Author: Thomas Jefferson  | Date: 1854

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A Southern View of the Missouri Question (1820)



[April 13, 1820.]

ALTHOUGH I had laid down as a law to myself, never to write, talk, or even think of politics, to know nothing of public affairs, and therefore had ceased to read newspapers, yet the Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm. The old schism of federal and republican threatened nothing, because it existed in every State, and united them together by the fraternism of party. But the coincidence of a marked principle, moral and political, with a geographical line, once conceived, I feared would never more be obliterated from the mind; that it would be recurring on every occasion and renewing irritations, until it would kindle such mutual and mortal hatred, as to render separation preferable to eternal discord. I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it much, and see the event at no great distance, and the direct consequence of this question; not by the line which has been so confidently counted on; the laws of nature control this; but by the Potomac, Ohio and Missouri, or more probably, the Mississippi upwards to our northern boundary. . . .


[April 22.] . . .

I CAN say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another, would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burthen on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence too, from this act of power, would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a State. This certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government. Could Congress, for example, say, that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other State?

I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. . . .


[September 30.] . . .

THE Missouri question is a mere party trick. The leaders of federalism, defeated in their schemes of obtaining power by rallying partisans to the principle of monarchism, a principle of personal not of local division, have changed their tack, and thrown out another barrel to the whale. They are taking advantage of the virtuous feelings of the people to effect a division of parties by a geographical line; they expect that this will ensure them, on local principles, the majority they could never obtain on principles of federalism; but they are still putting their shoulder to the wrong wheel; they are wasting Jeremiads on the miseries of slavery, as if we were advocates for it. Sincerity in their declamations should direct their efforts to the true point of difficulty, and unite their counsels with ours in devising some reasonable and practicable plan of getting rid of it. Some of these leaders, if they could attain the power, their ambition would rather use it to keep the Union together, but others have ever had in view its separation. If they push it to that, they will find the line of separation very different from their 36° of latitude, and as manufacturing and navigating States, they will have quarrelled with their bread and butter, and I fear not that after a little trial they will think better of it, and return to the embraces of their natural and best friends. But this scheme of party I leave to those who are to live under its consequences. We who have gone before have performed an honest duty, by putting in the power of our successors a state of happiness which no nation ever before had within their choice. If that choice is to throw it away, the dead will have neither the power nor the right to control them. I must hope, nevertheless, that the mass of our honest and well-meaning brethren of the other States, will discover the use which designing leaders are making of their best feelings, and will see the precipice to which they are lead, before they take the fatal leap. . . .

Thomas Jefferson, (edited by H. A. Washington, Washington, 1854), VII, 158–181 passim.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "A Southern View of the Missouri Question (1820)," Writings, ed. H. A. Washington in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 453–454. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=F1SSXPCRBCL2EQ6.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "A Southern View of the Missouri Question (1820)." Writings, edited by H. A. Washington, Vol. VII, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 453–454. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=F1SSXPCRBCL2EQ6.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'A Southern View of the Missouri Question (1820)' in Writings, ed. . cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.453–454. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=F1SSXPCRBCL2EQ6.