The Verdict of the People by George Caleb Bingham, 1854. Courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum.
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THE CRISIS IN PUBLIC OPINION
The Tallmadge Amendment drove a wedge into the country along regional lines. By 1819, a vocal “anti-Missouri” movement launched in the Northeast, a crusade to prevent slavery’s growth in the West and keep it contained where it already existed in the southern states. In the South, an “anti-restriction” movement grew advocating for Missouri’s admission as a slave state. State legislatures joined the debate, issuing statements reflecting the views of their constituents. Public meetings, petitions, and legislatures’ statements made Missouri’s admission a national question and an emerging national crisis.
The Anti-Missouri Movement
Antislavery public meetings on Missouri statehood were held throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and eventually inspired similar anti-Missouri meetings further west. With black voters standing behind them, anti-Missouri leaders, like House leader John W. Taylor of New York, also spoke against racism.
Although the majority of northerners were not calling for the abolition of slavery where it already existed in the South, the local anti-Missouri movements ardently fought its extension into new territories. Petitions to Washington came from across the North, demanding the restriction of slavery in Missouri “in the name of freedom and humanity.”
City Hotel, Broadway, New York City by Abram Hosier, 1848. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society.
On November 17, 1819, more than 2,000 people crowded into a ballroom at the City Hotel in New York City to denounce slavery as “great political, as well as moral evil” whose “further progress” required “interdiction.”
The news that Missouri’s quest for statehood had stalled in Congress over slavery was not well received in territorial Missouri. Despite the fact that the majority of Missourians were not slave owners, local public opinion was overwhelmingly against slavery’s restriction from Missouri. Many of the territory’s residents had migrated from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, bringing with them strong proslavery views. These white Missouri settlers from the South saw the lack of statehood as a denial of their equal rights as United States citizens. They held numerous town meetings, and even some courts and churches participated. They viewed anti-restrictionism as defiance of Congress.
The Anti-Restriction Crusade
In the South, defenders of slavery saw the northern movement to prohibit the spread of slavery west as a threat to states’ rights. They opposed restriction in Missouri, arguing that the Union was made up of equal states, each with the freedom to decide for itself whether to be free or slave. They called their proslavery activism “anti restriction.” They argued the Tallmadge Amendment was unconstitutional and unfair, as other new slaveholding states had been admitted to the Union, and owning enslaved people was a right established by the country’s founding fathers.
Born in Ireland, Joseph Charless immigrated to the United States in 1795. He published several newspapers in Pennsylvania and Kentucky before moving to St. Louis to print the Missouri Gazette.
The newspaper’s motto was “Truth without Fear,” and Charless lived up to it, facing constant threats of beating and assassination. Hostility toward Charless was so great that a rival newspaper, The Enquirer, was established to compete against it, with Thomas Hart Benton as the editor.
"Joseph Charless.” Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Missouri Gazette, July 26, 1808. Courtesy of The State Historical Society of Missouri.
The Restrictionist Remnant
A small number of Missouri settlers supported the Tallmadge Amendment and a limit to slavery’s expansion. Men like Baptist missionary John Mason Peck and Ohio saddle maker and future leading antislavery activist Benjamin Lundy campaigned and preached against slavery.
Among the loudest voices in the Restrictionist camp was Joseph Charless, publisher of the Missouri Territory’s first newspaper, Missouri Gazette. Through his paper, he took bold public stances that challenged the status quo. He printed criticism of Missouri’s territorial leaders and advocated for limiting slavery.
Did you know?
In 1820, as the Missouri Crisis was coming to a head, Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is said to have received his first vision from God. This vision would eventually lead Smith and his followers to migrate to Missouri. However, Missourians were unwelcoming to the Mormons, and tensions would culminate in the 1838 Missouri Mormon War and their eventual exodus to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah.