Segment from Stuck

The Great Compromisers?

Brian poses a question to the hosts: was the great era of compromise before the civil war really just a series of pacts with the devil?

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**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, the 20th Century guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century guy. We’re talking today about the history of a political log jams.

BRIAN: Peter, Ed, we’re doing a show about stalemate log jam but we know that the flip side of that is compromise. And certainly back in your period, we have compromise galore. We’ve got the 3/5 clause of the Constitution. We’ve got the Missouri Compromise. We’ve got the Compromise of 1850.

But from my perspective, there’s one problem common to all of them. And that is they are compromising about slavery. Could you explain to me why there were so many people who thought these compromises were a good thing?

PETER: Yeah, Brian. Even people who were opposed to slavery, they held their nose and they said you got to do it. And why do you have to do it? Because to have a Union at all meant you had to bring the different parts of the country together.

The 3/5 clause is central to that bundle of compromises that is the Constitution. For every five slaves, you have the credit for three citizens, and that’s going to be factored into representation. So, in other words, the South where there are a lot of slaves is going to have an extraordinary advantage.

BRIAN: So slaves who aren’t going to vote–

PETER: They’re not going to vote.

BRIAN: –but are going to be represented in Congress.

PETER: Well, their masters will vote for them one day. Put it this way, Brian. And to be fair to these guys– because it seems morally outrageous to us.

BRIAN: Yeah, to someone for the 20th Century, you can’t imagine that.

PETER: Yeah, you’d have people who were opposed to slavery, who would say I am overcoming my scruples on this for a higher good. What’s that higher good? That’s the thing that we don’t see now.

And that is that the United States, the very idea of republican government, was going to break through the tyrannies of the old world, was going to offer hopes for all peoples, and eventually even for enslaved Africans. That was the inspirational idea. That is, according to the founders, until you had a republic, you did not have free people at all anywhere.

ED: And, Brian, I know from your perch of the 21st century here it’s easy to look back with such disdain on these compromises. But I will try to cut some slack for Peter’s people back in the Constitutional era. They thought slavery was going to fade away. So they’re not going, uh, perpetual slavery or perpetual Union? They’re thinking perpetual Union, temporary slavery.

BRIAN: Why Ed? What was so temporary about slavery?

ED: Well, because they had not really found the profitable crop that would make this continued struggle over slavery worthwhile. And they looked around, they said chances are that slavery’s been dying in the Northeast. It’s going to start dying in the rest of the nation as well. And that’s where my century comes in, Brian. I think that you have heard of the cotton gin and all that.

BRIAN: I have.

ED: Yeah. And we teach it to students, like, this little machine that descends right at the time that we’re in this story. And, suddenly, slavery was going to die. But now it lives because they know how to take the seeds out of cotton.

And, of course, the South, over the next several generations, develops into the world’s monopoly of producing the world’s most valuable commodity. And it expands geographically. And I think this is the key to the compromise question, Brian and Peter, is that it’s not just getting stronger, slavery, but slavery and cotton are intrinsically voracious of space. And as they expand to the West, they consume not merely virgin land, but they’re consuming political representation. So why is it that Missouri’s a place where all this comes to a head?

PETER: Well, it becomes an issue for the first time that maybe there are different futures possible for the country depending on whether or not Missouri comes in as a slave state. So the Missouri controversy of 1819 to 1821 represents the first great crisis of the union. There’s a Northern anti-slavery majority in the House of Representatives. And they want to keep Missouri out unless it abolishes slavery in its constitution.

That is the nub of the crisis. And it’s not resolved for two years. And it’s that gridlock that threatens the future of the union. Compromise is desperately needed or there will be no Union. And if there’s no Union, there’s no republican government.

BRIAN: So, Peter, what is the compromise they come up with?

PETER: Well, what they do is to take the great state of Massachusetts and they split it into two states, Massachusetts and the modern state of Maine. Maine comes into the Union as a free state and balances the new slave state of Missouri. So the Southerners get what they wanted, that is a slave state in Missouri. But they also agree to run a line west from Missouri, from the bottom of Missouri. And below that line slavery will be allowed in the future, above, it won’t be.

BRIAN: All right. OK, I understand much better that first compromise, the 3/5 Constitution because slavery was going to fade away, or so thought many of the Northerners. But I still think the rest of those compromises are, you know, just a pact with the devil. They’re just selling out.

PETER: Yeah. Well, they certainly are for some people, Brian, no question about it. But I think the important thing to keep in mind is that Northerners know slavery is not going to go away.

The expectation is shifting. It’s just keep it in place or don’t let it dominate the entire country, all right? So the idea of limiting the extension of slavery becomes the key idea.

And when in 1854 the Kansas Nebraska Act is passed where the new state of Kansas will be open to slavery, or at least they’ll be a popular plebiscite and they do draft a state constitution based on the institution of slavery, well, Kansas is still north of the Missouri Compromise line and then the Missouri Compromise is no longer good. In others words, it turns out that this expansive slave power is not satisfied. And if they can legalize slavery all over the territories as it seems that the Supreme Court does in the Dredd Scott decision in 1857, well, it’s going to be slavery national and freedom local.

Well, that’s not the original deal. The original deal is to maintain some kind of balance, at least. Maybe it’s not going to go away, but it’s not going to take over the whole country. That’s the real concern. And that’s why the Republicans mobilize. That’s why we have a new political party that is overtly sectional.

ED: That’s right. The Southerners are defying the founding fathers in two ways, Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party believe. First, they are saying, no, slavery’s not going to fade away. We’re going to expand it. We’re going to grow it and grow it.

BRIAN: That’s cheating as far as they’re concerned.

ED: Yeah, exactly. And the other thing that the Southerners do is they threaten to destroy the Union if they do not have their way to do that.

PETER: Right. So it’s not just that they own slaves and constitute a powerful interest. It’s that they are dominating the entire country. And that violates the spirit of comity, of balance, of accommodating everybody’s interest. It’s winner takes all and the slave owners insist they win or they walk.

It’s time for another short break. But don’t go away. When we get back, a political party that tried to build a big tent only to have its party goers knock over the tent poles.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory, radio’s home for tortured metaphors. We’ll be back in a minute.