Matthew W. Hall, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and former general counsel for the University of Pennsylvania, has had a lifelong interest in American history. As an attorney in the field of natural resources law, Hall dealt with several cases requiring close analysis of legislative history. When he discovered that Jesse Burgess Thomas, a third great uncle of his wife, had been the prime mover behind the negotiations that led to the Missouri Compromise, Hall set out to write an account of this vitally important but neglected figure and the legislative crisis he helped to defuse.
SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Hall about his new book, Dividing the Union: Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of the Missouri Compromise.
What made you decide to write this book?
I was doing some research on my wife’s family and came across mention that the younger brother of her third great-grandfather was the author of the Missouri Compromise. Intrigued, I began looking at accounts of the Missouri controversy in pre–Civil War histories and found many mentions of the so-called Thomas amendment that drew a geographical line dividing slave and free and resolved a deadlock that could have broken up the Union. But there were no accounts of Thomas himself, no sense of how he came to play that pivotal role, and no history of how he fashioned the final compromise. I decided that this was an important enough moment in American history to merit a full account, and that is what I set out to do.
Jesse Burgess Thomas is someone I’d never heard of before reading your book, but he had an integral role in proposing and drafting the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which lasted for thirty-four years and is generally credited with delaying the Civil War until the 1860s. Can you briefly describe who Jesse Burgess Thomas was, what the Missouri Compromise was, and why Thomas is so important to history?
Jesse Burgess Thomas was one of the first two senators from Illinois and was from the beginning of his term in 1818 an ally and protégé of William Harris Crawford. Crawford was serving at the time as secretary of the treasury in President Monroe’s cabinet and was the leading contender to succeed Monroe in 1824. Thomas arrived in Washington just as the controversy over slavery west of the Mississippi was brewing. Both he and Crawford wanted the crisis resolved so Crawford could address other pressing problems and pursue his presidential ambitions. Though he was an inexperienced senator, Thomas became the point person in the ensuing Congressional negotiations that led to the drawing of a geographical line along the southern border of Missouri extending westward; there was to be no slavery in any territory north of that line with the exception of Missouri, which would be admitted as a slave state. This, along with the admission of Maine as a free state, constituted the Missouri Compromise, which, as you said, held for thirty-four years and delayed the conflagration of the Civil War.
I wonder if you could talk more about Jesse Burgess Thomas’s personal traits? You mention one of his sayings in the book, “You can’t talk a man down, but you can whisper him to death.” What did he mean by that, and what insights into his character does that give?
Thomas was a quiet man. While almost every other senator and most representatives gave hours-long speeches showcasing their oratorical talents and committing themselves to seemingly nonnegotiable positions, Thomas never made a substantive speech. In part this was because he was not a good public speaker, but mostly it was because he could see no good in locking himself into positions that would limit his room for future maneuver. He was also a patient man, as witnessed by the four subtly different versions of his compromise amendment that he put forward in the course of negotiations, eventually persuading a majority of his fellow senators and then the House conference committee to support the fourth version and winning passage by a single vote. With calm persistence he had “whispered” his way to a workable compromise.
You describe a tangled scene in the Northwest Territory (what would become Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) in the early 1800s, with various factions jockeying for position, carving off new territories, or making territories into states, and a struggle for power to determine who would benefit the most from this fluctuating landscape. Could you describe the political environment on the American frontier where Jesse Burgess Thomas cut his teeth in the late 1700s and early 1800s?
The governance of this vast area was framed in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. As settlers flooded into the area at the turn of the century, they competed ravenously for ownership and political control of the land they seized from Native Americans. The future of this area, thus, was built primarily on the exploitation of Native Americans. To a lesser extent, however, it was also built on the backs of slaves. Slavery was prohibited in Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, but there was another provision in the ordinance protecting property rights. While antislavery Northerners relied on Article VI, Southern settlers claimed that all existing property rights in slaves were protected. Thus there was ambiguity and misunderstanding from the beginning, and it only grew worse as each new territory or state wrestled with the problem.
You talk about Jesse Thomas’s ability to straddle political fences, especially on slavery. He had a way of keeping his true opinions on the subject ambiguous; antislavery voters seemed to think he was antislavery, and proslavery voters seemed to think he was proslavery. Early on, he owned slaves himself but later in life joined the very abolitionist Episcopalian Church. What were Thomas’s views on slavery?
Even Thomas’s contemporaries could not settle on an answer to this question; so, at this far remove, it is almost impossible for us to do so. What is clear is that Thomas was pragmatic and believed there were more pressing questions facing the young republic, such as the financial panic of 1819, which was then rolling westward, and the country’s policies on the sale of public lands. Thomas was also accused of being duplicitous on the question of slavery, telling people what they wanted to hear. My feeling, for what it is worth, is that, reflecting his Southern background, he started off being mildly proslavery and then steadily shifted to a strongly antislavery stance later in life.
In many ways, Thomas’s political life in Illinois and on the national scene was defined by his rivalry with Ninian Edwards, another powerful Illinois political figure. As someone born and raised in Edwardsville, I found Edwards and Thomas’s relationship to be engaging and interesting. What different political ideas did the two represent, and how did they play out in Illinois politics as well as nationally?
