This Day in Legal History—Alabama Statehood and a New Era of Slavery Compromises

On December 14, 1819, Alabama was admitted to the Union as the twenty-second state. The admission itself was not especially remarkable. Various parts of present-day Alabama had been settled by the French (and later the British) since the early 1700s, and explored by the Spanish as early as the 1540s. The territory to the west, moreover, had already been admitted as the states of Mississippi (1817) and Louisiana (1814). Not least important, Alabama’s soil and climate were amenable to cotton production, which was accelerating due to technological innovation and increased demand, such that the years preceding Alabama’s statehood had seen substantial growth in the region’s population.

What made Alabama’s admission significant, politically and constitutionally, was the situation it then posed for Congress regarding the admission of subsequent states, particularly west of the Mississippi River. Specifically, the nation was now evenly divided between free and slave states, having eleven of each. Given a federal Senate based on equal voting for every state regardless of population, this resulting parity of free and slave states made the admission of any additional state an opportunity either to expand or to restrict slavery. The South especially perceived the need to maintain parity as its influence in the House of Representatives declined relative to the North, which was experiencing (and would continue to experience) more immigration as well as greater industrial and economic growth.

This dynamic, in turn, set the stage for a new era of anti- and pro-slavery compromises and eventually—as these compromises less and less alleviated sectional tensions—a rather bloody civil war. To be sure, pending before Congress around the time of Alabama’s statehood was the possible admission of two other states, Maine and Missouri. Maine, which at that time was a district of Massachusetts, would presumably be admitted as a free state. Less certain, though, was slavery’s precise status in the state to be carved from the Missouri Territory, north of the Arkansaw (later Arkansas) Territory and part of the original Louisiana Territory. There were already slaves in the Missouri Territory, though not a great number of them, and it was proposed in the House of Representatives that slavery in the new state should not be expanded, whether by importation or by birth.

What emerged in early March of 1820, less than three months after Alabama’s admission, was the so-called Missouri Compromise: Maine would be admitted as a free state (and was on March 15, 1820), Missouri would be admitted as a slave state (and was on August 10, 1821), and slavery would otherwise be prohibited north of the 36°30′ parallel, Missouri’s southern border.

Compromises over slavery were, of course, nothing new to the United States. The three-fifths formula for enumeration, the protection of slave importation until 1808, and the Fugitive Slave Clause were all written into the Constitution, the nation’s foundational charter. But the Missouri Compromise did something different: it recognized in express statutory terms the sectional character of the South’s “peculiar institution.”

Until then, the division between free and slave states east of the Mississippi River had largely rested upon topography (the Ohio River) and upon Mason and Dixon’s Line, the result of a survey conducted in the 1760s. In combination with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise had now codified this sectionalism, legally demarcating two realms within the United States—one composed of exclusively northern free states, the other of basically southern slave states—and thus more forcefully established, in Lincoln’s later words, a “house divided against itself.”

As Thomas Jefferson lamented in April of 1820, upon learning of the Compromise, “a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” Jefferson, having a statesman’s cognizance, was basically correct in his estimation. Not only was the 1820 Missouri Compromise not the last of the county’s compromises over slavery, it essentially became a template for the subsequent treatment of the slavery question and for the future admission of states—and there were indeed to be more states—with each compromise increasingly incurring “the angry passions of men” and entrenching “deeper and deeper” the nation’s North-South sectionalism.

In the decades that followed the Missouri Compromise, America’s population continued to rise, especially in the North; its territory continued to expand, particularly with the annexation of Texas in 1845, the delineation of the Oregon Territory in 1848, and the acquisition, also in 1848, of the remaining southwest by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; and these factors ensured the continued westward expansion of its people, accelerated by events such as the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

The political and statutory outcome of these developments was the so-called Compromise of 1850, which entailed the admission of California as a free state, the partial undoing of the Missouri Compromise (by leaving the slavery issue to majority decision or “popular sovereignty” in the newly formed New Mexico and Utah Territories, even above parallel 36°30′ north), and the passage of a powerful new fugitive slave law that required, under threat of criminal penalty, the arrest and return of runaway slaves. (The Missouri Compromise’s geographical slavery prohibition was conclusively undone by the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854, which also left the question of slavery to local popular decision, and was then deemed void by the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford.)

