The Moral Universe – Bleedin’ Missouri


Missouri has figured often in the history of civil rights in this country, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Dred Scott decision in the 1850s to lynchings in the Jim Crow era (has that era even ended) to the tragic events still unfolding in Ferguson.

As the westward expansion of the United States progressed in the early 19th century, the issue of whether territories would be accepted as free or slavery states became a tipping point with a direct line to the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise was completely political and had nothing to do with anyone’s rights. The point was to keep a balance of power in Congressional representation between slave and free states. Passed in 1820, the act admitted Maine as a free state in exchange for admitting Missouri as a slave state. The law also prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.


Missouri Compromise Map

The political upheaval engendered by this portioning out of territory created a major new political party and redefined another. The Whigs party evolved into the Republican Party, with its major plank being no new states with slavery. Democrats, though the name did not change, did have a lot of divisions based on geographical lines.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the man who lost the Presidency to Abraham Lincoln, pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery north of the 36° 30´ latitude. The bill also stipulated that it would be up to each territory’s residents to decide whether to be slave or free.

In 1857, the Supreme Court under Roger Taney (pronounced, oddly enough, “tawny”) declared, as a sidebar to the Dred Scott decision, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because the federal government did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

dred scott

Dred Scott

Kansas lies directly to the west of Missouri. New England abolitionists sent settlers there in order to populate it such that any vote on slavery would be a “no” vote. This caused proslavery settlers to go there as well and gave the future state the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas.” Much of the bleeding, however, was caused by neighboring Missourians who were proslavery and wanted a proslavery neighbor. They became known as border ruffians and made incursions into Kansas to harass, vandalize, and even kill free-staters.
Meanwhile, Dred and Harriet Scott were slaves who belonged to an Army officer. They moved with the officer from Missouri (slave state) to Illinois (free state) and Wisconsin (free state). Therefore, the couple lived for many years on free soil. The officer was ordered back to Missouri, where he died. An abolitionist lawyer helped Scott sue for his freedom in 1846 on the basis of the amount of time he had lived on free soil.

The case wound its way through various courts until it reached the Supreme Court. In 1857, SCOTUS ruled in a 7-2 decision that since no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be a US citizen, therefore Dred Scott had no right to sue for his freedom.

In her wonderful book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson says that St. Louis ranked #10 (most severe) out of the worst10 US cities in integration issues after the 1980 census. The term “hypersegregation,” she says, was applied to such cities by sociologists to describe areas where segregation “was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work.”

During the Civil War, the Missouri border ruffians spawned organized groups of renegades who were early role models for the Ku Klux Klan. One such group was led by William Quantrill, and “Quantrill’s Raiders” became a terrifying name to people in Kansas and beyond. The raiders were so brutal that Quantrill became wanted not only by the Union, but by the Confederacy as well. Jesse James started his career as an outlaw under Quantrill.

So what about now? What about what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri? The posts on Facebook are overwhelming. Some of the worst racist ideology I’ve ever seen is in some of them, and some of the most plain, common-sense ideas are in others. There’s a lot of foolish talk and there’s a lot of heart-wrenching talk. I’m not there, I’m not black, so do I even have a right to comment?
Well, I do have a right to my opinions, and here are a few of them:

1. Slavery – wrong, always, everywhere.
2. Police using deadly force against unarmed people – wrong, always, everywhere.
3. Anyone assuming they know the facts before the facts are collected – wrong, always, everywhere.
4. Thinking anyone on the face of this planet is “less than” because of color, religion, language, accent, shape of eyes, shape of nose, shape of skin – wrong, always, everywhere.

The most affecting piece I’ve read about Ferguson were written by Michael Twitty on his blog. I urge you to read it, which you can do by clicking on this link:


2 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – Bleedin’ Missouri

  1. Regarding the Dred Scott decision – well, how does one even comment on that? I just finished a fiction book called “Worthy Brown’s Daughter.” It takes place in Oregon in the same time period and had a similar situation where a man who had enslaved people in his household moved from Georgia to Oregon where slavery was not allowed. He automatically had to free Worthy Brown but refused to release Brown’s daughter saying that she was “better off” in the enslaver’s home (where he subsequently raped her.) And on and on it goes.


  2. I read a review of that book just before the season began. I’ll have to go back and look for it. I’m still reading “Song of the Shank.” His writing is beautiful and I like it but I have to say it’s a bit convoluted. Re Dred Scott, after his “master” died, the widow remarried. There’s a story that when Scott sued for his freedom, the widow’s second husband was appalled to learn that she even owned slaves. He hadn’t known. Wonder what the marriage was like after that.


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