Two hundred years ago, Northern and Southern politicians came together to sign the Missouri Compromise. The bill, which admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state, Maine as a “free” state, and drew a line to the Pacific at 36 degrees 30 minutes (the Southern boundary of Missouri) that was intended to divide slavery from “freedom” forever after, is generally and properly considered a milestone on the pathway toward the Civil War and the conflict over slavery.
But popular memory has forgotten that it did even more than that. For many in Missouri, the statehood question was not simply a debate over slavery, but a purposeful effort to keep all black people, whether enslaved or free, out of Missouri and the West. In fact, the statehood debate was shaped around a de facto compromise between the slaveholding and working-class, anti-black elements of the state’s settler polity.
Understanding the Missouri Compromise in this way points the way to a reinterpretation of the Civil War as something other than a simple conflict between North and South or even slavery and freedom. Rather, the Civil War was a conflict between two interconnected but also antagonistic versions of white American expansion: one premised upon slavery, the other upon freedom not just from slavery but from black people entirely.
While we commonly think of slavery, sharecropping and segregation in the South as driving anti-blackness in American history, the process of western expansion, with the attendant notion of “the white man’s country,” that undergirded the development of cities such as St. Louis and the United States, is equally essential to explaining the power and persistence of anti-blackness today.