Eventually the capacity to yield acceptable and effective compromises was so diminished by sectional distrust and perceived sectional disparities in power or influence that the country, by 1860, faced disunion and the genuine threat of civil war. Southerners and Northerners perceived each other as having not simply different cultures, but different (and rather unflattering) moral characters. The nationwide two-party system that had brought about the compromises of the preceding decades had by the mid-1850s dissolved and was replaced with sectional parties, the Democrats in the South and the Republicans in the North. And the U.S. Supreme Court—with rulings such as Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), and Ableman v. Booth (1859)—seemed, at least to Northerners, to be aligned overwhelmingly with the interests of the slaveholding South. In short, several of the core components of the nation’s political and legal system had been manifestly fractured along a geographic axis dividing North and South, rendering the system increasingly incapable of handling the affairs of the country as a unified whole.

The foregoing tale of sectional disunion subsequent to Alabama’s admission as a state might seem too attenuated to attribute it in any significant way to Alabama’s statehood by itself, and that is an entirely reasonable if not correct assessment. Nevertheless, might Alabama’s admission to the Union still be considered a cause of the Civil War? In a limited sense, it certainly can be, for the chain of causal events quite clearly includes it. Of course, the causal chain as broadly conceived might also include the admission of Mississippi and Illinois in the preceding two years, and it should most definitely include a host of non-legal developments such as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry.

Alabama’s statehood is only causal in a limited sense, though, because the events that were to transpire over the four decades following 1819 would likely have occurred in some form or another, whether sooner or later, and it is difficult to contend that a major sectional conflict of some kind could have been averted simply by altering one or even a few points in the nation’s chronology. To put it another way, Alabama’s admission to the Union is a logical and convenient point to enter the sequential narrative leading up to the American Civil War, but it is by no means a determinative element of that narrative.

What is less debatable, of course, is the central role of the law, its institutions, and its officers and participants in the significant events that define the nation’s antebellum period. Whatever one might think about the admission of any particular state, it cannot be doubted the overall process of admitting states—as constitutionally ordained and legislatively implemented—was a pivotal and recurring component of the pre-Civil War chronology. Lawyers, judges, and legislators, in other words, were thus key players in the dynamic that did eventually culminate in the Civil War, just as they were key players in post-war reconstruction.

What any of us would have done in the decades leading up to 1860, were we the lawyers, judges, or legislators of that era, is difficult to fathom, particularly if we did not know, as they did not, that the nation would eventually resolve the slavery question only after four years of military conflict, the economic destruction of the South, the deaths of at least 620,000 soldiers, and the assassination of a U.S. President.

Further Reading

William J. Cooper, Jr., The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856 (1978).

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007).

Earl M. Maltz, Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 (2009).

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: American Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (1976).

Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (2008).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. J Gordon Hylton

    “Pairing” free and slave state admissions to the Union was a standard feature of American constitutionalism in the antebellum period.

    At the end of the War of 1812, there were 18 American states, Nine were north of the Mason-Dixon Line/Ohio River, and nine were below it.

    Every state south of the line recognized African slavery while that institution had been abandoned in every northern state except New York, and New York would adopt a gradual manumission statute in 1817.

    As the follow list indicates, the pattern of subsequent admission of new states appears to have been motivated by a desire to maintain the North-South (and free-slave) balance.

    Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817)
    Illinois (1818), Alabama (1819)
    Maine (1820), Missouri (1821)
    Arkansas (1836), Michigan (1837)
    Florida (1845), Iowa (1846)
    Texas (1845), Wisconsin (1848)

    (Wisconsin was scheduled to be admitted in 1846, but its admission to the Union was held up by the difficulty in adopting a state constitution.)

    In the 1850’s, this pattern broke down as there were no territories open to slavery that were ready for admission. Slavery existed in New Mexico and Utah territories, but the sparse population of the former and the Mormon control of the latter ruled out both as candidates for statehood in the 1850’s.

    Consequently, when California was admitted as a free state in 1850, and Minnesota in 1858 (over considerable Southern opposition), the only potential slave state was Kansas, but in May of 1859 Kansas Territory adopted a Constitution outlawing slavery.

    Shortly after this the country fell apart.

    Incidentally, the above reference to Louisiana’s admission to the Union in 1814 is a typo. Louisiana was admitted on April 30, 1812.

  2. J Gordon Hylton

    I forgot to mention the admission of the free state of Oregon as a state in 1859, which further increased the Northern majority in the Senate.

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