, or if you will, resentful sour grapes, to the fore. Another southern state, Yankees argued, meant more illegitimate political power for the South, more slaveholding Presidents, more northern politicians relegated to undeservedly inferior positions. The North was not yet ready to slice the three-fifths clause from an otherwise healthy Constitution. The better remedy earlier seemed to be containment of the disease. James Tallmadge would slowly eliminate a new state’s slaves and thus prevent the three-fifths clause from swelling the Slavepower. This proposal showed no concern for blacks. Instead, for the first of many times, Northerners demanded their own liberation from slaveholders’ unrepublican rule.

Proponents of Tallmadge’s Amendments admitted that they sought only white men’s egalitarianism. I have no business with slavery as a social system over blacks, Rufus King declared. I oppose slavery’s expansion because it bears upon whites’ “great political interests.” The three-fifths clause would rob Northerners of all “political power or influence in the Union. The slave region will parcel out the great offices, will determine all questions,” and will forever “remain our Masters.”

Rufus King argued that the three-fifths clause had been only a temporary bargain, exclusively between old states. “Extension of this disproportionate power to the new states,” he said, “would be unjust and odious.” New as opposed to old enslaved states, added James Tallmadge, “had no claim to such an unequal representation, unjust in its results upon the other States,” as the three-fifths clause.4

Southerners answered that jealous Rufus Kings and James Tallmadges sought the White House, not equality for whites. That cynicism both shrewdly diagnosed and partially ignored northern malaise. Yankees assuredly resented Virginians’ power. But Northerners’ sorest point was that the Slavepower’s unequal ascendency defied the new egalitarian wisdom. If black slaves were allowed to spread, areas of white men’s egalitarianism would further shrink: that was the political fire ignited in the North.5


The Tallmadge Amendments initially received bipartisan support from the North and bipartisan condemnation from the South. Tallmadge’s least radical motion, to forbid entrance of future slaves into Missouri, passed the House 87–76. The North voted 86–10 aye, the South 66–1 against. Tallmadge’s most radical motion, to free slaves born thereafter in Missouri at age 25, squeaked by more narrowly, 82–78. The North voted 80–14 for, the South 64–2 nay.6

Those two southern “traitors,” both from the Border South, secured Tallmadge’s most anti-southern amendment in the House. If the pair had voted their southern brethren’s way, an 82–78 victory for post-nati emancipation would have lost on an 80–80 tie vote. Tallmadge’s proposal to bar future slaves from entering Missouri would have still passed the House and inspired a Missouri Controversy. But on these first roll calls of the first great nineteenth-century slavery crisis, a specter emerged never to cease troubling slaveholding perpetualists: that at critical moments, too many border neutrals would side with the North.

House passage of both Tallmadge Amendments raised another perpetual southern concern: that a permanent northern numerical majority could control the House. The long-term southern antidote would be to control the Senate. In 1819, the Union ostensibly contained 11 free states, 10 slave states. But one so-called free state, Illinois, was still five years away from abolishing black apprenticeship alias slavery. Its two senators, both southern natives, once had or now did command apprentices. On the critical Senate roll call, the Tallmadge Amendments lost 22–16, with three northern senators voting with the two Illinois southern-sympathizers and a unanimous South.7

The impasse between the North-controlled House, insisting on the Tallmadge Amendments, and the South-controlled Senate, demanding admission of enslaved Missouri without Tallmadge’s dual restrictions, could not be broken in 1819. Meanwhile another impasse, though broken, reinforced southern concern about Missouri. The Louisiana Purchase Territory south of Missouri contained the future areas of Arkansas and Oklahoma. In 1819, northern congressmen sought to bar bondage in this so-called Arkansas Territory. The area, though in the latitude of the Middle South, was then less enslaved than Border South Missouri. The Missouri Territory had around 16% slaves, the Arkansas Territory around 11% slaves. The Yankee assault on Arkansas Territory thus sought limits on slavery further south than anything since Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784, in a southern hinterland as spottily enslaved as colonial New York had been.

