The American Civil War---in 1790?

The American Civil War broke out in 1861. As early as 1790 it was already a concern. The Revolutionary War against the British had been won. By 1787 the Constitution of the United States had been signed and Congress had approved it. Slavery had been kept alive legally by the new nation’s constitution and everyone could move on, right?

The answer to that question was no. The issue of slavery had been so huge that the people who met to put our country together couldn’t. They couldn’t until they agreed to keep it. After that they couldn’t agree to stay together until they agreed many more times to keep it. One of those times came in 1790. The northern states wanted a strong central government and the southern states did not. The northern states wanted the nation’s new capital city to be in the north. The southern states wanted it in the south.

This conflict led to the Compromise of 1790. President Thomas Jefferson invited Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to his house in New York City. Each man got what he wanted for his side. Hamilton got a strong central government that would pay back the money the states had borrowed to fight the Revolutionary War. Madison got the right to choose where the new capital city would be located. That was important because it allowed the capital to be located right in the middle of slave country. That fact alone meant that it would be very hard for those in the north who were against slavery to do anything about it -- like stopping it.

So how would it work? The states of Maryland and Virginia would give up a part of their land for the new capital city. Since they were across the Potomac River from each other that was easy to do. Maryland and Virginia were also the states that had the most slaves. Together more than half of all the slaves in the new country lived in Maryland and Virginia. That would mean that if war broke out between the northern and the southern states the capital would be right in middle of slave country.

Of course we know that it didn’t work. Many other compromises would be tried to keep it all together but war would come. Slavery was too big an issue. It had to be fixed or there must be war. They knew it in 1790 when the country was just a few years old.

The Compromise of 1790 was so important that the Broadway play Hamilton includes a song about it. The name of the song is “The Room Where it Happens.”