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The West Is Relevant to Our Long History of Anti-Blackness, Not Just the South

Revisiting the Missouri Compromise should transform how we think about white American expansion.

Two hundred years ago, Northern and Southern politicians came together to sign the Missouri Compromise. The bill, which admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state, Maine as a “free” state, and drew a line to the Pacific at 36 degrees 30 minutes (the Southern boundary of Missouri) that was intended to divide slavery from “freedom” forever after, is generally and properly considered a milestone on the pathway toward the Civil War and the conflict over slavery.

But popular memory has forgotten that it did even more than that. For many in Missouri, the statehood question was not simply a debate over slavery, but a purposeful effort to keep all black people, whether enslaved or free, out of Missouri and the West. In fact, the statehood debate was shaped around a de facto compromise between the slaveholding and working-class, anti-black elements of the state’s settler polity.

Understanding the Missouri Compromise in this way points the way to a reinterpretation of the Civil War as something other than a simple conflict between North and South or even slavery and freedom. Rather, the Civil War was a conflict between two interconnected but also antagonistic versions of white American expansion: one premised upon slavery, the other upon freedom not just from slavery but from black people entirely.

While we commonly think of slavery, sharecropping and segregation in the South as driving anti-blackness in American history, the process of western expansion, with the attendant notion of “the white man’s country,” that undergirded the development of cities such as St. Louis and the United States, is equally essential to explaining the power and persistence of anti-blackness today.

On February 13, 1819, Rep. James Tallmadge of New York added a rider to the Missouri Statehood bill that came to consume Congress for almost a year and would ultimately shape the legal history of slavery and constitutional history of the state for the next 45 years. Missouri, Tallmadge suggested, should be admitted to the union only if it outlawed slavery. “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror,” Thomas Jefferson wrote.

In 1820 the threat to the union was allayed, or at least delayed, with the Missouri Compromise, one of the most notorious compromises in the history of the United States: Slavery would be allowed in Missouri. In exchange for Missouri’s admission as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state. A line was drawn at 36 degrees 30 minutes (the southern border of Missouri) all the way to the Pacific. Below the line, slavery would be allowed; above it, only freedom, or at least the sort of freedom imagined by white settlers and supremacists.

Once a line had been drawn westward to the Pacific and forward into perpetuity, Missouri was given permission to draft a state constitution. Held in St. Louis, the constitutional convention produced a document that threatened to unravel the delicately balanced congressional compromise that had been ...