The South turned back this invasion of its Middle South fringes, barely. The House expunged the antislavery requirement from the Arkansas Territory bill, 89–87, with Southerners voting for slavery 74–1 and Northerners against it 8615. Nonextension of slavery in Arkansas Territory also lost in the South-dominated Senate, 19–14, with four Yankees voting the South’s way and no Southerner voting the North’s way. Having narrowly retained the not-very-enslaved Arkansas Territory, southern congressmen went home in 1819, depressed that the next session might bring no such retention of the not-much-more-enslaved proposed state of Missouri.8


The ensuing southern public debate, mirroring southern congressional speeches, demonstrated a section set against both permanent slavery and outside impositions to end temporary slavery. Only in South Carolina—so often, only in South Carolina—did a southern leader advocate perpetual slavery. United States Senator William Smith, anticipating later proslavery polemics, called slavery universal throughout history, sanctioned by the Bible, honored by the Greeks, needed by infantile blacks, and exalted by the South into a patriarchal relationship between master and slave. “No class of laboring people in any country upon the globe,” soared Smith, “are better clothed, better fed, or more cheerful, or labor less” than our indulged serviles.9

Southerners outside South Carolina could not muster that enthusiasm, not even when resenting Yankees’ slurs. Thomas Ritchie, renowned editor of Virginia’s prestigious Richmond Enquirer, asked Yankees to remember “how difficult it is for us to get rid of” slavery. But “we do not vindicate servitude; we wish no slave had touched our soil; we wish it could be terminated.”10 Such wishes emanated from the Deep South too—always excepting South Carolina. Robert Reid of Georgia told Congress that “‘[I] hate the touch of servile hands; I loathe the slaves who cringe around’; and I would hail that day as the most glorious” when blacks shall be “placed upon the high eminence of equal rights.”11

Southerners who called slavery wrong might be thought amenable to Tallmadge’s proposed way to set things right. James Tallmadge would ease bondage away Jefferson’s soothing old post-nati way, with a soothing old Yankee addition: allow the afterborn to be sold, before emancipating birthdays, into perpetual bondage down south. Still, the New Yorker’s southern-style remedy came accompanied with an anti-southern moral attack, an anti-southern bid for power, and the anti-southern idea that outsiders, not insiders, should decide slavery’s fate. Tallmadge would furthermore abolish slavery not during the territorial phase of a region’s development, as southern nonextensionists had previously proposed, but during the statehood process. The shift in timing violated southern insistence that each state must decide for itself about slavery.

Southern attack on this Yankee poisoning of southern conceptions came accompanied with a crucial swerve in slaveholder thought. Speaker after southern speaker, in Congress and out, urged that spreading, not containing the institution would best create conditions for terminating bondage. This important so-called diffusion argument was not so much new as newly accepted. Land speculators, when seeking repeal of the Northwest Ordinance’s ban on slavery extension, had urged that diffusing blacks over midwestern areas would dilute southern racial anxieties and thus further racial reform. Most midwestern and southern proponents of the Northwest Ordinance had scoffed at this “liberalism.”

The Missouri trauma turned scoffers around. Their revised thoughts would long remain important, especially during the Texas Annexation Controversy. The Southerner who best defended diffusion during the Missouri Crisis would become a key actor in the Texas epic. John Tyler of Virginia was a member of the House of Representatives in the 1820s, President of the United States in the early 1840s. The President would never recover from the congressman’s sudden vision that diffusing blacks, not containing them, offered better conditions for bringing slavery to an end.

Confining black masses within ever blacker black belts, Tyler explained to Congress, would encourage slave insurrection and discourage racial reform. But diffusing the black plague would ease apprehensions and invite abolition. Would you “suffer” the “dark cloud” of slavery “to increase in its darkness over a particular portion of this land until its horrors shall burst?” Or would it “be well to disperse” the blackness and “reduce it to a summer’s cloud?”

Tyler called his dark cloud/summer cloud image a metaphor for slavery’s recent history. Where the cloud was black, no reform had been accomplished. Where blacks were diffuse, much progress had been made. “What enabled New York, Pennsylvania, and other states to adopt the language of universal emancipation? Rely on it, nothing but the paucity of the number of their slaves. That which it would have been criminal in these states not to have done would be an act of political suicide in Georgia or South Carolina.” By repudiating nonextension, by rejecting Tallmadge, by diffusing slaves onto Missouri’s plains, “you add much to the prospect of emancipation and the total extinction of slavery.”12

Is posterity supposed to believe that Southerners believed this stuff? That expanding slavery could best end it?! That saving the institution in Missouri could best eliminate it elsewhere?! These propositions the more strain credulity because they functioned so self-servingly. What a wonderful way to feel good about a supposedly evil way to make profits: expand the profits and you will end the evil!

