While historians have been quick to highlight the national reasons for Jefferson’s vocal support for the admission of Missouri, the situation at Monticello that shaped his thinking has been largely overlooked. In September 1819, Jefferson had agreed to be guarantor of two $10,000 loans for his friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, who promptly died the following year. This crippling blow added to his own multitude of debts which had accumulated through the previous years as a result of poor planting, overspending and the financial downturn as a result of the Panic of 1819. The Panic had led to a serious fall in the price of Monticello’s main crop, flour, as Jefferson described: “it does not yield the third of the price of 3 or 4 years ago.”[1] Land prices also fell dramatically. The culmination of all these factors meant that as the Missouri Crisis raged, Thomas Jefferson was facing the greatest financial test of his life.

Thomas Jefferson in 1820. Portrait by Thomas Sully

 By 1820, Jefferson had given up the management of Monticello. In his words: “age, it’s ordinary infirmities, and frequent attacks of illness have rendered me unable to attend to my own affairs, which I have in consequence committed to the care of a grandson.”[2] Aware of his own mortality, and the financial burden through debt that he was likely to leave his family, his slaves remained the only tangible asset they stood to inherit. Virginian slaves fed the growing westward expansion of plantation agriculture, and retained their value even after the Panic of 1819. Jefferson therefore had a real financial incentive for arguing against the Tallmadge Amendment. Along with the fear that his friends and neighbors in Virginia would lose political clout, Jefferson plunged headlong into the debate over Missouri’s admission to the union.

Thomas Jefferson
"... but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror." -1820

In 1820, Congress reached a compromise to settle the Missouri debate, and the future of slavery in the western territories once and for all. To keep the balance of power in the Senate, Missouri was allowed to enter the union as a slave state, while Maine (newly separated from Massachusetts) was admitted as a free state. To curtail future arguments on the subject, a geographic line was drawn along the southern border of Missouri across the western territories. Below the 36⁰ 30’ line slavery would be permitted, while the land above it was reserved for free states. It seemed that the crisis had been solved without bloodshed when, in 1821, Missouri achieved US statehood. 

The US after the Missouri Compromise

Even after the compromise had been agreed, however, Jefferson lamented the agreement. He was sure that the drawing of the compromise line would not solve the problem for future generations. In 1823, he wrote to Supreme Court justice William Johnson that “this case is not dead, it only sleepeth. the Indian chief said he did not go to war for every petty injury by itself; but put it into his pouch, and when that was full, he then made war.”[3]

Along with his fears over the creation of the 36⁰ 30’ line, Jefferson also rued the apparent geographical shift of political power in the US wrought by the crisis. “It was a project of federalism…they have succeeded. the East is replaced in the saddle of government, and the middle states are to be the cattle yoked to their car.”[4] Jefferson had seen a new generation of politicians take the stage, and saw it only as detrimental to Virginia and the Republican Party he had helped to create.

The Missouri debate was the last time that Thomas Jefferson took center stage in US politics. Retiring back to Monticello, Jefferson wrote that, “with one foot in the grave,—I have no right to meddle with these things.”[5] Instead, he surrounded himself with his family, his beloved books, his new university in Charlottesville and the debt that would eventually lose his family their ancestral home. Jefferson played a central role in the debate, as a respected American founder arguing forcefully for state’s rights and the expansion of slavery. In this role, Jefferson not only heard slavery’s “firebell in the night,” but helped to kindle the flames of its westward advance, creating an inferno that subsequent generations would struggle to douse.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to Craven Peyton, 8 March 1820.

[2] Thomas Jefferson to Pascal Etienne Meinadier, 12 November 1819.

[3] Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 12 June 1823.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 23 October 1821.

[5] Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 23 November 1821.