Missouri’s Western Identity During the Nineteenth Century

Thomas Hart Benton. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Thomas Hart Benton. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The recent and ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri, since the August death of Michael Brown have sparked a national (and international) interest in learning more about political, social, cultural, and economic conditions in Missouri. Countless articles, features, and op-eds in publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vox have literally created a new writing genre best described as “Ferguson studies.” And, unsurprisingly, many of these writers have turned to Missouri’s history for context. One article within this growing canon, written by journalist Ryan Schuessler and recently published by AlJazzera America, argues that the roots of Missourians’ polarizing responses to Ferguson can be traced back to their contrasting interpretations and memories of the American Civil War.

Schuessler’s article–which is part Civil War history and part memory analysis–suggests that Missouri has long suffered from an identity crisis marked by two distinct “heritage groups” within the state. One is led by people who say “Missour-uh”: they consider themselves and their state as distinctly southern, are sympathetic to the Confederacy, and are working for the legal right to have the Confederate battle flag flown at various Civil War historic sites throughout the state. We also learn about the residents of Rosebud, Missouri, who greeted a group of NAACP demonstrators from Ferguson in December by raising the Confederate flag and leaving fried chicken, watermelon, and beer for them. While a Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) leader makes sure to distance himself from the Rosebud residents in the article, one notes the tension between the SCV’s stated desire to wave the flag as a way to honor the service of their Confederate ancestors and the Rosebud group’s waving of the flag to “greet” African American demonstrators making their way through the state.

The other heritage group, we are told, is led by people who say “Missour-ee” and consider themselves and their state to be of “Northern persuasion.” Within this group Schuessler highlights the efforts of several African American residents to commemorate the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the first United States Colored Troops unit to fight in the Civil War and largely composed of African American soldiers from Missouri.

Schuessler concludes that the “Missour-uh” and “Missour-ee” groups have fundamentally different perspectives about the Show-Me state and its history, and as a native Missourian I can attest that we’ve never arrived at a clear consensus about our identity, much less a correct pronunciation of the state’s name. But further reading and contemplation about these arguments lead me to conclude that the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” divide is a flawed dichotomy that doesn’t do much to help us understand Missouri’s identity in historical context or within the myriad responses to Ferguson from residents today.

While it’s true that some Missourians during the nineteenth century identified themselves as having “southern” or “northern” persuasions, a number of Missourians considered themselves outside this paradigm. For example,Julia Dent Grant, wife of General and President Ulysses S. Grant, recalled in her Personal Memoirs an incident during the Civil War in which she explained her identity as a westerner to a group of Southern women in Holly Springs, Mississippi, while visiting her husband:

We were soon chatting pleasantly, when one said: “You are Southern, are you not?” “No,” I replied, “I am from the West. Missouri is my native state.” “Yes, we know, but Missouri is a Southern state. Surely, you are Southern in feelings and principle.” “No, indeed,” I declared. “I am the most loyal of the loyal.” (106)

What did it mean to identify oneself as a westerner in Missouri during the nineteenth century? An entire book could be written on the topic, but we can get a rough idea by looking at the example of Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s most famous antebellum politician whose likeness adorns National Statuary Hall at Capitol Hill today.

Born in North Carolina and serving as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, Benton settled in Missouri after the war and helped usher the passage of the 1820 Missouri Compromise that established Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and prohibited slavery in all Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36 30′ parallel (Missouri’s southern border). Although Benton and General Jackson’s relationship cooled during and after the War of 1812, Benton shared Jackson’s disdain of banks and paper currency, arguing that the Bank of the United States made “the rich richer and the poor poorer.” He became known for his efforts to cancel the Bank’s charter and was a leading Jacksonian Democrat in Congress throughout the 1830s and early 1840s. He was also a slaveholder who defended the right to own slaves in states where it was already legal.

Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the acquisition of a large amount of Western territory that formerly composed almost half of Mexico’s land, however, Benton found himself increasingly at odds with his fellow Democrats, both north and south. In 1847 Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot, in the hopes of making the west an area exclusively for white settlement, proposed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist” in any territory acquired from Mexico. South Carolina Democrat and Senator John Calhoun created a “Southern Rights” doctrine in response to the Wilmot proviso, arguing that slave property couldn’t be distinguished from any other property protected under the fifth amendment and that any effort to ban slavery in these new territories threatened the “self-preservation” of Southern society. Benton opposed the further extension of slavery, but he took issue with both sides, dismissing the Wilmot proviso as unnecessarily divisive within the Democratic party while criticizing Calhoun’s hardline stance on slavery. When Calhoun called out Benton for not standing in solidarity with other Senators from slave states, Benton responded by saying that he was “in the right place . . . on the side of my country and the Union.”

For the remainder of the 1840s and into the 1850s Benton called for federal funding to establish a national road built with both macadamized roads and iron railways (through St. Louis, course) to connect new western territories with the rest of the country. He sought moderation and compromise on the slavery question, which he considered a distraction from his national road agenda:

We read in Holy Writ, that a certain people were cursed by a plague of frogs, and that the plague was everywhere. You could not sit down at the banquet table but there were frogs, you could not go to the bridal couch and lift the sheets but there were frogs! We can see nothing, touch nothing, have no measures proposed, without having this pestilence thrust before us. Here it is, this black question, forever on the table, on the nuptial couch, everywhere!

Fellow Missouri Democrats who supported Calhoun’s “Southern Rights” doctrine criticized Benton’s advocacy of political moderation on slavery and infrastructure improvements through federal funding. After future Missouri governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and his allies issued the “Jackson Resolutions” in opposition to Benton’s policies, Benton accused Southern Democrats of encouraging disunion. Benton was later denied a sixth term in office following the 1850 elections, and after successfully running for the House of Representatives in 1852, lost again in 1854 after opposing Congress’s effort to repeal the Missouri Compromise.

Benton’s legacy as a Missouri politician and his identification with westward expansion defy the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” split, as do the many Missouri “Benton Democrats” who embraced his beliefs in the antebellum years. Those beliefs included the defense of slavery at home but opposition to its westward expansion in new territories, federal funding for national infrastructure projects, a belief in Missouri as a western state linking the rest of the country together, and a strong loyalty to the Union combined with staunch opposition to secession. The fact that Missouri’s identity as a western state has been lost today tells us much about the ways Missourians have chosen to remember their role in the Civil War.

With regards to the “Missour-uh-Missour-ee” split today, it should be easy to see the shortcomings of thinking that the responses to Ferguson can be neatly broken down into two camps composed of Confederate and Union heritage groups. Is there a connection between the memory of the Civil War and Ferguson today? I’m sure there is. Raising a Confederate flag in front of a group of African American demonstrators would be pointless otherwise. But focusing on the actions of a small minority of Confederate apologists in Rosebud or elsewhere still blinds us to the pervasive racism we see all throughout Missouri from all sorts of people. Here in the St. Charles/St. Louis area the large number of white people who support putting up a #PantsUPdontLOOT billboard in Florissant and who drive trucks with signs like “Mike Brown was a thug” (which is code for another term) do so while pronouncing the Show-Me state as “Missour-ee” and waving U.S. flags on their front porches. Indeed, for all of the talk about Missouri’s ongoing identity crisis, its collective inability to deal with a troubling legacy of racism in government policy and social practice remains.