The diffusion argument, for some Southerners all the time and for all Southerners some of the time, operated as just this kind of noxious sedative. More than a few Southrons furthermore cynically used the notion of diffusion to block northern power. But to dismiss diffusion as entirely cynical or self-serving is to miss a revelation of the southern mentality. From posterity’s perspective, as from James Tallmadge’s, stopping slavery from expanding seems the path towards ending it, while allowing slavery to spread seems the trail towards saving the institution. But neither Tallmadge nor posterity lived in the race-haunted Old South, where high black ratios seemed to force the wolf to be held by the ears and low black ratios seemed to allow grasps to loosen. Jefferson, whose trembling metaphor defined that world, had previously concluded that emancipation by reversed population flow required containing the flow of the enslaved to new areas.

He erred. Nonexpansion follows from our assumptions, not his. Error is uncovered most quickly when tested most traumatically, and traumatic Tallmadge Amendments jarred Southerners’ mentality towards the truth that nonextension destroyed their prime condition for terminating the institution. Spreading out blacks, not concentrating them, best produced low black ratios. Diffusion was another name for the slave drain, that process of moving slaves down to the more enslaved tropics which made the more northern South more amenable to termination of the institution. Diffusion sanctified the emancipation process in New York and New Jersey, where low black ratios and dumping blacks down river allowed other conditions for ending slavery to be met. Diffusion offered the hope of moving enough blacks out of Virginia so that tremulous Jeffersons might dare to go public.

The Conditional Termination mentality was a vision of getting blacks safely out, of whitening a world, of removing the race to other plains. The Tallmadge Amendments smashed the vision, leaving the mirage of whites and blacks packed together more tightly. With diffusion, claustrophobic slaveholders grasped at the fading light beyond Mr. Tallmadge’s darkening jail.


When Congress returned in 1820, a southern native who represented Northerners sought to unite North and South behind diffusion of slaves to Missouri. United States Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois, formerly of Maryland, now owner of five black apprentices, alias slaves, was eager to save his fellow slaveholders without antagonizing his northern constituents. He would secure enslaved Missouri by bribing Yankees to drop Tallmadge’s proposals.

One bribe was already operating before Jesse Thomas concoted another. A bill to admit Maine without slavery had been coupled with the Senate’s bill to admit Missouri with slavery. On February 16, 1820, Thomas moved to link to the Maine-Missouri linkage a bill outlawing slavery in the Louisiana Purchase Territory north of the 36°30′ line. Only future Arkansas and Oklahoma lay south of the line in the remaining Louisiana Purchase territorial domain. Both future states were in the so-called Arkansas Territory. Southerners had defeated antislavery in this territory at the previous session. Thomas’s 36°30′ line thus would allow Southerners to keep the crumb previously saved. The North would receive the rest of the enormous Louisiana Purchase territorial land mass, meaning most of the area of nine future states, including the future area of Kansas, due west of Missouri.13

The Thomas plan angered some Southerners. They denounced the unequal division of turf and the constitutional precedent. “To compromise” on Jesse Thomas’s basis, wrote Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, “is to acknowledge the right of Congress to interfere” with slavery in future territories. By guaranteeing the North so many future states, William Smith of South Carolina added, the South would surrender senatorial parity.14

Other southern senators would let the future take care of itself. For the present, the Thomas proposal might save slavery in Missouri. When roll call time came, Jesse Thomas’s three linked bills passed the Senate, 24–20.15 The senatorial roll call lineup almost matched the 22–16 defeat of the post-nati Tallmadge Amendment in the previous session, with all Southerners and several Yankee defectors defeating most Northerners.

The Thomas plan faced rougher treatment in the House. In that chamber, more Yankees and all Southerners would have to turn south for Southerners to win. Northerners relished prospects both of free Maine and of free territories north of 36°30′. Still, few Yankees were willing to overturn the last session’s 82–78 vote for post-nati freedom in Missouri. Nor were southern congressmen, especially from the Deep South, unanimously agreed on selling out slavery’s future above 36°30′. With some Southerners and most Northerners against various parts of Jesse Thomas’s proposals, the linked bills could not pass the House.

