As Missouri closes its nearly three-year commemoration of the bicentennial of our tumultuous entrance into the Union, numerous books and articles have re-examined this pivotal event in American history. One such publication, entitled Contesting the Constitution: Congress Debates the Missouri Crisis, 1819-1821, examines the constitutional issues involved in Missouri’s struggle for statehood. This collection of essays demonstrates that the Missouri admission crisis was, at its core, a constitutional issue, as the question Congress ultimately resolved was whether that body had the power to place conditions – in this instance, a restriction on the expansion of slavery in Missouri – on a territory before it would be admitted into the Union. During the debates, congressmen scoured nearly every article and section of the Constitution to prove their arguments, whether for or against slavery extension, with little to no agreement.
Congressmen fully understood that Missouri’s admission raised a plethora of constitutional questions of the highest order, ultimately exciting intensive and extensive reexamination of the U. S. Constitution. Not since the ratification debates of 1787-1788 had Americans so intensely scoured the Constitution and reconsidered numerous sections therein. Although the other revered document of the founding era, the Declaration of Independence, played little part during the debates, that sacred document and its deeper meaning, did receive some attention. As with the divisions over the interpretation of the Constitution, between proponents and opponents of slavery restriction in Missouri, these two sides likewise interpreted the Declaration of Independence in two distinctly opposing ways.
To be clear, friends and foes of the Tallmadge Amendment cited only two sentences of the Declaration – the famed first two sentences of paragraph two:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[.]
Any congruency disappeared at this point, as supporters of restriction in Missouri universally invoked the first sentence, while opponents of restriction as collectively cited the second sentence. This discrepancy revealed a great deal about how the contending sides interpreted the Declaration in 1819-1820.
Northern congressmen, to a man, concurred with Massachusetts representative Timothy Fuller’s claim that the Declaration “defines the principle on which our National and State Constitutions are all professedly founded.” His reason for recurring to the document was “to draw from an authority admitted in all parts of the Union a definition of the basis of republican government.” The Declaration was “our original charter, on which all our other institutions are based,” concluded Vermont congressman Charles Rich. “In that instrument individual rights, and the objects and duties of Government, are clearly defined.” That sacred charter was “a prodigy” for Pennsylvania Senator Jonathan Roberts, for the “truths that the speculative philosopher and retired philanthropist had hardly ventured to indulge,” were now proclaimed to the world. The Declaration, he concluded, broadcasted the “principles of the great corner stone of all our laws and constitutions.” Was not, then, “this pledge binding on us?” queried New Hampshire congressman Clifton Clagett.
Friends of the Tallmadge Amendment viewed the Declaration in almost reverent proportions, believing that it stipulated eternal, transcending truths. Modesty behooved men to approach this instrument “with veneration, if not with reverence,” proclaimed New Hampshire Senator David Morril. “Let no unhallowed hand tarnish its spotless purity.” According to the leading proponent of restriction in Missouri, New York congressman John Taylor, the Declaration – that is, the first sentence of the second paragraph – was the “first truth declared by this nation.” The men who made the Declaration were utterly sincere in their motives, completely devoted to the meanings stated therein. “Are we willing to pronounce this declaration, for the support of which the Fathers of our Revolution pledged their lives and fortunes, a flagrant falsehood?” Taylor continued. “Was this declaration a solemn mockery? Did such men as Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston, proclaim to the world, as self-evident truth, doctrines they did not believe? Did they lay the foundation of this infant Republic in fraud and hypocrisy?” Fellow New Yorker Ezra Gross implored his colleagues to summon the Declaration as the foundation for any vote made on the restriction issue. “Let them see if they can hide their blushes while they contemplate the figures of those immortal patriots who, in the presence of their fellow-citizens, and in the face of Heaven, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honors, for the future happiness… and glory of their country.”
