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Dividing the Union: Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of the Missouri Compromise.

Dividing the Union: Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of the Missouri Compromise. By Matthew W. Hall. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 269. $29.50.)

Sometimes knotty, nation-dividing problems needing compromise can be resolved by one intelligent, skilled, and conciliatory hand working in the shadows. That happened in 1820 when the North-South split over slavery in the territories threatened the life of the young Union. Mainly by that hand, the Missouri Compromise became the law that would hold the Civil War at bay for the next three decades.

It was that hand, Jesse Burgess Thomas, who was one of the first two senators sent to Washington by the new state of Illinois in 1819. Thomas was an imposing figure, six feet tall, weighing over two hundred pounds. He was dignified, thoughtful, dispassionate, discreet, with keen political skills. His had been a prime hand behind the drafting of both the Indiana and Illinois state Constitutions. He had been speaker of the Indiana territorial legislature and later a judge in territorial Illinois. He had the reputation of one of the pre-eminent political infighters of his time. Yet he has faded in history. Now, in this book, Matthew W. Hall has brought him and his story back in gratifying detail.

In early 1820, the Missouri territory was the first of the Louisiana Purchase to come knocking at the door of statehood. This had thrust it into the pivot of the escalating issue of slavery in the territories. Southerners demanded to be allowed to take their slave property anywhere in the new territories and were threatening to secede if they could not. The antislavery North wanted them kept slave-free. Missouri, already slave-heavy, reckoned to enter the Union as a slave state. But what of the rest of the Purchase territory? How was that knot to be untied? In late February, the problem sat ominously knotted on the desks of the two chambers of the 16th US Congress.

Only six months in the Senate, Jesse Thomas did not hesitate to insert himself in the maelstrom. By the end of February 1820, shunning the limelight, he had introduced four similar bills in the Senate successively, all carefully worded, with slight, but telling differences. Favored in the Senate, they were rejected in the House. An impasse loomed. On a motion by Thomas the Senate named three negotiators to meet with House counterparts and somehow birth a bill that could pass both houses. Thomas was one of the three Senate negotiators.

The upshot of the conference, briefly put, was a compromise to admit Missouri as a slave state. For the rest of the Purchase territory a line would be drawn at latitude 36[degrees] 30' with slavery allowed south of it, but forbidden north of it. That was Thomas's four-ply amendment, restored to the act by the conferees.

The agreed-to bill passed easily in the Senate. Speaker Henry Clay rammed it through the House, and President James Monroe signed it. Jesse Thomas's handprints were all over it. In this well-written, thoughtful, and intensely researched book, Hall has told us all about it in what now must be considered one of the best books written on that hard-won Compromise of 1820.

Pamtego, Texas

John C. Waugh

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Title Annotation:THE AMERICAS
Author:Waugh, John C.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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