Hooked on history: the Missouri Crisis, San Juan Hill, and my grandparents’ attic

Guest post by John R. Van Atta

Sevvanattaeral years ago, as I wandered around the book exhibit at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Johns Hopkins University Press’s Witness to History series caught my eye. After the meeting, acting on senior history editor Bob Brugger’s encouragement, I worked up a proposal for a volume on the Missouri Crisis, a subject that we thought could stand a little more consideration than recent literature had given it. The proposal eventually won approval from JHUP’s editorial board, and that was about all there was to it. Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 was published in May.

In years past, historians have paid more attention to the internal political dynamics of the Missouri controversy—the strategies within the debate itself, the implications for party development, the mechanics of Congressional deal making, and so on—than to the external social, cultural, and economic forces that gave the confrontation such urgency in the first place, informed the participants of the debate, and generated much of the reaction afterward. This book attempts, briefly, to unpack the crisis from that old box, examining the outside stimuli that gave the confrontation in Washington such resonance around the country.

The sectional conflict that led to the Civil War supplied plenty of historical drama over the years, never more so than in the fight over Missouri statehood, which first surfaced in Congress in 1819 and did not grow seemingly quiet until early 1821. At that time, Thomas Jefferson said that dealing with the implacable issue of slavery in national politics resembled trying to hold a “wolf” by the ears. Focusing on whether federal lawmakers should, or even could, prevent slavery from spreading beyond the Mississippi, the “Missouri Crisis” provided the first full-blown sectional controversy in United States history. This fight held the potential to end the fragile Union then and there. Angry exchanges during the Missouri debate proved as heated as any in the sectional disputes that followed and led to southern secession in 1861, and while the Missouri confrontation appeared to finish amicably with a famous compromise, the passions it unleashed proved bitter in the extreme, widespread, and long-lasting.

In North vs. South struggles after 1820, the language that antagonists employed always seemed reminiscent of this earlier crisis, but why did pent-up feelings explode in 1819–1821—and not at earlier moments when the subject of slavery had arisen? The answer, in large part, is that the Missouri Crisis revealed the power that slavery by then had gained over American nation-building, an impulse that fueled both anti- and pro-slavery convictions. Thus the need to focus on the larger historical processes at work in the years leading up to 1820, as revealed not only in Congress but also at the grassroots level—in towns, hotels and taverns, churches, state houses, lecture halls, and the like all around the country—a far broader “public sphere” than that of Washington, D.C. alone.

My discussion in this book broadly tracks the slavery issue from the Revolution to the Civil War, with a primary goal of looking ahead to, concentrating on, and relating back to the events of 1819–1821. The analytical emphasis falls less on the insider-politics detailed in other studies and more on beliefs, assumptions, fears, and reactions on both sides of the slavery argument. Some might fault this approach as “missing the trees for the forest.” But that vast, tangled forest is where one finds the keys to changing sectional perceptions that distinguished the Missouri Crisis from previous ones, animating not just the politicians in power, but many other Americans at the time and later down the road.

For my next project, I am under contract with Johns Hopkins to write another volume for the Witness series that will concentrate on Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. I’m approaching the story much more as a cultural study than as a military one. It will be entitled Charging up San Juan Hill: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of Imperial America. In a broad sense, this inquiry would furnish largely for student-readers a look into historical forces that underlay American empire-building at the end of the nineteenth century.

The overarching problem to be addressed in this next book would be the cultural meaning of “empire” for a hitherto republican civilization, all the more vital in an era of jarring social changes and lingering sectional tensions between North and South. Serious worries about Americans becoming corrupt, lawless, self-centered, fixated on luxury, and otherwise lacking in fundamental values had developed much earlier than the 1890s. Many observers understood republics to be fragile and that commitment to republican governance required attention to the more general question of the structure and character of society. They knew that republican societies, being vulnerable to decay from within, seldom survived very long without regenerating core virtues that provided the hardiness and moral strength of their people. I would argue that a vernacular of regeneration, varying from voice-to-voice and shifting in form to fit changing circumstances, echoed farther into the nineteenth century than historians sometimes realize. Although he wrote and spoke of roles demanded of both genders, Roosevelt’s primary concern focused on American manhood—the declining strength of male leaders in society, especially the privileged elite. He and others often expressed that concern in updated terms, of course, but still in language really not so distant in meaning from that of public virtue in the earlier nineteenth century.

Sometimes people ask me what led me into a career as a historian, and I usually answer that question by referring back to my childhood. We lived in southern Illinois back then, and every summer my parents would take my brothers and me to stay for several weeks at my grandparents’ farm in northwest Ohio, near the town of Clyde. We usually worked in the peach orchard all day. At about age 12, I first learned to drive on my grandfather’s World War II-era Willys jeep, traveling around the orchard and gathering the dozens of half-bushels that we had picked. More to the point, I found that exploring the attic and the closets upstairs in that old 1890s farmhouse was, for me, like opening a treasure trove of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts, including decades-old magazines that my grandparents never threw away, old World War II army uniforms that had belonged to my father and uncle during the war, and other bric-a-brac representing times very distant from my own experience. All of it seemed like entering into a magically different world. It fascinated me; I was hooked.

vanattaJohn R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 and Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850, both published by Johns Hopkins.