Monday, 31 October 2016

'A House Divided' (1)

The United States in 1819
Public domain

The Missouri Compromise (1820)

Even before the rise of the abolitionists, the question of slavery was a dominant concern. As a result of the North-West Ordinance and the pattern of migration, new states were coming into the Union. Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818) were carved out of the old North-West territory, and they had been set up as free states. The South had balanced this with the creation of Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1817), and Alabama (1819) so that by 1819 the country had an equal number of free and slave states, eleven of each. 

In 1819 the House of Representatives was asked to approve legislation enabling Missouri Territory to draft a state constitution, its population having passed the minimum of 60,000. In the westward rush of population, settlers had flocked to the area, through the old French town of St Louis and then on to the Mississippi. Most of these settlers came from the South so that the territory now had 10,000 slaves.  From December 1819 to March 1820 the House fiercely debated the terms on which Missouri should be given the status of a state. Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed that Missouri only be admitted as a state if it undertook to forbid further slave immigration and to provide freedom at the age of twenty-five for those born after admission.  This was passionately opposed by the Southern states. Senator William Pinkney of Maryland  argued that the new states should have the same freedom as the original thirteen, and be thus free to choose slavery if they wished. 

Eventually, in February 1820 Congress accepted the compromise
Henry Clay
'The Great Pacifier'
proposed by the Speaker of the House Henry Clay
The Missouri Compromise decreed that in future slavery would be excluded from all parts of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 360 30/apart from Missouri. At the same time Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state. The Compromise was signed by President Monroe on 6 March. On 10 August1821 Missouri was admitted as the twenty-fourth state.




The Missouri Compromise won for Clay the title of the Great Pacifier. It can be seen as a squalid deal, but it can also be argued that it postponed the war for a generation. Thomas Jefferson wrote: 


‘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.’

The underground railroad

See here for an account of some surviving records of the underground railroad.

A new book on the Missouri Compromise

If you feel in the mood to follow up the work of recent historians on the background to the Missouri Compromise, this review highlights the present state of scholarship.

The Underground Railroad

This novel on the underground railroad that transported escaping slaves to safety looks worth a read.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Slavery: 'the peculiar institution'

Eyre Crowe, Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia in
Illustrated London News, 1856

The paradox

Thomas Jefferson
The great paradox of the newly independent United States was that many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners. Jefferson owned slaves on his estate in Monticello and it is a near certainty that he was the father of the children of his  slave, Sally HemmingsHe was acutely aware of the incongruity of his position and he looked forward to a time when slavery could be abolished.  However, he was convinced that black people were inferior to whites, and he believed that their lack of intelligence and dark skin rendered them better able than whites to work in the heat of the South. It is not surprising, therefore, that his vision of republican liberty was not realised - it was too full of inconsistencies. In the following generations many of his fellow-southerners came to see slavery not as a necessary evil but as a positive good – so much so that they were prepared to fight a war to preserve what they called their ‘peculiar institution’.

The establishment of slavery

The first Africans arrived in North America in August 1619, when a Dutch trading vessel blown off course landed at Jamestown and sold twenty Africans as indentured labour. These were not slaves, but during the seventeenth century the colonists began to develop laws that established slavery. In 1800 one inhabitant in five was a slave.  By 1860 4.4 million African Americans lived in the United States, nearly 90 per cent of them slaves.  But against these numbers there were nearly 27 million free whites. 

People sold as property

Have a look at this brochure for a slave auction in New Orleans in 1855. It is predictably shocking.

Slave records online

The records of the Freedmen's Bureau have now been digitised (see here), which means that for the first time millions of African Americans are able to access their family records for the period of slave ownership. 

The rebuilding of Thomas Jefferson's home sheds new light on slavery

Go here for a fascinating account of the rebuilding of Monticello.

Slavery and freedom: five historic sites

See here for five sites associated with slavery.

Slave autobiographies

There is an interesting post here on the film of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave and on the whole genre of slave autobiography.

A dark chapter in the history of Georgetown University

See here for a disturbing account of how the Jesuits raised funds for the prestigious Georgetown University by trading in slaves.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A populist democracy?

'President's Levée, or all Creation going to the White House'
From Library of Congress:
View of crowd in front of the White House during
President Jackson's first inaugural reception in 1829.


The new politics

The period after the ending of the War of 1812 was described rather complacently by a contemporary journalist as ‘the Era of Good Feelings’. It has been associated above all with the presidency of James MonroeWith his retirement in 1825, and his replacement by John Quincy Adams, the Virginia Dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) ended. 

The country was changing rapidly. By 1820 there were twenty-two states in the Union and a population of 9.6 million. America was becoming more distinct from Europe and the classical pattern of the American political system was emerging. 

One distinctive feature was the ‘spoils system’first seen in New York and then increasingly widespread.  This was the principle of ‘The the victor belong the spoils’, under which whenever power changed hands it was followed by the dismissal of all office-holders of the wrong party and their replacement by adherents of the new administration.


