In 1819, a financial panic swept across the United States. Unemployment mounted, banks failed, mortgages were foreclosed, and agricultural prices fell by half. The panic unleashed a storm of popular protests. Many debtors agitated for "stay laws" to delay repayment of debts and for the abolition of debtors' prisons. Manufacturing interests called for increased protection from foreign imports, while many Southerners blamed high tariffs for reducing the flow of international trade. The panic also led to demands for the democratization of state constitutions, an end to restrictions on voting and officeholding, and hostility toward banks and other "privileged" corporations.
In the midst of the panic, a crisis over slavery erupted with stunning suddenness. It was, Thomas Jefferson wrote, like "a firebell in the night." The crisis was ignited by Missouri's application for statehood and it involved the status of slavery west of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi, the Ohio River formed a boundary between slave states and free states. West of the Mississippi, there was no clear line demarcating the boundary between free and slave territory.
Representative James Tallmadge (1778-1853) of New York provoked the crisis in February 1819 by introducing an amendment that would prohibit the further introduction of slaves into Missouri and provide for the emancipation of the children of slaves at the age of 25. Voting along ominously sectional lines, the House approved this very moderate amendment, but the Senate defeated it.
Compromise ultimately resolved the crisis. In 1820, Congress voted to admit Missouri as a slave state. To preserve the sectional balance, it also voted to admit Maine, previously a part of Massachusetts, as a free state, and to prohibit the formation of any slave states within the Louisiana Purchase north of 36º 30' north latitude.
Southerners won a victory in 1820, but they paid a high price. While many states would eventually be organized from the Louisiana Purchase north of the compromise line, only two (Arkansas and part of Oklahoma) would be formed from the southern portion. If the South was to defend its political power against an antislavery majority, it had but two options in the future. It would either have to forge new political alliances with the North and West, or it would have to acquire new territory in the Southwest--inevitably reigniting northern opposition to the further expansion of slavery.
The era of good feeling ended on a note of foreboding. Sectional antagonism, Jefferson wrote, "is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only.... A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle...will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper." John Quincy Adams agreed. The Missouri Crisis, he declared, is only the "title page to a great tragic volume."
In this letter, John Tyler (1790-1862), a future President from Virginia who was then serving in the House of Representatives, reflects on the meaning of the Missouri Crisis. The letter is written to Appeals Court Judge Spencer Roane.
The great question which now agitates the nation is one well calculated to elicit sensibility and feeling--About the nature of the power which is attempted to be exercised by Congress you and myself cannot fail to agree in pronouncing it a bold and daring assumption---warranted neither by the constitution or the principles of justice. My intention is to represent to you as accurately as may be the actual posture of affairs in relation to it. Maine and Missouri are both before us as applicants for admission into the Union--The Maine Bill pass'd our house unincumbered but on the motion of Mr. Barbour of the Senate, was refer'd to a select committee who amended it by annexing a Bill for the admission of Missouri--The amendment has so far unsuccessfully oppos'd by the advocates of restriction--but a proposition to inhibit the further introduction of slaves as a condition of admission has been propos'd--and has been negatived in that Body. This majority against the restriction however has been obtained by votes from non-slaveholding states. A proposition has been or will be made to incorporate in the same bill a provision extending the inhibition to the territories north of a given degree of latitude and a majority in the Senate will I have every reason to believe without aid from the slave holding states be found to support the measure. It is then probable that the bill thus amended will come down to the house of Representatives. But its fate with us is more uncertain. Those or a majority of those who are advocates of restriction will vote for no Bill which shall permit Missouri to come in to the Union unrestricted and believing as I do with almost all the South that the restriction on the Territories is unjust not to say unconstitutional, we shall also vote against the Bill because of its containing that provision. Thus the great probability is that the Bill from the Senate will be lost and that neither Missouri nor Maine will be admitted. When the game is over another will be play'd--a joint resolution restricting the territories will pass our house and the Senate, and if approv'd by the President, will become a law. This being general in its terms will not only embrace, as has been imagined, the territory north of Missouri, but Missouri itself, it remaining a territory and Arkansas also. I do not believe however that a regulation of this character would meet with the countenance from the president. This opinion is not founded on any authentic information, but is more properly the creature of hope raised up with confidence in the firmness of Mr. Monroe. Be that as it may Missouri will not become a state at this or the next session nor to speak candidly do I believe that she will for the next ten years by the voluntary assent of the North and North West unless she will abandon the struggle for sovereignty and submit to conditions. The non slave holding States now have the majority of us and that majority will be increased at the next census--In what then does our present safety consist? In nothing but the firmness of the President. I am told that he has not committed himself in any way, but has declared his opinion to be made up and that nothing earthly shall shake him or cause him to waver....
For myself permit me to add that I have planted myself on the constitution and the principles of right, and that I will not yield an inch of ground to any power on earth. A crisis like the present requires stout hearts and resolute minds, and altho' we may regret the approach of the storm, it becomes us to meet it like m