Proponents of restriction in Missouri ardently asserted that slavery and the principles of the Declaration proved incongruent, exposed the hypocrisy of slavery, and condemned its very existence as antithetical to republican government. Since it could not be denied that “slaves are men,” declared Fuller, “it follows that they are in a purely republican government born free, and are entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Tallmadge Amendment, according to Joshua Cushman of Massachusetts (Maine), ensured a future whereby a human being, “whatever his complexion” in Missouri, “shall feel the force of these self-evident truths – that God created all mankind equal, and endowed them with certain inalienable rights – amongst which are ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.” Ohio Senator Benjamin Ruggles proclaimed slavery to be “a violation of the fundamental principles of Republican government,” and thus “repugnant to the great and essential rights contained in the Declaration of Independence; rights which ought always to be adhered to in establishing the foundations of a new community.”
Even if the Declaration had not instantly eliminated slavery upon its adoption, then that charter still served as a means to that very end. “In pursuance of the Declaration of Independence,” Pennsylvania’s Roberts proudly admitted, his state had acted on the principle “that all men are created equal,” passed state laws to eliminate slavery, and, therefore, had “broken the rod of oppression on the altar of justice, and the oppressor has disappeared before her uncreating word.”
Opponents of the Tallmadge Amendment tempered such claims. For Southern congressmen, the Declaration of Independence entailed no political authority; it was simply a manifesto explaining causes of separation. The Declaration listed abstract rights, abstract aphorisms with limited meaning. “The self-evident truths announced in the Declaration of Independence are not truths at all, if taken literally,” assumed Maryland senator William Pinkney, “and the practical conclusions contained in the same passage of that declaration prove that they were never designed to be so received.” Delaware’s Nicholas Van Dyke chided his fellow senators for evoking the Declaration as “a key to the construction” of the U. S. Constitution, and for reciting “abstract theoretical principles” from a “national manifesto” to prove that slavery no longer existed lawfully. The principles enunciated in the Declaration proved correct, and “intelligible in the political sense,” only when used by the statesmen signing the document. The authors were not “visionary theorists,” but men of “sound, practical, common sense,” who adopted “sound practical conclusions.” The principles outlined in the first sentence stood only as the “received doctrines of schools, in relation to man, as he is supposed to exist in the fancied state of nature,” and that when individuals entered into society, they must relinquish a share of liberty to preserve the remaining. Hence, these principles merely formed “correct principles” confirming the second sentence of paragraph two.
Virginia congressman John Tyler pointed to the incongruence evident in the first sentence of paragraph two, questioning whether that phrase could apply to “a state of society,” and revealing that “its fallacy” confronted everyone in every walk of life. Distinctions exist in society, Tyler continued, and the principles declared in sentence one, “although lovely and beautiful, cannot obliterate those distinctions in society which society itself engenders and gives birth to.” Tyler questioned whether the principle of equality could be applied “to man in extenso,” and, although he loved the principle and would execute it whenever possible, he asked why Congress, then, did not apply it to the people of Missouri, and extend to them an equality of rights.
The first sentence of paragraph two was, according to Virginia congressman Alexander Smyth, only an opinion of the men of that day, an opinion “having no political power.” He agreed with the men of ’76, that “on entering into society,” men “cannot alienate their right to liberty and property” and “cannot, by compact, bind their posterity.” Accordingly, the people of Missouri “cannot alienate their rights, or bind their posterity by a compact with Congress.” Smyth reflected the mainstream anti-restrictionist contention that the congress of 1776 never meant “to say that such are the natural rights of man that they cannot be abridged by civil laws.” The patriots of ’76 simply declared, per the second sentence of paragraph two, that an oppressed people may resist and assert their freedom; they asserted only the independence of the American states against “parliamentary usurpation.” Kentucky congressman Benjamin Hardin concurred, arguing that the “efficient parts” of the Declaration were only those portions declaring an end to American dependence on Great Britain and assuming a place among the sovereign nations of the world. “The balance of the Declaration,” he concluded, “is nothing but a manifesto to the world, assigning and setting forth the causes which led to and brought about that mighty event.”
