The Missouri Compromise Line

Utica Daily Observer, January 7, 1861

Is it not possible to prevail on the North to consent to the Missouri Compromise line, extended to the Pacific? That is now about the only plan that can be adopted with any hope of permanent success. And is there really any serious objection to it? We do not believe it would make any material difference with the institution of slavery whether that line is agreed upon or not.—For, after all [is] said and done upon this vexed question, we must come back to this simple, practical, common sense truth,—that where the people desire to have slavery, there they will have it; if not while a territory, they will have it when they become a State; and where they do not desire to have it, there they will not have it, and no power can force it upon them. No! not if we had at command for that purpose, all the powers of the general government. And where the location, climate, soil and productions, are such as to render slave labor less profitable than free labor, there there would be no desire for the institution; and even where it would be nearly an even thing between free and slave labor, the latter would disappear before the former. It could not stand the competition. The laws of nature and self-interest are all-controlling in a matter of this kind. They are of more real force than all the legislative enactments in the world.

It would by no means follow that because the constitution recognized the right to hold slaves in any particular territory, that slavery would of necessity go there and exist there. Certainly not. It would depend essentially upon something else.—Not upon the law, nor upon any conventional arrangement, but upon the wish and the interest of the people to be affected by it. The law might permit it, but still, it would not exist to any considerable extent, where free labor would be more profitable.

Under the present order of things, slavery can go into any territory, north as well as south, where the people thereof, when they come to form a constitution as a State, resolve to have it. There is now no legal or constitutional difficulty in the way.—Nothing of man's invention exists to prevent the spread of slavery in all directions, if the people will it.

What would the North lose, then, by this Compromise line? Nothing. What would the South gain by it? We answer again, nothing; for the simple reason, that south of the line, the question, would not in point of fact, be determined by the line, or by any written law or constitution. It would rest entirely in the hearts and consciences of the people, who might prefer to have it, or not to have it, just as they pleased; and who would, at all hazards, decide just as they believed would best promote their own interest, whether others agreed with them or not.

If any advantage would accrue to either party by the adoption of this line, it would be manifestly to the North. For, by it, slavery would be forever prohibited north of the line. The provision being a constitutional one, it could not be overcome by legislation, local or general, and it would not be disregarded. No State formed out of such territory could come into the Union with slavery. The prohibition would be absolute and irrevocable, and however much the people might desire to have it, they could not have it there. They would be compelled to go elsewhere to possess and enjoy it. The territory north would be lost to the South beyond the possibility or even desire of recovery. The question would be absolutely and unalterably settled. So much, at least, of the territory would be constitutionally secure against slavery, forever. While the territory south of the line would be just as open to free state men, and just as accessible to free labor influence as it now is. The climate, the soil, and the laws of nature and of self-interest, would remain the same, and they would be just as free as ever to work out their own legitimate results of freedom or slavery, as the people, unrestrained by any constitutional provision, might deem best, they being themselves the judges.

So far, then, as there would be any gain at all, it would be all for the North. Let us state the case in a few words. There is nothing in the present constitution of the United States, prohibiting slavery anywhere. By the proposed amendment, slavery would be forever prohibited north of the line. While south of the line, there would be no prohibition of free States. It is true, slavery could be established there if the people desired it. So it can be now. But it could not be established north of the line, as it can be now. The North, therefore, could lose nothing by this line, nor would the South gain anything by it, except, perhaps, domestic peace, prosperity and happiness.

The only real difference is of little practical importance. The quarrel, after all, is about an unsubstantial right—a mere abstraction. The question in dispute covers only the comparatively brief period of territorial existence, for all concede that when the people come to make a constitution preparatory to admission as a State, they may determine the question of slavery for themselves, and they may come into the Union with or without it, as they please.

Let the question, then, be constitutionally settled on the basis of this line, and that will end the controversy. It will bring joy and prosperity to the whole country. It will give to the world additional evidence of the strength and durability of republican institutions, and of man's capacity for self-government.

Let us, by all means, be admonished by the fate of our neighbors, the Mexican and South American Republics. Do not let us imitate their wretched example. Ours is the best and freest government on earth.—We inherited it from our fathers, and it is our duty to preserve it for those who come after us. We should not madly destroy it, because we cannot do with slavery just what we may happen to think ought to be done with it. If we are thus wickedly reckless of our great trust, all history will condemn our sacrilegious conduct, posterity will execrate our memory, and the very bones of our ancestors will cry out against us.