A Senate-House conference committee developed an alternate strategy. The committee unlinked the bills and proposed separate passage of each. In a vote on just the 36°30′ line for the Louisiana Purchase territories, the southern minority could safely take out its ire on the “sellout,” for the northern majority could secure the emancipating line anyway. Then hopefully all Southerners and a few Northerners could admit Missouri without the Tallmadge Amendments.

The ploy worked. Abolition above 36°30′ passed the House 134–42, with the North affirming 95–5 and the South splitting 39 aye, 37 nay. Then enslaved Missouri was given permission to write its constitution, without the Tallmadge conditions, 90–87. On the latter vote, every Southerner and 14 Yankees overcame 87 Northerners.16 Four other northern congressmen who could have overturned the South’s three-vote victory over Tallmadge instead abstained.

Of the 18 Yankees who either voted the South’s way or (as helpfully) voted not at all, only one was a Federalist. The 17 northern Republicans who leaned southwards talked publicly of saving the Union. They also feared privately that a Rufus King triumph on Missouri might revitalize the Federalist Party. Their attitudes, partisan and nonpartisan, prefigured the opportunity the minority South would seize again and again to control the North-dominated House of Representatives in pre-Civil War crises. In the Missouri Controversy, as later, the minority South could secure no concessions on slavery from northern nationalists, Federalist or Whig. But appeals to Union and party could attract some saving Yankee states’ righters, Jeffersonian or Jacksonian.

In the Missouri Controversy, as later, the South needed only a few Yankee allies because the Slavepower possessed extra House power. The three-fifths clause, the most important reason why the James Tallmadges fought the enslavement of Missouri, ultimately defeated the Tallmadge Amendments. In a House apportioned sheerly on white numbers, the South would have had 17 fewer members in 1820. The Slavepower needed almost all those 17 boosts in power to defeat Tallmadge by three votes.

The Slavepower still had to wield its extra power unanimously. At the previous session, two border Southerners, by voting for the post-nati Tallmadge Amendment, had secured Yankee victory in the House. But this time, these two Southerners voted the South’s way, giving slavery in Missouri its House victory. At least at this session, a South existed, whatever its various ideologies, on letting new states decide on their own labor system.

No South existed on whether Congress could bar slavery from territories which were not yet ready to become states. Border South congressmen, representing the least enslaved and most apologetic region of the South, voted 16–2 to ban bondage north of 36°30′ in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. The rest of the South protested against the congressional bar, 35–23.

Border South neutrals saw nothing wrong with voting the North’s way. Since the South could not stop the northern majority from passing 36°30′ anyway, why not throw a sectional blessing on the continued Union? Borderites also saw no harm in barring diffusion of slaves to new areas up north, for they could dump blacks on old states further south. As for slaveholders further south, they wished to keep open a racial safety valve for blacks diffused upon them. In their vote to close off slavery at 36° 30′, Border Southerners sided with the North against the tropical South.

The borderland, the southern region least under slaveholders’ control, had been the appropriate locale of the first national slavery crisis, as it would be the arena of many future controversies. In this case, the border commodity sacrificed, possible slave expansion above 36°30′, endangered the border regime saved, Missouri’s. The 36°30′ line, declaring slavery off-limits in new territories northwards, ran across the southern border of Missouri. So southerly a geographic signpost indirectly pronounced that Missouri and the whole Border South—Kentucky, western Virginia, Maryland, Delaware—were geographically too far north for slavery, just as New York and New Jersey had been before.

This vote to ban slavery west of the most northern South hardly doomed the institution eastwards, in the border states themselves. But border congressmen had gratuitously accepted a free labor western border for Missouri. To the north and east, free labor areas already bordered the lightly enslaved new state. The surrender to the west thus re-emphasized one of the Missouri Controversy’s overriding issues: did the more northern, less enslaved border area have a permanent slaveholding future? The temporary answer was that Missouri’s relatively few slaveholders could persist on condition that they could tolerate free labor encirclement. A third of a century later, in Kansas-Nebraska times, Missouri’s slaveholders would find that condition intolerable. Their movement to repeal the Missouri Controversy’s ban on slavery west of the borderland would then make the crisis of 1819–21 look tame.