According to Delaware congressman Louis McLane, the Declaration was an act of open resistance by the “white freemen of the colonies” against the pretensions of England to govern them without their consent. Invoking the second sentence of the second paragraph, the declaration was an assertion of their inalienable right of self-government to alter or to abolish government whenever necessary to secure their safety and happiness. “It was the resistance of freemen to the assumption of a power on the part of Great Britain, precisely similar to that which we are now endeavoring to impose upon the people of Missouri,” McLane assumed. Mississippi representative Christopher Rankin agreed fully. Also referring to the second sentence, he claimed that if all men were born equally free and independent, it followed that they have a right to adopt their own government and laws. But supporters of the Tallmadge Amendment denied this privilege to Missouri. “In your zeal to extend liberty to the slave, you take away from freemen of your own color, and entitled to equal rights with you, their ‘inalienable rights’,” Rankin determined. “The people of Missouri ask the privilege of forming their own constitution, and you deny them that privilege, unless they adopt an article which you prescribe.”
Kentucky congressman Francis Johnson appeared to follow the line of Northern congressmen, when he suggested that the “sacred truth” of the first sentence of paragraph two “should be engraven [sic] upon every heart, for it is the foundation of all civil rights, and the palladium of our liberties.” But he immediately fell in line with the Southern contention, when he believed that the meaning of this first sentence was defined “in its application,” that is, all communities stand upon an equality,” that Americans were equal with Englishmen, and thus maintain the right “to organize such government for themselves as they shall choose, whenever it is their pleasure to dissolve the bonds which unite them to another people.” Application of this principle to Missouri, Johnson added, defeated the objective of restricting slavery.
Following upon this line of argument, Southern congressmen concluded that the Declaration of Independence had no application to either slaves or free blacks. The authors of the Declaration merely asserted that man “cannot alienate his liberty, nor by compact deprive his posterity of liberty,” Smyth pronounced, and thus slaves “are not held as having alienated their liberty by compact.” The Declaration “had no reference to those persons who were at that time held in slavery,” McLane concurred. “It was pronounced by the freemen of the country, and not by slaves.” No one pretended, for that matter, that slaves ever acquired any claim to freedom from that charter; to the contrary, the Revolution occurred with them in servitude, independence found them still enslaved, and the Constitution perpetuated that condition. The Declaration, McLane continued, was never designed “to assume or assert any principle whatsoever in regard to the slave population of the United States,” and therefore could not be used in the debate over Missouri’s admission, “either as declaratory of their rights or explanatory of the principles of the constitution and government in their behalf.” In conclusion, the Declaration simply announced abstract doctrines. “Broad as they appear, every one knows they were limited,” McLane ended. “They did not include the slaves, nor the Indians, because they referred only to those who were members of our civil community.” As such, for opponents of restriction, the Declaration of Independence had no place at all in Missouri’s admission struggle.
As with the various sections of the U.S. Constitution, congressmen argued bitterly over the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, at least as to how it applied to the country in 1819 to 1821. The first two sentences of the second paragraph dominated any construction of that charter, and both sides during the Missouri debates appeared to view them as contradictory. For restrictionists, the first sentence seemed to stand alone, its potency unquestionable and universal; listed here were the true and indisputable foundation of republican government. For anti-restrictionists, the second sentence proved the more applicable to the question at hand, more descriptive of the course of American government, truer to the meaning of republicanism. In the end, Missouri entered the Union with no resolution to the then prevailing and conflicting meanings of both the Constitution and the Declaration. The Civil War apparently resolved this issue as it did the question of slavery in a republic.
William S. Belko is is the Executive Director of the Missouri Humanities Council. He has a Ph.D. in history and is the author of several books and articles on early 19th century American history.
Cover Photo by AJ Wallace on Unsplash.