The Growth of Slavery in America and the Missouri Compromise - dummies

The Growth of Slavery in America and the Missouri Compromise

By Steve Wiegand

In the early American South, tobacco, once the major crop, had worn out the soil in many areas, and many Southern planters were looking for a substitute. Cotton was a possibility because of the big demand for it, especially in England. But the variety of cotton that grew well in most of the South was difficult to de-seed.

Cotton and sugar mean more slaves

In 1793, a teacher and inventor from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney visited a plantation in Georgia. Fascinated with the cottonseed problem, Whitney fiddled around and came up with a simple machine that rotated thin wire teeth through the slots of a metal grill. The teeth picked up the cotton fibers and pulled them through the slots, leaving the seeds behind. Whitney’s cotton gin (short for “engine”) could do the work of 50 men. The result was a cotton boom. In 1793, the South produced about 10,000 bales of cotton. By 1820, that amount rose to more than 400,000.

In 1794, a Frenchman in New Orleans named Jean Etienne Bore came up with a method of boiling off sugar cane until it turned into crystals, and the cultivation of sugar spread over the Southeast.

But growing cotton and sugar were labor-intensive activities, and that labor was supplied almost exclusively by slaves. Until the cultivation of cotton and sugar took off, slavery had appeared to be on the decline. A federal constitutional provision had outlawed the importation of any more slaves in 1808, but all the individual states had already banned the practice five years earlier. And the prices of slaves had been steadily dropping, a sign that the economics of the system were too unfavorable to continue it.

Noneconomic reasons also factored in. A religious revival that swept the country in the late 18th and early 19th centuries did much to raise the level of opposition to slavery. In addition, many whites were fearful that an increase in the number of slaves could lead to a massive rebellion such as the one that had happened in Haiti in the 1790s. But the rise of the cotton and sugar crops and the spread of tobacco to new areas increased the dependence of the South on slave labor. Ten to 20 slaves worked every 100 acres of cotton, and they became valuable “commodities.” In 1800, the average cost of a slave was about $50; by 1850, it was more than $1,000.

As the need for slaves increased, owners were anxious to increase their holdings through births. But as their value rose, slaves were sold from state to state as the market dictated, often breaking up families. In 1800, the number of slaves in America was put at about 900,000; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the number was 4 million.

In summary, slave owners had a labor force they could force to work at no wages and keep, sell, rape, or kill as they saw fit. To defend the system, the owners often fell back on the rationale that slavery was good for the slave and frequently mentioned in the Bible as a normal human condition.

Opposing slavery

Many Northerners felt compelled to attack the system. Some of the opposition was on moral grounds, but some of it was based on politics. The Constitution allowed slaves to be counted as 3⁄5 of a person when deciding how many members each state could have in the House of Representatives, and nonslave states resented slave states for gaining more political clout through their nonvoting slaves. In the West, much of the anti-slave sentiment stemmed from free laborers not wanting to have to compete with slave labor.

The truth was that African Americans were discriminated against in the North, too. In most situations, they couldn’t vote, testify at trials, marry outside their race, join labor unions, live in “white” areas, or go to school. Free African Americans in the North, especially children, were also at risk of being kidnapped and taken to the South to be sold.

With even well-intentioned antislavery advocates convinced that the two races may not be able to live together, many people supported sending former slaves to Africa. President Monroe, a Virginia slave owner, pushed in 1819 for the establishment of a colony in Africa where freed American slaves could go. In 1824, the colony of Liberia was established, with its capital of Monrovia named after Monroe. But many American-born freed slaves had no interest in going to a strange country. They preferred to take their chances on staking a claim to their birthrights as American citizens.

The Missouri Compromise

In February 1819, the territory of Missouri petitioned Congress to be admitted as a state. At the time, America consisted of 11 slave and 11 free states, so the question was whether Missouri, with 10,000 slaves, should be admitted as a slave state or be forced to free its slaves before it was allowed into the fold. Debate on the issue raged across the country. Finally, Henry Clay crafted a compromise in March 1820. Under the aptly named Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and the territory of Maine came in as a free state, keeping a balance of 12 slave and 12 free. The figure shows a breakdown of the slave/free arrangement created by the compromise. Congress also deemed that slavery would be excluded from any new states or territories above latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes.

Missouri Compromise
Results of the Missouri Compromise.

Proslavery forces grumbled that Congress had no constitutional right to say where slavery could and couldn’t occur; antislavery forces complained that the compromise was an admission that slavery was acceptable. But the compromise held for the next three decades, giving the country a little more time to seek a better solution it would not find.

“[T]his momentous question [the spread of slavery], like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union,” noted slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. “(W)e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

The Monroe Doctrine

While the issue of slavery was growing at home, big events were happening elsewhere in the Americas. Spain’s Latin American colonies were struggling for their independence, and U.S. citizens generally supported the struggles as being like their own with the British.

In 1819, after Spain had sold Florida to America for $5 million and a promise that the United States would keep its hands off Texas, President Monroe urged Congress to formally recognize the newly independent Latin American countries, including Mexico. In Europe, meanwhile, a group of monarchs known as the Holy Alliance was scheming to pick off Spain’s former colonies. And on the Pacific Coast, the Russians claimed an area from present-day Washington State to Alaska.

Declining an offer from the English to go in as partners against the Holy Alliance’s plans, Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, decided to issue what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which amounted to a hands-off warning in the Western Hemisphere. In December 1823, Monroe told Congress that America wouldn’t tolerate further attempts by European powers to colonize in the New World. What they had, they could keep, he said. Everything else was off limits.

“The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” Monroe wrote.

Although it probably had little to do with Monroe’s warning, the Russians did agree in 1824 to pull back to what is now the southern border of Alaska and stay there. In fact, Monroe’s statements didn’t really have much to back them up, because American military might was slight. But the Monroe Doctrine was subsequently employed by various presidents as the basis for interfering in, or staying out of, the affairs of neighboring countries.