Jefferson wrote to John Holmes of the Missouri Compromise- “but 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. A 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.”
Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state… threatened the tenuous balance- 22 states, 11 with slavery, 11 without. Missouri was the first territory carved from the Louisiana Purchase to apply for statehood. Jefferson’s vision of America as a land of small, republican farmers was in danger of devolving further into the plantation gang labor system dominating the tidewater south.
Henry Clay’s solution to the crisis is often reviled… by historians for perpetuating slavery and providing the United States the opportunity to conquer more land. This New Left interpretation of history overlooks the contributions Clay made to our republic during its formative years. His American System had revitalized the nation following destructive War of 1812. Clay had convinced Madison, the National Bank’s most vocal critic, to recharter it in 1816. He had rewritten the rules of the House of Representatives and established the post of Speaker as the force we know it today. Firebrands bent on defending slavery at all costs- even peace and prosperity for all- could not be allowed to derail Clay’s vision. The Missouri Compromise has to be studied from all points of view.
Clay’s Compromise saved the republic in 1820… arm-chair historians(like Jamelle Bouie @jbouie at Slate) are quick to condemn the Compromise as an extension of slavery- but what if the Civil War had started in 1820? Was there a leader like Lincoln on hand to defend the Union? Would the people of the free states supported action against secessionists? If not for Clay, the slave-holding South would have emerged from this crisis in a stronger political position. The Union may never have recovered and abolition would have been dealt a serious blow.