The Missouri Compromise was a critical attempt to resolve questions about the expansion of slavery, the balance of power between free and slave states, and the ability of the federal government to make laws concerning slavery. With such contentious issues on the table, many were not satisfied with the outcome. Thomas Jefferson, who held that slavery was a question best reserved to the states, famously wrote that:
[T]his 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 concieved and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.
|Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820. Thomas Jefferson papers. Library of Congress.|
If Jefferson represented a southern opinion, the Rosenbach has a document that speaks to northern concerns. Rufus King, who had been a member of the Constitutional Convention and was then a senator for New York, was a leader of northern anti-slavery opposition to the compromise. He believed that Congress could not only regulate slavery, but also that it should restrict it completely from the territories. The Rosenbach's collection includes a letter from the lawyer, diplomat, and Supreme Court reporter Henry Wheaton to his friend in New York politics, approving of King's efforts as the bills were debated.
|Henry Wheaton to Gulian Verplanck. 16 February 1820.AMs 781/23. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.|
Although many were dissatisfied, the Missouri Compromise, crafted by Henry Clay and enacted 195 years ago today, managed to hold the country together for thirty years. But, in the end, Jefferson's claim that it was only a reprieve proved true. The compromise fell apart in the tumultuous 1850s and opposition to its successor bill, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which provided for popular sovereignty, would be vehement and bloody and would provide a rallying cry for the new Republican party.