The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic
Abstract

Historians’ standard narrative arc of sectional politics from the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821 through the Civil War – a tale of recurring and increasingly polarizing sectional conflicts – has enormous benefits, but also encourages a uniform picture of the political impact in the North of debates centered on slavery. In this rendering, Northern politicians who voted for compromise with the South (“doughfaces”), being at least functionally proslavery, suffered at the hands of an antislavery electorate whenever slavery formed the subject of national debates. But taking doughfaces seriously shows that their popularity ebbed and flowed across space and time depending on the priority voters assigned to slavery amongst the mix of political questions vying for their attention. Indeed, looking at the Missouri Crisis from the Maine point of view necessitates a change in something as fundamental as this episode’s name. The local dynamics of the struggle allowed Maine’s doughfaces to negotiate their stance from a position of strength that most doughfaces did not enjoy. This essay not only sheds light on aspects of well-known events in American history – from the Missouri Crisis in general to Jefferson’s famous “firebell” letter in specific – but also offers a case study meant to exemplify the advantages of attention to particular Northern sub-regions and states. Moreover, by attending as much to the middle ground as to the diverging sectional poles in their study of slavery debates, scholars will come to a more complete understanding of the complexity of the United States’ politics of slavery.


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