Ironically the two men differed little in their political views. Because of the influence of Daniel Pope Cook, Edwards’s faction was the first to come out against slavery, but Edwards and some of his relatives were among the largest slaveholders in Illinois. Thomas, on the other hand, owned few slaves, but his faction was responsible for keeping open the possibility of slavery in Illinois. Neither of them, however, was ever a strong advocate for slavery. Beyond that, their ideas on public lands policy and internal improvements (like highways and canals) were nearly identical. Their rivalry was almost entirely personal and a matter of style—Edwards was an elitist with a clear sense of entitlement, and Thomas was more self-effacing but probably more sure of himself. Edwards was more powerful than Thomas during the territorial period from 1809 to 1818, but following statehood Thomas chose a more powerful mentor in Washington and was soon chairman of the all-important public lands committee and became a more powerful presence in the Senate. This reversal of their positions made Edwards extremely bitter and was a factor leading to the so-called A.B. affair, which ended in Edwards’s exit from national politics. For his part, toward the end of his Senate term, Thomas found himself spending more time in Missouri and Ohio than in the state he represented, and when he left the Senate in 1829 he never returned to Illinois.
What I found most fascinating about the actual drafting of the Missouri Compromise was how much deliberate care was put into it—things like word choice and capitalization became huge issues. And you argue that in many ways the political brilliance of the Compromise was that it managed to take contradictory positions—essentially, proslavery people could read it one way, and abolitionists could read it another. Can you talk more about the legislative work that went into drafting the Compromise and making it ambiguous enough that both sides could agree on it?
The deliberate ambiguity you describe is not unique to the Missouri Compromise. I believe it is a characteristic of many political compromises and is probably not that bad a thing. Not only is it sometimes essential for passage of a bill, but it also gives the legislation room to adapt over time. Additionally, the participants in the compromise are often complicit in the ambiguity—they know that the legislation is being interpreted in different ways by different people, and they knowingly present it to their constituents in the way the constituents want to interpret it. It is far from ideal, but the ambiguity allows the politicians to put the matter behind them and gives them a kind of plausible deniability.
By the time the Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in the minds of many Americans (especially Northerners) it had reached almost sacred status as something that should be upheld. Yet you argue that part of the appeal of the Compromise in 1820 was that both sides could, under its linguistic ambiguities, wiggle out of the agreement. For example, even though the document said slavery was theoretically banned “forever” in any territory north of the 36˚30ʹ line, some believed that it was permissible under the Compromise for a new state to vote to make slavery legal after they moved out of territorial status. Given that the seeds of its downfall were literally written into the document, why did the Compromise survive so long?
The Missouri Compromise was the first test for the second generation of political leadership in the United States, and in the years following, leaders in both the North and the South did not want to again come as close to the breakup of the Union as they had in 1820. The proslavery faction showed restraint in never attempting to use the loophole you describe (except for the failed early attempt in Thomas’s own state of Illinois). The Union was far more than an abstract concept for them—it also provided protection against the European powers that were waiting to take advantage of the first fissures in the infant republic. As a result, both sides worked together to put off the admission of the next state from the Louisiana Purchase until Iowa joined in 1846. By that time it was becoming apparent that there would be more states admitted from north of Thomas’s 36°30ʹ than south of it, and the North began to feel more committed to the Compromise.
There’s a historical dilemma about the Missouri Compromise: it may have been the only realistic legislative option and it arguably put off the Civil War for at least thirty-four years, which we think of as a good thing, But it did so by prolonging and tolerating slavery, dooming millions more to live and die in bondage. The Compromise also created an official, very public geographical line to demarcate between slave and free states, helping to solidify the North/South split and heightening sectarian tension. You quote Thomas Jefferson as writing, “[The Compromise] like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the death knell of the Union. . . . As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” So even at the time there was a great deal of consternation about the bill. For you, what is the lasting historical legacy of the Missouri Compromise?
I agree that the prolongation and toleration of slavery was a tragedy. I see only one other way the crisis could have been resolved. The Missouri crisis actually began in the Congressional debate about the admission of Illinois in 1818 when James Tallmadge of New York made two proposals—that no new slaves be admitted into Illinois and that all slaves then living there be freed when they reached a certain age. These proposals were voted down for Illinois but renewed when Missouri applied for statehood two years later. They became central to the ensuing debate. Tallmadge’s amendments, which I describe as temporal solutions, would have led to the gradual end of slavery in Illinois and Missouri and could have become a model for other states. The Tallmadge amendments have been viewed in history largely as a provocation thrown up by the anti-slavery forces, but in fact they were modeled on the successful emancipation laws of New York and other northeastern states. I believe they were put forward in a more constructive vein than commonly believed and could conceivably have worked. After all, politicians love to vote for propositions that will come to fruition long after they have left office! Such a temporal solution would have left slavery in place for a period far shorter than what occurred under the Missouri Compromise, and could conceivably have prevented the Civil War. There is, though, considerable doubt Tallmadge’s proposals could have passed.
Why do you think that Jesse Thomas has been so overlooked by historians?
The neglect of Thomas at the time was perhaps understandable because he was an unobtrusive figure working a quiet strategy that was submerged by the extravagant rhetoric flowing out of Congress. The neglect of him today, however, is less explicable. For example, of the one hundred documents chosen by the National Archives as the most important in American history, the handwritten conference committee report memorializing the Missouri Compromise is ranked 55th, but nowhere is it mentioned on the National Archives website or elsewhere that the handwriting on the document is that of Jesse Thomas, the head of the Senate delegation to the conference committee.