Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking North from Missouri

I had the honor to be invited to participate in the plenary session of this year's conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic on "Crossroads Missouri."  Other scholars spoke on looking East, West and South from Missouri; I was asked to look North.  My remarks are below.

For Americans, the West has been a glittering abstraction, more of a mystical concept than a place. And this mystification has two very powerful rationales.  First, it obscures both the horrendous costs of western expansion to the people who lived there, as well as the real costs of its rewards: the maldistribution of land and riches that turned land speculators into a class of superrich. Second, the West provided a dialectical escape hatch—a spurious one, as it turned out—to evade the inexorable conflict of North and South. Jefferson invoked this tone of mysticism repeatedly, most memorably in his First Inaugural Address, describing America as “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson is demonstrating impeccable logic: only a limitless West can reconcile the contradiction of North and South. But it is equally clear that the West that solves this equation is an imaginary number.

Both Northerners and Southerners projected their dreams for the future on the West, and these collided catastrophically over the question of Missouri statehood. The traditional historiography, following the Jeffersonian narrative, painted the movement to restrict slavery in Missouri as a Federalist gambit to regain sectional political power. More recent scholars have seen it as a sincere and broad-based effort to reclaim the national character and save the West from slavery. But nearly all observers, including myself, have paid only cursory attention to the interests and motivations of the Missourians themselves.

Looking North from Missouri inherently positions Missouri as South. That’s right, isn’t it? As the center of the storm over slavery restriction, it would seem only natural to identify Missouri as a southern state. But I will argue that Missouri is something else entirely, something extremely important to our understanding of America and the function of the west.

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