- "Dividing the Union": Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of the Missouri Compromise by Matthew W. Hall
Not much literature has been written on Jesse Burgess Thomas, but Matthew W. Hall's book "Dividing the Union": Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of [End Page 123] the Missouri Compromise fills in that gap. Hall details the life of Thomas and the role he played as the unassuming author of the Missouri Compromise, a compromise that limited the expansion of slavery. Hall successfully intertwines Thomas's story with America's growing pains during the nineteenth century.
Hall provides an objective, transparent critique of Thomas. His research reveals the complexity of Thomas's character, the context of the time and place in which he was living, his experience as a politician, his views on slavery, and his interest in the acquisition of land. Based on Hall's research, it is undeniable that Thomas played an important role in shaping the cultural fabric of America as it continued to expand westward, and how his personal experience of owning slaves and serving as the president of the Illinois State Constitutional Convention clearly influenced the way in which he framed the Missouri Compromise.
Hall explores the sectional tensions leading to the compromise, and he effectively argues how the issue of slavery, and ultimately the compromise itself, widened the political and social divide between North and South. Hall's background in law allows him to explain the legal jargon and congressional proceedings of the compromise in a clear and concise manner. He gives insight into the subtle tactics used by congressmen of the time, who would manipulate the language of legislation to suit the economic needs of their state. Hall examines how Thomas carefully dealt with the slave power in Congress while trying to write the compromise, which involved multiple revisions to the language of the bill itself. This examination offers a unique perspective into the inner workings of America's legislative process in the early nineteenth century over the issue of slavery.
However, the author leaves the reader wanting more with regard to the immediate impact of the compromise itself. He does not incorporate enough primary sources, such as newspaper articles, to reinforce his argument, which would provide the reader with the proper historical context. The author also relies heavily on the Annals of Congress, the Senate Journal, and the House Journal. Although those sources are informative, they have already been examined thoroughly and thus Hall does not contribute anything new to the scholarship of the compromise in contrast to Glover Moore's book The Missouri Controversy: 1819–1821 (1953), where public sentiment and contemporary writings are widely incorporated. This book does not provide any new evidence that has emerged over the years in relation to the compromise. Although Hall does an impressive job in explaining what occurred during the proceedings of the compromise, he relies too heavily on the congressional [End Page 124] record. There are also moments when he makes bold interpretative assertions without providing evidence. By not incorporating more of Thomas's personal correspondence, he makes it difficult to measure his thoughts on such a seminal moment in American history. This especially hinders the reader's understanding of Thomas's involvement in the debates over the compromise because he was not an outspoken member of Congress at the time. The reader can only guess at Thomas's involvement.
Thomas was a tactful and calculating politician who wanted each side to be content with the way new states were added to the Union, and Hall asserts that point effectively, but he fails to reveal Thomas's true motivations. Even though the book has its weaknesses, overall, it successfully contributes to the scholarship of Thomas. If Hall had only been more thorough in his use of sources in relation to the compromise, this book would have been that much more insightful.
Mississippi State University