The allegedly soothing Missouri Compromise not only ultimately led to the destructive Kansas-Nebraska Controversy but also immediately destroyed one basis for a national reform coalition. Yankees and Southerners had once united to bar slavery from the Midwest. They now divided over diffusing slavery to Missouri. Yet despite the North-South fracture on where blacks should be allowed in America, North and Upper South might still unite on sending Afro-Americans out of America. No man better summed up national possibilities lost as well as national possibilities retained than did Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s key letter on the subject went to Congressman John Holmes on April 22, 1820. Holmes, a New England Jeffersonian Republican, was one of only five northern congressmen who had always voted with the South on the Tallmadge Amendments. Writing this helpful Yankee, Jefferson could be candid.

Jefferson found vivid metaphors for abstract anxieties. This was the letter where he likened slavery to the wolf held by the ears and called the northern assault “like a fire bell in the night,” “hushed” only “for the moment.” The North-South “geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” To this all-too-true prophesy, Jefferson added the dirge of the old man who mourns for life’s labor lost: “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.”

Jefferson moved from patriarchal gloom to parochial attack on outsiders who meddled with states’ internal affairs. These phrases, according to the current conventional wisdom, announced Jefferson’s transformation into Calhoun. Jefferson declared that Congress could not “regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a State.” Decisions on slavery’s future were the “exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them.” Calhoun never said it better. But then again, no American in the Age of the Founding Fathers believed that the federal government could abolish slavery in states.

Jefferson’s Holmes letter did break new ground, Calhoun’s ground, in repudiating the former Jeffersonian gospel that the federal government should bar expansion of slavery in territories. The Virginian never could have penned the Ordinance of 1784 if he had then believed, as he wrote Holmes in 1820, that “diffusion over a greater surface” would make slaves “individually happier, and proportionately facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation” by spreading blacks thinly. Here we have the smoking gun which supposedly proves that Conditional Termination had been unconditionally terminated. “When the chips were down, as in the Missouri crisis,” concludes Jefferson’s most brilliant latter-day critic, the ex-President “threw his weight behind slavery’s expansion, and bequeathed to the South the image of antislavery as a Federalist mask for political and economic exploitation.”17

Jefferson did indeed emerge from the Missouri Controversy as a territorial expansionist, or better, diffusionist. The Virginian did indeed misconstrue northern condemnation of the three-fifths clause as just a crass quest for power. But Thomas Jefferson remained as far from John C. Calhoun as Virginia was from South Carolina. Calhoun would expand slavery to perpetuate it. Jefferson would diffuse the institution to end it. Calhoun would destroy the Union, assuming destruction of slavery was the alternative. Jefferson would use the Union to diffuse slaves onto the prairies and then beyond American shores. “I can say, with conscious truth,” a Jefferson without Calhoun’s consciousness wrote Holmes, that no “man on earth … would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way.” A “general emancipation and expatriation … would not cost me a second thought” if effected “gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be.” The Tallmadge agitation was democratic “suicide … and treason against the hopes of the world” not least because it threw away an end to slavery “more likely to be effected by Union than by secession.”

Jefferson explained more fully to Albert Gallatin, his former Secretary of the Treasury, how the Union might expatriate blacks. Out of the “evil” of Missouri, Jefferson was “glad to see one good effect.” Calhoun deemed the effect horrid. The national crisis, cheered Jefferson, “has brought the necessity of some general plan of emancipation and deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before.” Virginia’s governor, noted Jefferson, “has ventured to propose” an emancipation scheme.18

The governor in question was Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph. Governor Randolph had lately informed his legislature that introducing slavery was “a deplorable error.” He had urged the “magnanimity” and “sound policy” of appropriating “the whole revenue now derived from our Treasury from slaves to the purchase” and “deportation” of bondsmen “at the age of puberty.” The governor would deport twice as many females as males, “at least for a considerable length of time,” thereby halving the natural increase of blacks to be deported thereafter.19

Jefferson wrote Albert Gallatin that Virginia would and should reject its governor’s plan. His son-in-law’s proposed use of “one-third of the revenue of the State” for emancipation and deportation “would not reach one-tenth of the annual increase.” Annual proceeds of the federal land office, on the other hand, would bring “deporation within the possible means of taxation.” The nation must help each state to become lily white.

Jefferson’s true “final” word on slavery was written neither to John Holmes nor to Albert Gallatin but to Jared Sparks, a Federalist from Massachusetts, four years after the Missouri Crisis. The Sparks letter, following up themes in the Gallatin and Holmes letters, implicitly conceded that outsiders must help slaveholders abolish slavery, at insiders’ invitation of course. Jefferson would not have appreciated the ugly term for seeking outside aid. The word nevertheless sums up a central reason why southern zealots feared southern apologists. The Virginian was potentially a collaborator.

