John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

The Missouri Compromise vs. the Mason-Dixon Line, or "36°30' or Fight"

One place that only occasionally showed up on my U.S. Capitol tours was the Senate Reception Room. It's not that it wasn't worth seeing -- it's a beautifully decorated space -- but it required a bit of a detour unless I was taking people onto the Senate floor, so if the Senate was in session I usually just passed it by. Those who did see it got look at portraits of four of the greatest U.S. Senators of all time, and also of John C. Calhoun.

The Senate Reception Room is on my mind today because one of the four is Henry Clay, and I just started a book in which Henry Clay promises to play a major role: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg. The book came out last year, but I had shied away from it because a review I read suggested Greenberg was unduly harsh toward President Polk, which is something I don't take kindly to. But I saw that the ebook edition could be borrowed from the WPLC Digital Library, so I decided to give it a try, promising myself I'd keep an open mind despite Greenberg's reputed Polk-hating.

But it's hard to keep an open mind when you're reading a history of 19th century America and you run across a passage like this:

[Clay's] Missouri Compromise of 1820 calmed a sectional firestorm by maintaining the balance of slave and free states while also limiting the future spread of slavery to south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Oy. In a certain hyper-technical sense this is not wholly inaccurate, but the Missouri Compromise had nothing at all to do with the Mason-Dixon Line. The Missouri Compromise accomplished two things. First, it simultaneously admitted Maine and Missouri to the Union, thus preserving a balance between free and slave states. Second, it drew a line at parallel 36°30' north -- roughly speaking, the southern border of Kentucky and Virginia, and the northernmost border of Texas -- and decreed that slavery could not spread above that line. (It was allow to remain there, though, and did until 1865.)

The Mason-Dixon Line, on the other hand, was drawn between 1763 and 1767 and defines the parts of the borders of four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. The east-west portion of the line, forming the southern boarder of Pensylvania, doesn't follow an exact line of latitude, but it's roughly at parallel 39°43' north. That's why I said the quote above is not wholly inaccurate; the Missouri Compromise line is unquestionably south of the Mason-Dixon Line, by about 220 miles. But the implication of Greenberg's statement is that the Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery to spread into what is now Kansas or Colorado, since both are below the Mason-Dixon Line, which in fact it would not have, because they're above 36°30'.

So this is a big mistake. But you know, mistakes happen, and naming one famous line when you mean another maybe isn't that a big a deal. It's kind of like the time I heard Sen. Barbara Mikulski say she was a big supporter of Barack Obiden. It was a slip of the tongue in print.

Except Greenberg might genuinely believe that the Mason-Dixon Line has something to do with slavery. From chapter 7:

Benjamin was one of the several African Americans working in the Hardins' Jacksonville [Illinois] mansion at the start of the war. The Hardins brought slaves with them when they moved from Kentucky in 1831 after their marriage, and others were left to the couple when Sarah's mother died. Although they lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the legal status of these African Americans was far from clear.

First of all, the Mason-Dixon Line ends when it hits the western border of Pennsylvania so saying that anything west of that point is above or below the line is kind of meaningless. If we pretend the Mason-Dixon Line does extend past that point, then it's true that Jacksonville is north of the line.

But so what? The Mason-Dixon Line had nothing to do with slavery. It wasn't drawn to demarcate slave states from free, nor was it ever used legally for that purpose. Yes, when Pennsylvania abolished slavery, the east-west portion of the line came to be seen in the popular imagination as the boundary between the slave and free states, but it wasn't; slavery remained legal north and east of the Pennsylvania border right up until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. So Jacksonville being north of the Mason-Dixon Line has no bearing on whether slavery was legal there. But unless Greenberg thinks it did, I can't understand why she even mentioned it.

Anyway, I plan to keep reading, but I fear the well's been poisoned. It's going to be hard for me to take very seriously.

Tags: delaware, history, illinois, maryland, pennsylvania, petty complaints, reading: books

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