Looking at Missouri’s 1850 census returns down to the county level yesterday got me wondering just how many different Missouris lurked behind the numbers. I decided to cut a few out and see what appeared.
It would not do to take this too far. I made no effort to geographically consolidate these states within a state, ensure they had sensible borders, or had anything else in common save for their demographics. Listing here should not imply some kind of secessionist, or even merely dissenting, movement from establishment Missouri or Southern politics. The point of the exercise is to tease out contours in the state’s demographics and liken them to peers and other, similar situations in a broader context.
I began with the most obvious sectioning: the Missouri counties that had about the same number of slaves or fewer, proportionately, as Delaware in 1850. The first state’s three counties together held 2,290 slaves in that census, for 2.50% of the state population of 91,532. Delaware in Missouri includes twenty counties with a total population of 40,428 people and 603 slaves. That works out to 5.91% of the state’s total population, 6.72% of its white population, and 0.71% of its black population. It has less than half the population of the real Delaware and while 11.25% of Delaware’s black population lived as slaves, 93.93% of Delaware in Missouri’s black population did. To white eyes, Delaware in Missouri must have looked pretty free. Its 39 free blacks knew otherwise.
Still, one could read Delaware in Missouri’s demographics as an omen of the future. Few people lived there, but in 1850 Missouri still had frontiers left in it just waiting for free white settlement to drive the enslaved percentage down, form an indifferent and vaguely antislavery bloc, and grow the state to freedom. Thomas Hart Benton certainly thought so, and he had thirty years of statewide politics under his belt to back him up.
Delaware would not take compensated emancipation even when Lincoln offered it, so perhaps we should not look there for demographic signs of incipient emancipation even if the state is such an oddity in the South. The last two states to emancipate before the Civil War, New York and New Jersey, might make for better benchmarks. In 1790, both still had slave codes on the books. New York held 21,193 slaves (6.23%) and New Jersey held 11,423 (6.20%). If they could emancipate with so few, then in principle Missouri could too. James Tallmadge certainly thought so in 1820 when he ignited the Missouri controversy by putting an amendment for gradual emancipation into the act admitting Missouri as a state.
Taking New York’s 1790 benchmark of 6.23% enslaved, we come up with more than forty counties. Together, they have 36.49% of the state’s population, 40.00% of its white population, 62.18% of its free black population, and 12.34% of its slave population. Once more, a vast majority (86.88%) of its black population live as slaves. New York enslaved 81.91% of its black population in 1790 and still managed to emancipate in 1799. More than a third of the Show Me State’s residents live in New York in Missouri and 1790 New York proved that a state with its degree of slavery could emancipate. Benton’s vision of a free Missouri does seem near at hand here, and in a section of the state with enough people that we can’t dismiss it as a remote aberration like we could Delaware in Missouri.