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Letter by Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820

President Jefferson’s letter reveals his fear that the extension of slavery into the West would destroy the Union. John Holmes became one of the first senators to serve from Maine, when the state was admitted to the Union as part of the Missouri Compromise.

Manuscript Division, Library of Congressa

Letter by Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820

A Fire Bell in the Night, 1819-1820

When Missouri petitioned to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, it ignited a dispute that Thomas Jefferson compared to "a fire bell in the night." But this was one fire Congress could not put out completely.

Representative James Tallmadge of New York proposed an amendment to Missouri's statehood bill gradually ending slavery there. The Senate defeated the bill because of Tallmadge's amendment. The next year, Senator Jesse Thomas of Illinois devised a compromise: simultaneously admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, while banning slavery in most of the Louisiana Territory. Speaker Henry Clay used his popularity and parliamentary skill to win House agreement. The solution ended the immediate crisis—but only postponed a final showdown.

If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish."
—Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia, 1819