Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

November 7, 1819 – December 21, 1819

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Congress are about to assemble and the Clouds look Black and thick, Assembling from all points, threatening thunder and Lightning. The Spanish Treaty, the Missouri Slavery, the encouragement of Manufactures Act, the plague of Banks, perhaps even the Monument for Washington, and above all the bustle of Caucuses for the approaching Election for President and Vice President…”

Cue talking head: “This is the most important election of our time…”

I’ve been keeping track and here, in letter #336, is the first appearance of the word “slavery” (or any derivation). “Missouri Slavery” refers to the debate over Missouri’s application for statehood and whether it should be admitted as a slave state. Here’s a brief summary of the Missouri Compromise, courtesy of the Library of Congress:

“The Senate debated the admission of Maine and Missouri from February 8 through February 17, 1820. On February 16, the Senate agreed to unite the Maine and Missouri bills into one bill. The following day the Senate agreed to an amendment that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line, except for Missouri, and then agreed to the final version of the bill by a vote of 24 to 20. After rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, the House of Representatives passed a bill on March 1, that admitted Missouri without slavery. On March 2, after a House-Senate conference agreed to the Senate’s version, the House voted 90 to 87 to allow slavery in Missouri and then voted 134 to 42 to prohibit slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.”

In other words, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Territory.

Here’s the Louisiana Territory (purchased by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803):


Here’s the Missouri Compromise, 1820:

Missouri Compromise

Some connection points: Missouri Compromise repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, allowing states to choose slavery or no slavery>>>>Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, 1857, also denying black citizenship and allowing slavery in all territories>>>>Civil War begins, 1861.

But I digress.

Here’s TJ’s response to JA: “The banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty are nothing. These are occurences which like waves in a storm will pass under the ship. But the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God knows. From the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question. It even damps the joy with which I hear of your high health, and welcomes to me the consequences of my want of it. I thank god that I shall not live to witness it’s issue.”

After this reflection, TJ drops the subject and shifts to an extended philosophizing about the virtue (or lack of virtue) of ancient Roman leaders. What should I make of this?

A) Jefferson is more interested in ancient Roman history than the current American slavery question.
B) Jefferson would rather enjoy his retirement than get into it with John Adams about the American slavery question.
C) Don’t make anything of anything until you read additional sources, not just a collection of personal letters between two friends.

Let’s consult Joseph E. Ellis once again (because American Creation is the only relevant book sitting on my shelf at the moment and I’ve underlined important passages so that I don’t have to rely on Internet searches that will inevitably end three hours later with the answers to why I should become a vegan, how I’m poisoning my children with artificial dye additives, and how many hours William and Kate have been pregnant):

What came to be called the Missouri Question was triggered by an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri into the union that made the prohibition of slavery a condition of statehood. . . Jefferson’s position was that the issue ought to remain in the shadows or, shifting his metaphors, should be allowed to pass “like waves in a storm pass under a ship.” But as the debate in Congress heated up, and it became clear that this particular wave possessed the potential to capsize the entire ship of state, Jefferson unburdened himself. An old colleague from presidential days who visited him at Monticello described Jefferson as obsessed with the Missouri Question, gesturing dramatically as he walked his fields, warning that this was the one issue that could lead to civil war, the end of the republican experiment with self-government, eventually to “a war of extermination toward the African in our land.”

The layers of Jefferson’s thoughts on the Missouri Question are onion-like (or parfait-like). Every president up to Lincoln had to deal with the slavery problem in some way, and the solution was always to put it off, avoid conflict, preserve the union for the time being. Ellis presents the fascinating argument that Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory “provided the last realistic opportunity for the United States to implement a policy of gradual emancipation,” which would avoid a seemingly inevitable civil war. If Jefferson had made the prohibition of slavery a component of the purchase, the subsequent revenue earned by the federal government from the sale of land to western settlers could have compensated “slave-owners south of the Potomac and east of the Mississippi, who would free their slaves on an agreed-upon schedule.”

This didn’t happen. And it was probably on Jefferson’s mind as the latest slavery dilemma came to a head with Missouri.

I’m trying to keep in mind that these are personal letters between Jefferson and Adams, obviously not a complete or even accurate historical record. But I am surprised that slavery appears to be a taboo issue. I suppose today’s parallel could be abortion. Such a contentious and morally heavy issue isn’t something you’re going to “get into” with just anyone, even a good friend, particularly if you aren’t on the same page (TJ and JA were both publicly opposed to slavery, but TJ owned slaves, Adams didn’t). Like slavery in 19th-century America, abortion today is an intractable issue, raising questions about human equality (or definition) and moral responsibility that divide the country. It’s an issue that is front and center in the courts, Congress, and daily life, yet at the same time is an elephant in the room, an inappropriate conversation topic at the water cooler, around the dinner table, or in a presidential debate (at least an honest conversation). Without drawing inappropriate parallels to the Civil War, I  wonder how or if this issue will ever be resolved.

Maybe the silence between TJ and JA on slavery shouldn’t be surprising after all. After reading 336 of their letters, and considering their up-and-down relationship, I wouldn’t characterize them as close friends. They share common and momentous experiences, bonding as two soldiers might during war time. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to share everything. There are different kinds of friendship. This ain’t one of those.


2 thoughts on “Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

  1. This ” I don’t have to rely on Internet searches that will inevitably end three hours later with the answers to why I should become a vegan, how I’m poisoning my children with artificial dye additives, and how many hours William and Kate have been pregnant” is why I love reading this blog – real life mixed with history with a dose of humor.

    Your parallel comparison with abortion is really good. I don’t have more to add to your thoughts and questions but I think you’re spot on with them.

  2. Good post – I like those maps. Akin to how internet searches tend to lead down new rabbit holes, I was struck with the maps showing the beginning shape of the state of Iowa … (and how much territory Spain/Mexico was soon to lose).

    Closer to the point of ruminating on whether the Missouri Compromise was the last best chance to avoid civil war, I wonder (and worry) whether the current debate over budget deficits and government reach is also at a similar point where the country has a narrowing window to avoid a ruinous course.

    A window where wise leadership could devise a path forward on entitlements and taxation that in retrospect would be sustainable, while respecting the intent of our nation’s unique Constitutional principles, or whether we continue to kick the can down the road, content to argue solely, it seems, whether the Rich should pay a 35% or 38% tax rate.

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