Fourth of July Celebration in Center Square by John Lewis Krimmel, 1812. Courtesy of Wiki Art Visual.

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LIVING ON THE EDGE OF STATEHOOD

James Monroe’s first presidential term is known as the “Era of Good Feelings” because political party conflicts temporarily quieted and the country seemed to be unified. Yet on the Missouri frontier, political tensions boiled and would eventually explode with the territory’s application for statehood. Further troubles ensued as a major financial crash hit the United States during Missouri’s quest for statehood, causing economic uncertainty for the country and the people of the Missouri Territory.

Jame Monroe

James Monroe became the 5th President of the United States in 1817. At the time of his reelection in 1820, the Democratic-Republican party was so powerful, and the opposition so weak, that Monroe ran unopposed. He was one of the last Founding Fathers still politically active at the time of the Missouri Crisis.

James Monroe by John Vanderly, 1816. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Duels and Violence

Young politicians arrived on the Missouri frontier ready to violently fight their way to the top by any means necessary — beatings, duels, and riots were common. Missouri’s first representative to Congress was John Scott, “who always carried dirk and pistol in his pockets” and was elected by sending soldiers to violently harass the opposing candidate and voters with “fighting, stabbing, and cudgeling.

One of Missouri’s first U.S. senators, Thomas Hart Benton, used his gun as a political tool as much as his mouth and pen. In 1817, after a drawn-out conflict between Benton and Charles Lucas, the two lawyers engaged in a series of duels on Bloody Island in the Mississippi River. During the second duel, Benton shot Lucas through the heart at ten paces, eliminating a major political and legal opponent.

“How the Duel Between Thomas H. Benton and Charles Lucas Came to be Fought,” from The St. Louis Republic, February 1, 1903, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Panic of 1819

In 1819, European demand for American agricultural goods declined. Market prices for crops fell, causing land values to plummet. The ensuing full-scale financial crash, known as the Panic of 1819, was the United States’ first major economic depression.

 

The Panic was especially devastating in the recently settled West, where cash was scarce and rising land values had been a major driver of the economy. Half of the mercantile businesses in St. Louis shut down, including the troubled but badly needed Bank of St. Louis. Economic uncertainty further complicated Missouri’s application for statehood. Enslaved workers remained a major financial asset for their owners, and the financial crisis made slavery seem essential to their economic survival. Thus, slave owners in territorial Missouri clung to slavery at a time when many others questioned its continued existence.

1818 Bank of Missouri Note, August 3, 1818. Courtesy of the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society.

This $3 bill is signed by Auguste Chouteau, founder of St. Louis. In the bill’s center is a vignette of a bust of President Thomas Jefferson. Behind the bust are ships at sail and mountain peaks.

Did you know?

In 1818, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne arrived on the Missouri Frontier where she opened the first free school west of the Mississippi River. She also established boarding schools in St. Louis, which were the first schools to educate students of color in the region.