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  • Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 by John R. Van Atta
  • Ken S. Mueller (bio)

Missouri Crisis, James Tallmadge, Philip Barbour, Henry Clay, Missouri Compromise, Slavery

Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821. By John R. Van Atta. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 199. Paper, $19.95.)

In this brief and skillfully crafted study of the Missouri Controversy, John R. Van Atta sets out to “unpack the crisis from that old box” that has heretofore defined it (x). He argues that, in the past, scholars have paid more attention to the internal political dynamics of the crisis—congressional debates, party development, and so forth—than to the external social, cultural, and economic forces that both influenced and were affected by the nation’s first major sectional dispute. Wolf by the Ears largely fulfills these goals and, in less than 200 pages, touches on nearly every other aspect of the controversy as well.

Van Atta structures his book into five chapters. “Origins” examines the assumptions of white supremacy that lay at the foundation of chattel slavery in the Americas, the contradictions inherent in the views of the Revolutionary generation concerning this peculiar species of property, and the early role of Congress in determining whether slavery could expand into the western territories or should remain confined to the states where it already existed. Short character sketches of New York’s James Tallmadge (whose antislavery provision for Missouri sparked the controversy) and of states’ rights Virginian Philip Barbour introduce the two extreme positions on either side of that critical question. Kentuckian Henry Clay, whose moderate leadership in the House of Representatives was so necessary for achieving compromise, is also introduced.

“The West” deals with the region in which the controversy ultimately [End Page 173] came to a head. Van Atta reminds the reader that under the colonial regimes of France, Spain, and Britain, slavery was well established in the Trans-Appalachian West decades before the United States expanded into “that long-contested region” (30). In the lower Mississippi Valley, full-blown “slave societies” were in place prior to the Louisiana Purchase. Though less essential to economies north of the Ohio, in those areas that the French had referred to as the “Illinois Country” (including modern Missouri), African slavery was taken for granted both by Creole inhabitants and the majority of Anglo Americans who began arriving in the late eighteenth century. Following the War of 1812, however, the political landscape was transformed. “Western slaveholders had gotten their way . . . because the British and Spanish held the potential to aid a separation of western parts from the United States. After 1815, events had combined to eliminate European influence in the western states and territories, auguring well for westward growth but also, it seemed, for tightened federal authority” (60).

The third and fourth chapters focus on the “Impasse” produced by Congressman Tallmadge’s amendment and the “Compromises” that ultimately resolved the crisis. These parts of Van Atta’s book most nearly resemble earlier, more narrowly political, studies. Van Atta argues that reaction to the introduction of the Tallmadge Amendment in February 1819 should be understood in the context of debates within the Jeffersonian Party between those, like Clay, who supported broader national powers in the interests of economic development, and the “Old Republican” faction—southern agrarians for whom limited government was the highest value. While calling only for gradual emancipation in Missouri and requiring Missouri to slowly abolish slavery as most northern states already had, for the latter faction, “Tallmadge’s initiative carried more far-reaching and radically statist implications than it might seem looking back from today” (65). Northerners, on the other hand, found the Constitution’s three-fifths clause increasingly objectionable and were unwilling to yield further ground on the creation of still more slave states. Thus, as the congressional debate progressed, sectional loyalties began to take precedence over the old distinctions between Federalists and Republicans.

The application of Maine to enter the Union as a free state at the end of 1819 offered a way out of the Missouri impasse. The author defends Henry Clay against critics who have portrayed him as an opportunist...


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pp. 173-175
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