It was 1819 and Congress was considering a bill to admit Missouri into the Union as a state when U.S. Rep. James Tallmadge stopped the debate with what many of his colleagues considered a poison-pill amendment: Missouri could become a state, the New York lawmaker proposed, only if it barred further slave traffic and agreed to gradually emancipate slaves living in the state.
Two centuries to the week after Tallmadge dropped his parliamentary bombshell, MU’s Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy held a two-day scholarly conference on campus to reflect on Missouri’s contentious path to statehood and how it foreshadowed the Civil War.
The title of the gathering, “A Fire Bell in the Past,” refers to Thomas Jefferson’s comment that the debate over slavery in Missouri rang “like a firebell in the night” warning of “the knell of the union.”
Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe kicked off the conference, symbolically beginning the bicentennial commemoration of Missouri’s statehood, a nearly three-year-long affair due to the controversy and national debate that surrounded statehood. That three-year period also includes Boone County’s bicentennial in 2020 and the city of Columbia’s bicentennial in 2021.
“This is a story we want to be able to tell,” said Jeff Pasley, associate director of the Kinder Institute. “This was a huge world event right here in Missouri ... we couldn’t let this pass without doing something.”
Slavery, a central theme to the debate over Missouri’s statehood, was a prime topic for many of the conference’s panels. In the past, Pasley said, this part of Missouri’s history was glossed over and not spoken about, something the institute is trying to amend.
“Missouri typically doesn’t like to talk about this much at all, so it’s a complicated thing we’re trying to do here,” Pasley said. “Missouri wasn’t on the right side of a lot of these issues, and this is about looking at that squarely.”
The conference is the first step in Kinder’s effort to commemorate the bicentennial, eventually leading to a book that will be published in 2021, Pasley said.
At the weekend conference, panelists emphasized the importance of looking at the state’s history critically and honestly and at how Missouri’s history reflected and affected that of the United States.
“We’re looking at all the ways that Missouri has been imported to the history of the nation,” said Diane Mutti-Burke,an associate history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “We’re looking at the stories of Missourians of all races, ethnicities and genders.
“Everybody’s a part of this story and how it’s played out over the past 200 years, and we need to be looking at that with a critical eye, bringing this really diverse, important, fascinating history to the forefront,” she added.
Lack of diversity
The conference, however, drew an almost entirely white audience, a fact that was “disappointing” to Pasley. “We were really aiming to throw open our doors to everyone as much as we can,” he said.
A Saturday morning panel, moderated by Daive Dunkley of MU’s black studies department, focused on the impact the so-called “Missouri crisis” had on the debate over citizenship rights.
Anne Twitty, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi, focused on the case of Winny, a slave in Missouri who petitioned for her freedom at the same time Missourians fought for statehood. She won in the Missouri Supreme Court on the grounds that her owners had taken her to live in territories where slavery was banned.
The “freedom suit” that Winny filed in St. Louis County established the “once free, always free” precedent for many more freedom suits filed by slaves.
But the doctrine would ultimately be struck down in an infamous Supreme Court ruling on the freedom petition of Dred Scott. The 1857 opinion, in yet another Missouri case, accelerated the divisions that led to the Civil War.
The debate surrounding Missouri’s statehood in relation to slavery would be seen as “one of the most explosive arguments” during the 19th century, said Twitty, igniting “successive crises” that ultimately led to war between the North and the South.
Henry Clay, the Kentucky congressman known as “the great compromiser,” had to intervene twice to keep Missouri’s statehood petition from being derailed before the state entered the Union on Aug. 10, 1821. First Clay worked out a deal that defused the fight over the Tallmadge amendment. The so-called ”Missouri Compromise” admitted Maine as a free state along with Missouri as a slave state, and banned slavery in any new states created from the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri.
Then, according to panelist Andy Lang, a doctoral student at the City University of New York, Clay intervened again after northern politicians objected to a provision in Missouri’s proposed constitution that would bar free blacks from entering the new state.
The northerners spoke up on behalf of their black constituents. “We have colored soldiers and sailors — good men, too,” Lang recounted James Burrill, a U.S. senator from Rhode Island, protesting.
Clay eventually worked that controversy out, too, with what Lang called “an almost deliberately indecipherable” provision that purported to protect the rights of black U.S. citizens. That allowed Missouri to become a state over the opposition, Lang said, of a vast majority of northern representatives. Lang argued it amounts to “propaganda” to characterize Clay’s efforts on behalf of Missouri statehood as a compromise. The only thing compromised, Lang said, was the rights of blacks.