Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 4

Missouri Compromise, 1820–21

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Southern defensiveness about slavery was unveiled to a watchful nation during the Missouri debates of 1820 and 1821. In the debates, in response to northern condemnation of slavery, southern senators and representatives defended slaveholders’ morality. Southern politicians pulled up short of calling slavery a positive good, but they did not hesitate to characterize the master-slave relationship as paternalistic. On the whole, southern congressmen argued that slaveholders were doing their best to manage an evil not easily eradicated.

In the House of Representatives, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, the only member of Congress in 1820 who had served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, lamented that slavery had been identified as “an infamous stain and blot on the States that hold them, not only degrading the slave but the master, and making him unfit for republican government; that it is contrary to religion and the law of God; and that Congress ought to do everything in their power to prevent its extension among the new States.” Countering such charges, he argued that the “mild treatment” accorded southern slaves proved that the “man or men who would attempt to give them [slaves] freedom would be their greatest enemies.” But Senator William Smith of South Carolina, an up-country politician who had emerged as the most determined champion of reopening the African slave trade nearly two decades earlier, went further than Pinckney, claiming that southern slaves were “so domesticated, so kindly treated by their masters,” that southerners worried little about insurrection. The Missouri debates suggested that paternalism, albeit an insurgent ideology, was one of growing influence.

Later, even more radical southerners would remember the Missouri debates and identify them as the turning point in North-South relations. In 1825 the South Carolina Sea Island cotton planter Whitemarsh S. Seabrook, thirty-two years old and the owner of over fifty slaves, produced a strident pamphlet arguing that the Missouri debates and the activities of the American Colonization Society proved that white southerners could not trust white northerners on the issue of slavery.


  1. Why do you think Charles Pinckney stopped short of calling slavery a “positive good” in his 1820 speech on the Missouri question?
    1. Speech of Charles Pinckney, History of Congress, 16 Cong., 1 sess., Feb. 1820, pp. 1324–28.
  2. What does the Charleston petition tell you about white attitudes in Charleston during the Missouri debates? What problems did the petition cite and try to remedy?
    1. “Inhabitants of Charleston Petition Advocating a Curtailment of Certain Rights Granted to Free Blacks, Persons of Color and Slaves As Well As citing the Activities of Abolition Societies,” Oct. 16, 1820, Item 143, Legislative Petitions (S165015), Records of the South Carolina General Assembly, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  3. In Whitemarsh Seabrook’s 1825 tirade against colonization and emancipation, what attention does the author give to the Missouri debates?
    1. Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, A Concise View of the Critical Situation, and Future Prospects of the Slave-holding States, in Relation to Their Coloured Population.... (Charleston, 1825), 4–5, 13–14.

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