The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was showing itself to be a very active body,
John Marshall,
by  Henry Inman (1832)
upholding Federalist principles even after the party’s demise.  Under Chief Justice John Marshall, who served from 1801-35, a series of landmark cases established the primacy of federal over state law and the power of the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. 


In the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) Marshall had  laid down the principle of judicial review and judicial supremacy: 
‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is…So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case: the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case.’  
This was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared a federal law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated provisions of the Constitution. 

The case of McCullough v. Maryland (1819) ruled unconstitutional a Maryland tax on the Second Bank of the United States (which had been incorporated by Congress in 1816). The court ruled that if state law had the right to tax a federal institution then it would also have the right 
‘to tax the mail, [and] tax the mint…which would defeat all ends of the [federal] government’. 
The Supreme Court was thus made the umpire of the Constitution.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The new republic

George Washington in 1796
painted by Gilbert Stuart

The decades following the creation of the United States saw major developments:



  1. the emergence of political parties
  2. shifting relationships with Europe
  3. social and economic changes
  4. the opening up of the frontier.


The rise of party politics

On 30 April 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as President.  In December 1792 he was unanimously re-elected as President, with John Adams re-elected as Vice-President. He was to serve until 4 March 1797. He was a supremely unifying figure, the national hero who stood above party politics in a way that was not possible for his successors. Yet he left office a worried man. In his farewell address delivered in Philadelphia in September 1796 he denounced’ factions’ promoted by ‘artful and enterprising’ politicians, but there was nothing he could do to stop the rise of party politics.

Divisions had emerged within his own cabinet. The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), an immigrant from the British West Indies, was an instinctive conservative, admitting that ‘this American world is not for me’. In order to fund the national debt and assume state debts he created the First Bank of the United States in 1791. He raised money by a tariff on imports and a highly unpopular tax on whiskey that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Hamilton took this revolt so seriously that he put on his former military uniform and with Washington led the troops across the Appalachians to crush the protests. 



Alexander Hamilton
first US Secretary of the Treasury
1789-95
by John Trumbull

Hamilton’s supporters formed the first American political party, the Federalists. It was a party of strong government and sound finances. It was centred in the North and was the party of merchants and wealthy landowners.


Hamilton was born on the British West Indian island of Nevis. See here for more on his Caribbean roots.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Hamilton: the musical

Here's a historian's view on the musical on Alexander Hamilton that's wowing them in New York.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The West

The frontier

By the Peace of Paris the United States gained a vast territory in the West that was either empty or occupied by the Indians, the French or the Spaniards.  In anticipation of the acquisition of new territory Congress had passed the Land Ordinance and the North-West Ordinance, and by the turn of the century a great change was taking place in the American mentality. The United States still looked east to the Atlantic economy, but increasingly more and more Americans were making their way westwards in search of land. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century the race to the Rockies had begun. 

The frontier has defined America and the stories of individual frontiersmen are written into its history.


Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

Daniel Boone, by
Chester Harding (1820)
Boone grew up in a large Quaker farming family on the Pennsylvania frontier. As a boy he mastered the long rifledeveloped for the frontiersmen by German gunsmiths. In the hands of an experienced user it could shoot up to 300 yards. From the Shawnee tribe he learned woodcraft and became a hunter. When his family quarrelled with the Quakers, they moved in 1750 to the Yadkin river in North Carolina. But Boone was unable to settle there. In the 1750s he took part in Braddock’s disastrous attack on Fort Duquesne (see earlier post) and was part of the party that founded its replacement, Fort Pitt, in 1758. 

Although he tried to settle down with his family, he longed to explore the west. In 1769, guided by an old frontier pedlar, he and his party found the Cumberland Gap, the route through the Appalachians and hacked out a way through the forest into Kentucky.

 Kentucky – from the Cherokee word for ‘Great Meadow’ – was an area of fertile soils and abundant forests teeming with buffalo, deer and wild territory.  Boone was unknowingly pioneering a trial that would be called Boone’s Trace or the Wilderness Road, which more than 300,000 settlers would use over the next twenty-five years. In 1773 he led the first group of settlers across the gap. Two years later he and thirty woodsmen travelled the Wilderness Road until they reached the banks of the Kentucky River and founded the fort and village of Boonesborough (near what is now Lexington, Ky). They became the first British colonists in Kentucky and were followed by a steady stream, mostly of ‘Scotch-Irish'. The settlers introduced commodity agriculture to the area, growing tobacco, corn, and hemp. But their way of life was far from peaceful as they were engaged in constant conflict with the Shawnee Indians, who were fighting to retain their hunting grounds. In this they were aided by the British who saw them as allies in their war with the colonies. 

Boone’s colourful career saw him for a while a prisoner of the Indians, and later facing a court-martial. He was not popular with his fellow settlers, who, rightly, saw him as not truly one of themselves. The agricultural life did not really suit him, as he had fallen in love with the wilderness.  

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Electoral College

This site here provides the clearest explanation I've come across explaining the workings of the electoral college. I don't suppose many Americans try to master the whole system - all they need to know is how it operates in their own state!