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Wolf by the Ears

The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821

From the early days of the republic, American leaders knew that an unpredictable time bomb—the question of slavery—lay at the heart of national politics. An implicit understanding between North and South helped to keep the issue at bay: northern states, where slavery had been set on course for extinction via gradual emancipation, tacitly agreed to respect the property rights of southern slaveholders; in return, southerners essentially promised to view slaveholding as a practical evil and look for ways to get rid of it. By 1819–1820, however, westward expansion had brought the matter to a head. As Thomas Jefferson wrote at the time, a nation dealing with the politically implacable issue of slavery essentially held the "wolf" by the ears—and could neither let go nor hang on forever.

In Wolf by the Ears, John R. Van Atta discusses how the sectional conflict that led to the Civil War surfaced in the divisive fight over Missouri statehood. The first organized Louisiana Purchase territory to lie completely west of the Mississippi River and northwest of the Ohio, Missouri carried special significance for both pro- and anti-slavery advocates. Northern congressmen leaped out of their seats to object to the proposed expansion of the slave "empire," while slave-state politicians voiced outrage at the northerners’ blatant sectional attack. Although the Missouri confrontation ultimately appeared to end amicably with a famous compromise that the wily Kentuckian Henry Clay helped to cobble together, the passions it unleashed proved vicious, widespread, and long lasting.

Van Atta deftly explains how the Missouri crisis revealed the power that slavery had already gained over American nation building. He explores the external social, cultural, and economic forces that gave the confrontation such urgency around the country, as well as the beliefs, assumptions, and fears that characterized both sides of the slavery argument. Wolf by the Ears provides students in American history with an ideal introduction to the Missouri crisis while at the same time offering fresh insights for scholars of the early republic.

About the Author

John R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850.

Endorsements

Students and specialists have long needed a study of the Missouri Compromise that would take advantage of recent scholarship and lift the subject beyond the fine-grained detail of political and legislative negotiation. In Wolf by the Ears, Van Atta does both and more, analyzing the Missouri question in ways that put the entire issue into the broadest possible context. His wider lens not only produces a refreshing contribution to the history of the Early Republic but to the entire antebellum era. An excellent book.

- Harry L. Watson, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, author of Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America

Reviews

Van Atta produces an incredibly readable and engaging work perfect for classroom use or as a refresher for those historians who need a compact summation of the latest scholarship surrounding this important historical moment in the early nation.

- James J. Gigantino II - Missouri Historical Review

In this engaging work, Van Atta... provides an in-depth analysis of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, a seminal event on the road to the Civil War...

- Choice

Wolf by the Ears should be valued by scholars seeking a quick overview of antebellum American political history. More than just short, yet comprehensive, Van Atta’s account is comprehensible, which should make it especially valuable to students, who should welcome its inclusion on course syllabi.

- Middle West Review

Van Atta expertly outlines the intellectual and ideological ramifications of slavery's expansion--which can often become quite complex and convoluted--with an engaging style...This text is particularly suited for college students, nonspecialists, and those wanting a refresher on the sectional conflict of the antebellum period.

- Western Historical Quarterly

Van Atta has written the clearest narrative of the Missouri crisis to date. students and scholars alike will profit from reading this brief yet thorough survey of a seminal moment in the history of the early republic.

- Louisiana History

The meticulous translation and excellent editorial annotations make this a deeply valuable scholarly contribution.

- Louisiana History

John R Van Atta has written a fine synthesis on the Missouri crisis that incorporates some of the best scholarship in the field. It serves as a wonderful introduction to the subject.

- Journal of Southern History

9781421416526 : wolf-by-the-ears-van-atta
Hardback
216 Pages
$50.00 USD
9781421416533 : wolf-by-the-ears-van-atta
Paperback / softback
216 Pages
$19.95 USD
9781421416540 : wolf-by-the-ears-van-atta
Electronic book text
216 Pages
$19.95 USD

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Charging Up San Juan Hill

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