The new year marks Missouri's bicentennial - on Aug. 10, 1821, Missouri became the 24th state to enter the union. The path to and early years of statehood were long and controversial, and St. Charles County played a significant role as home to the first state capitol.
After Missouri Territory was granted third-class status in 1816, the powers of the territorial government increased, and voters were allowed to elect both houses of the territorial legislature. Nevertheless, the men previously appointed were now elected as the voters deferred to influential lawyers and landowners. The principal question that engaged public attention then was to secure a State government for and the admission of Missouri into the Union.”1 Statehood had been discussed since the War of 1812 and Samuel Hammond, Colonel Commandant of the St. Louis District of the Louisiana Territory who became the first president (governor) of the Missouri Territorial Council in 1813, drafted an application for statehood in 1816. Congressman Rufus Easton, born in Connecticut, co-sponsored a bill in Congress in 1816 to abolish slavery west of the Mississippi River. That year, Easton was defeated in a close race by John Scott, a Kentucky native who worked hard for slavery, clearly favored by the majority of his constituents. In December 1819, a prospectus for the Missourian, a newspaper planned for St. Charles, suggested, “Just emerging from a state of territorial imbecility, to the light and life of a free and independent state, Missouri begins to see the dawn of a new order of things.”2
The voters in the 15 counties of the territory elected delegates to a constitutional convention in May 1820. Benjamin Emmons III, Nathan Boone and Hiram Baber were elected to represent St. Charles County. When the elderly Daniel Boone, Nathan’s father, died while the convention was deliberating, Benjamin Emmons III offered, and the convention passed, a resolution that the members wear “the usual badge of mourning” for 30 days. The convention, largely composed of conservative wealthy men, including the “junto” from St. Louis, who had dominated territorial affairs, elected David Barton as presiding officer. The document they approved, drafted by Convention Delegate Edward Bates, was very similar to the constitution of Kentucky, and pro-slavery. Since the admission of Missouri as a slave state would have given the slave states a majority in the United States Senate, Missouri’s admission was possible only after a compromise admitted Maine as a free state at the same time. An additional term of the “Missouri Compromise” prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri’s southern boundary, except for Missouri.3 The people were not allowed to vote on ratification of the constitution, which provided for appointment of all judges of the county, circuit and appellate courts, as well as justices of the peace in each township. Thus, the constitution itself became the first topic of political debate in the new state. In the first gubernatorial race, Colonel Alexander McNair, who opposed the appointed judiciary, won three to one in St. Charles County and won the race, enroute to his victory over William Clark, the candidate of the conservative St. Louis “junto.” Voters elected William Ashley, who had also been a colonel in the militia, to the post of lieutenant governor.
In 1821, representatives from throughout the new state of Missouri traveled the rivers, streams, trails and primitive roads to come to St. Charles, the temporary state capital of Missouri. St. Charles beat eight other cities in a competition to house the temporary capitol while the “City of Jefferson” was built. Ruluff and Charles Peck had built two buildings on Main Street for their residence and store. When the Missouri General Assembly was deciding where to locate the State Capitol, St. Charles offered them the buildings rent-free. The second floor of the Peck building housed the Missouri General Assembly, and the building next door was used for the Governor’s office and committee rooms. The first session of the legislature convened on Main Street in St. Charles on June 4, 1821, in response to the call of Governor Alexander McNair and two months before Missouri was officially admitted into the union. Men in not very fancy clothes met in these not very fancy quarters to launch representative government in Missouri. Robert Wells and Henry Geyer served in the legislative branch, while Joshua Barton, William Pettus, Hamilton Gamble, Rufus Easton, and Edward Bates served in the administration. The members of the legislature could look out the back windows of the Capitol buildings and see the Missouri River, once a highway of local commerce for the French and Indians, soon to become, with the introduction of steam, a highway of national commerce.
As part of a second Missouri Compromise, the General Assembly promised that they would never enforce the clause of the state constitution banning new freed slaves from the state. With further prompting by Senator Henry Clay, Congress accepted the promise and, on Aug. 10, 1821, President James Monroe proclaimed the admission of Missouri as the twenty-fourth state of the Union. Governor McNair officially informed the legislature in St. Charles of that fact on November 6, 1821. Sometime later, the legislature went back on its word and passed a statute keeping freed slaves out of the new state.4
The General Assembly adjourned for the last time in St. Charles on Jan. 21, 1826. When the state capital moved to Jefferson City in October 1826, St. Charles lost its position of preeminence in Missouri politics. While a farewell party for departing state officials was given in his home, William Pettus remained in St. Charles. Pettus served as County Court judge from 1827 until 1832, when he was elected to represent the Eighth Senatorial district, which included St. Charles County, in the Missouri Senate. He was a leading citizen of the county until he moved to St. Louis in 1855 to pursue business opportunities. Rufus Easton, who remained in St. Charles until his death in 1834, was buried in a cemetery on the campus of the Linden Wood School for Girls. After losing to Spencer Petttis in his bid for re-election to Congress, Edward Bates, who had married Julia Coalter, sister of John Coalter, in 1823, moved to Cheneaux, his plantation on Dardenne Prairie, where he lived from 1828 until 1842. Others also moved to St. Charles County, as the population grew to 4,320 by 1830. St. Charles, on the other hand, experienced little growth after the departure of the state government, causing one commentator to regret, “While the town enjoyed the perogatives (sic) of a state capital, it flourished and promised to be a place of very great importance, but it since declined considerably …”5 This statement certainly would not apply today.
2. William H. Taft, Missouri Newspapers, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964), 22.
3. Perry McCandliss, A History of Missouri, 1820 -1860, Volume II, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971), 5; Spellman, American Pioneers, 65.
Missouri, 47; Primm, Lion of the Valley, 121-122.
5. Valley of the Mississippi, 41. Edward Bates, born in Virginia in 1793, served as Missouri’s first Attorney General, U.S. Attorney and State Representative from St. Louis County. History of St. Charles County, 206-207. “Three Missouri Statehood Fathers,” MHR, January 1980. 267; Cain, Lincoln’s Attorney General, 7, 19.