- The Contradiction at the Heart of American Democracy
In the first volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the dilemmas of Native Americans and African Americans are “collaterally connected with my subject without forming a part of it; they are American without being democratic, and to portray democracy has been my principle aim.”1 Preoccupied with determining the role democracy would play in Europe, Tocqueville felt little compunction to situate America’s troubling pattern of race relations at the center of his study of democracy in the United States. Until recently, historians of the Early Republic have largely followed in Tocqueville’s footsteps, at least in terms of the slavery question. But thanks to new works by Richard Newman, Adam Rothman, and Matthew Mason, among others, we now know far more about slavery in the Early Republic, ranging from the expansion of slavery into the Old Southwest to political debates about the future of the institution, from the development of the domestic slave trade to both radical and conservative approaches to abolition before the 1830s.2
Robert Pierce Forbes’s new book, The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath, can be understood as the culmination of this historiographic campaign to reassess the role of slavery in the Early Republic. First, it exhaustively traces the debates about and significance of the era’s most important piece of legislation relating to slavery: the Missouri Compromise. Second, it casts its gaze far beyond the Missouri Compromise proper, demonstrating the ways that politicians of the 1820s and early 1830s were consumed with questions about the future of slavery in the American republic. Ultimately, The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath makes a strong case that for much of the early history of the United States, slavery was “the contradiction at the heart of American democracy” (p. 49).
The first major study devoted to the Missouri Compromise in almost fifty years, Forbes’s book does an admirable job summarizing the many responses it has provoked from historical actors and historians alike. In the wake of the [End Page 390] Missouri Compromise, proslavery southerners celebrated the outcome, while opponents of the expansion of slavery lamented the results. By the 1850s, however, the tables were turned, inasmuch as southern firebrands viewed the Missouri Compromise as an abomination, while northern antislavery advocates believed it to be “a sacred pledge” (p. 278). And the disagreements were not simply sectional; rather, opinions often changed over time. In 1849, for example, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas insisted that the Missouri Compromise was “canonized in the hearts of the American people, as a sacred thing, which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb” (p. 274). Five years later, of course, it was Douglas’s own hand that not only disturbed the Compromise, but, by engineering the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, rendered it “inoperative and void” in those territories.
Historians have also sounded different notes about the Missouri Compromise. Whereas historians of the Early Republic have framed it “as a signal defeat for antislavery forces and a victory for the slave South,” Civil War historians tend to “regard the Compromise as the cornerstone of antislavery nationalism and the chief bulwark against the growth of the ‘peculiar institution’” (p. 3). Forbes’s in-depth study, then, provides a useful roadmap to the vexing debates about, and legacy of, one of the most complicated and divisive political issues in American history.
In early 1819, James Tallmadge, a Republican congressman from New York, proposed an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill that launched two years of bitter debate on the issue of slavery. Tallmadge had deep reservations about slavery and hoped to put Missouri on the road to freedom by preventing “the further introduction of slavery” and mandating a program of gradual emancipation. Quickly, American congressmen began staking out sides in what Forbes describes as “the most candid discussion of slavery ever held in Congress” (p. 36). Tallmadge’s ally, New York congressman John Taylor, turned...