Jefferson’s basis of collaboration with Northerners to end slavery demanded deportation of blacks. Jefferson gently chided Sparks for advocating diffusion to Africa. That colonizing distance was too far, the transportation expense too great. Rather, Jefferson urged dispatching blacks to Saint Domingue. (HAITI, one can imagine Calhoun storming!)

Jefferson pressed on Sparks “my reflections on the subject five and forty years ago.” He would emancipate “the afterborn,” and deport them at “a proper age.” The federal government should pay for deporting blacks by selling “lands which have been ceded by the very states now needing this relief.” Granted, “this subject involves some constitutional scruples. But a liberal construction, justified by the object, may go far, and an amendment of the constitution, the whole length.” (Calhoun?!)

Jefferson’s “whole length” would take time, more time than Jefferson had left. Only those born hereafter should be freed and removed. The “old stock” would have to “die off in the ordinary course of nature.” Still, the very slowness of “final disappearance” made reform “blessed.” The final “beatitude” was “forbidden to my age.” But he left posterity “with this admonition, to rise and be doing.”20

Of course Jefferson left behind another admonition. He would shrink back and do nothing if conditions were wrong. His twin conditions remained race removal and perpetual Union. By threatening disunion, South Carolinians could make Jefferson’s conditions unreachable. The fatal weakness of Jeffersonian apologetics was that moderation must collapse before determined extremism.

But extremists did have to be determined, now more than ever. Despite the first Yankee onslaught, Jefferson’s Upper South world still yearned to use reversed population flow to diffuse away a “curse.” While the old strategy of damning up the flow of slaves in America had been repudiated, the Jeffersons more than ever sought to diffuse blacks from America. The final lesson of Jefferson’s life was that unless slaveholding watchmen rang their own fire bell in the night, a national collaboration of Yankees and Southerners might tremulously seek to free—and to whiten—the United States.


Jefferson’s last words summed up the revived thrust of southern apologetics. That old trio of legacies of the American Revolution—that slavery was a problem, that its solution required right conditions, and that the first condition was a low ratio of blacks to whites—outlasted the Missouri trauma as it would survive every other crisis on the road to disunion. Rufus King’s attack produced no alarmed consolidation of a South. Instead, post-Missouri Compromise slavery politics featured a battle between Upper and Lower Souths over whether to enlist the national government in removing blacks from America.

This new phase of struggle within the South really began before the Missouri Controversy, with the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1817. The Society, dedicated to sending American blacks back to Africa, sought to build on the greatest accomplishment of the first generation of slavery politics: stopping the migration of Africans to America. In ensuing decades, the Society succeeded in securing land for its Liberia colony and in stocking the new republic with some 12,000 ex-American blacks. The success measured up poorly against crushing troubles. Trouble began in Africa, where a “stranger’s fever” killed many seeking a new life. Periodic wars maimed or murdered many more.

Peril in Liberia helped produce paralysis in America. The American Colonization Society could convince less than 2% of American free blacks to volunteer for a bout with the stranger’s fever. Nor would free whites volunteer enough funds to send over many more. Nor could the Society find a national platform to encourage nationwide contributions. Some Deep South contributors wished to consolidate slavery by deporting free blacks. Many northern and Upper South contributors wanted to exile all blacks, slave and free. The Society’s officials, eager for voluntary contributions, fudged the issue, pleasing no one.21

One trouble was that support, black and white, had to be voluntary. But so gigantic a task of social engineering almost demanded that government compel blacks to leave and whites to finance deportation. The American Colonization Society, sensing the crippling limits of voluntarism, set up initial headquarters neither in Boston, where voluntary benevolence most thrived, nor in New York, where wealthy contributors were most concentrated, but in the scarcely inhabited mudhole of Washington, D.C. In 1827, the Society met, appropriately, in the chambers of the National House of Representatives to vote on sending its first colonization petition to Congress. In a major address to the Society, the Border South’s most powerful politician welcomed the foray.

Henry Clay of Kentucky, now American Secretary of State, told colonizationists that invoking “the public aid in execution of the great scheme” was the “sure road to ultimate success.” Clay called slavery the “deepest stain,” the foulest “blot,” the “greatest of human evils.” To emancipate “the unhappy portion of our race doomed to bondage” would be grander than “all the triumphs ever decreed to the most successful conqueror.”

While only states had constitutional power to conquer slavery, Clay argued, the national government must enable states to act. High ratios of blacks to whites, the condition preventing state emancipation, was a national evil demanding a “common remedy.” The federal government must reduce blacks to a fraction of the white population. Then history had shown that states would act. Witness New Jersey and New York.

Clay would enable the now most northern South to emulate the now most southern North by using national funds to colonize the natural increase of slaves each year. He estimated that colonizing the requisite 50,000 blacks a year would cost an affordable $1,000,000. With white population increasing and black population departing, a nation now one-seventh black would become one-tenth, then swiftly one-twentieth black. National colonization would enable state governments “to bear” emancipation, “without danger and without suffering.”22

Henry Clay’s logic resembled Thomas Mann Randolph’s reasoning to the Virginia legislature seven years earlier. The Kentuckian refrained from Randolph’s suggestion that breeding “wenches” should be exported twice as fast as males. But both Upper South establishment leaders would lessen whites’ apprehension about reform by shipping out blacks’ natural increase. An expanding white population would then make non-increasing blacks inconsequential. Emancipation might follow. This was social change with the brakes on, the budget saved, blacks deported, and slavery continuing for many decades. But swift and radical and color-blind the Conditional Termination vision had never remotely been.

Henry Clay’s version of the traditional caution was more practical than Governor Randolph’s. Thomas Jefferson had pointed out that his son-in-law’s scheme would strain Virginia’s budget. Clay’s plan would not strain national finances. The national government was heading towards its first (and last!) national surplus in history. Nationalists of Clay’s ilk, North and South, would use excess funds to solve national problems.

No problem was greater than slavery, no approach more popular than colonization. A list of colonization advocates would include just about every American political hero from 1790 to 1860, including Jefferson and Jackson, Washington and Lincoln, excluding only those typical exceptions, the Adamses, father and son, and John C. Calhoun. The notion of sending Afro-Americans back to Africa, like the notion of stopping Africans from coming to America, was all too mainstream an American conception for slaveholding zealots’ comfort.

If most Americans, North and South, found national whitening experiments intriguing, disagreements abounded on how to experiment. Most Southerners preferred to begin by colonizing free blacks. Most Northerners would commence by removing slaves. Again, many colonizationists wanted government to force unwilling blacks out. Forcible deporation, however, troubled many American democrats. Any of these experimental “details” could have aborted a national law or hindered an enacted experiment.

The nation, however, never arrived at the stage of deciding on experimental details, for the usual obstructionist minority would not allow consideration of the experiment. Back in 1787, South Carolinians had warned the national majority that an immediate end to the African slave trade would preclude Carolina participation in the proposed nation. Throughout the 1820s, Carolinians warned that if the nation deported Afro-Americans, they would depart the Union.

In January 1824, the Ohio legislature urged on Congress a Jefferson-like scheme to terminate slavery. Ohioans called slavery a “national” evil and accepted their obligation “to participate in the duties and burdens of removing it.” A national edict should free slaves born after enactment when the afterborn reached 21 if they agreed to federally financed foreign colonization. Eight northern states endorsed Ohio’s post-nati scheme. In 1825, United States Senator Rufus King, whom Jefferson loathed as a prime instigator of the Missouri Controversy, moved towards Jefferson’s position by urging use of public land revenues to finance emancipation.23

King’s and Ohio’s attempt to get the nation moving on removing blacks produced a new ultimatum from the old foe of the Upper South’s favorite solution to slavery. South Carolina Governor John Wilson, upon sending the Ohio Resolutions to his legislature in 1824, urged “a firm determination to resist, at the threshold, every invasion.” The Carolina Senate, needing no urging, resolved against “any claim of right, of the United States, to interfere in any manner.” A year later, Rufus King’s Senate effort provoked similar Carolina warnings.24

The American Colonization Society’s petition to Congress met the same negative response in 1827. United States Senator Robert Y. Hayne warned Congress to keep hands off slavery or else. Slaveholder safety, said Hayne, lies “in the want of” federal power “to touch the subject at all.” Let Congress not heed Hayne’s warning, resolved the South Carolina legislature at the end of the year, and Carolinians would unite “with a firm determination not to submit.”25

That South Carolina would not submit to a national colonization experiment may seem incredible to posterity. In the late twentieth century, deporting blacks seems so immoral, the American Colonization Society so impotent, removing millions so farfetched as to be unworthy of serious consideration. Nineteenth-century South Carolinians scoffed at African colonization too. But these warriors conceived that nationally financed colonization experiments could succeed in the failing. The precedent of attempted federal action might lead to the next, maybe not-so-impractical experiment with removing blacks.

South Carolinians also found sufficient danger in a string of failures. White men’s talk in Congress demonstrably produced black talk about insurrection. Charleston’s Denmark Vesey Conspiracy of 1822 had come on the heels of the Missouri debates. Vesey had failed. So would subsequent attempts.

Failed slave revolts still took the domestic out of domestic slavery and the serenity out of domestic serenity. Some pretend Cuffees, Carolinians never forget, had turned out to be Vesey Conspirators who had threatened to rape our daughters and throw-our-guts-in-our-face. A future Carolina congressman regretted that we should be subjected “to a jealous police, and view with distrust and severity, those whom we are disposed to regard with confidence and kindness. It is no little grievance, that the weaker individuals among us, are harassed and alarmed…. It is with no pleasant feeling, that we see members of our families turn pale at observing a pamphlet of the [Colonization] Society on our tables.”26

Carolinians had lately grown pale watching whites no less than blacks throw off masks. Carolina country gentlemen, more than other southern squires, read London journals, kept up with London gossip, winced or rejoiced over English politics. In late 1827, these Anglophiles worried that William Wilberforce’s earlier, allegedly “innocuous” law, closing the African slave trade, was leading towards abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. When Wilberforce proposed the initial action in the early nineteenth century, he was “even more cautious than the Colonization Society. He took especial care not to profess that the abolition of the slave trade was but the first step.”

Now look! Parliament would imminently end slavery in the British Empire. If Carolina did not meet colonization experiments at the threshold, we will end up “like the weak, the dependent, and the unfortunate colonists of the West Indies,” dragging in “a miserable state of political existence, constantly vibrating between our hopes and our fears as to what a distant Congress may do towards us.”27

Carolinians saw other Southerners as blind to dangers in congressional black deporation schemes, just as West Indians had been blind to dangers in Wilberforce’s first step. “Open and direct” abolitionists could never influence the South. But abolition was hidden under the genial façade of colonizing blacks, just as Rolla Bennett’s fantasy of raping Massa’s daughter was hidden under the façade of happy Cuffee. “If slave property is made insecure—if the quiet and content of the negro is chased away—if the timid, among our people, catch the alarm, and by their weakness, assist the effect of injuring our property and lessening our safety—we owe it not to the wild fanatics, whose notions our people can in no sort adopt—but to that other and subtler plan, which while equally impractical as to what it pretends to aim at, yet allures men into it, merely by seeming to offer a middle way.”28

Imagine a best-case scenario, Carolinians urged. Suppose that colonization experiments fail and fail. Will planters buy slaves, Robert Y. Hayne asked the United States Senate in 1827, while the government experiments with terminating slavery, any more than capitalists will buy bank stock while the government experiments with terminating banks? Will slaves labor docilely while their fellows are off experimenting with freedom? The South would dissolve into bankrupt slaveholders running away from angry slaves, while “innocuous” colonization experiments failed.

South Carolina had long since discovered how minorities make majorities abort experiments. They once again threatened so ominously as to silence the fastidious. Carolinians’ disunion ultimatum thus became the key practicality making a full-scale congressional debate on colonization impractical. As to whether endless talk in Congress and/or an enacted experiment, however faulty, might have damaged a domestic institution—well, was Carolina’s imagined scenario so preposterous?


In 1827, as so often in the past, uncertain Upper South apologists submitted to Carolina certainty. But in the late 1820s, conflict between the northern and southern older Souths, now half a century old, was escalating. Disagreements over transporting Africans to America were giving way to confrontations over returning Afro-Americans to Africa. The American Colonization Society, Jefferson’s plea to Jared Sparks for a national colonization coalition, the Ohio and Rufus King proposals, Henry Clay’s address—all these deportation schemes portended southern collaboration with sympathetic Northerners to whiten America. South Carolina’s ultimatums on colonization portended escalating pressure to scare Upper South apologists into renewed procrastination. Jefferson, epitome of procrastination, was dead. The battle over diffusing blacks and slaves was entering a new phase.

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