updated 7/16/2008 5:11:41 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:11:41

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their expedition across the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific in May 1804, the place they embarked from was St. Louis. On high ground just below the point where the Missouri River swirls into the Mississippi, St. Louis was at the time the one well-established city in America’s interior, with an aristocracy of French merchants, a brawling bourgeoisie of Yankee and Southern frontiersmen and fur traders and a proletariat of black slaves. Part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, St. Louis by 1821 was part of the new state of Missouri, and for decades St. Louis and Missouri were the gateways to the frontier. In Missouri Daniel Boone finally found elbow room. Here were the eastern termini of the Pony Express, in St. Joseph, and the Santa Fe Trail, in Westport, now part of Kansas City; here were railroads reaching across the continent, connecting the farmers of vast prairies with their markets. Here also were the Mississippi River steamboats, and the boyhood home of their great chronicler, Mark Twain.

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For Missouri was not just the gateway to the frontier; it was also a focus of the furious battle over slavery. Missouri was the northernmost slave state in 1850; it was Missouri ruffians crossing the border and killing antislavery settlers in the Kansas Territory that led proximately to the Civil War, and Missouri had its own mini-civil war in the hilly counties along the Missouri River. Throughout the 19th century, both before and after the Civil War, Americans turned away from their oceans and headed inward to settle the great interior of the continent. They found Missouri at its heart, with farmland and mines, rivers and railroads, a major manufacturing state—and in the days before tractors, the nation’s leading breeder and trader of mules. In 1874 the Eads Bridge opened, one of very few across the Mississippi, and St. Louis’ Cupples Station was the largest rail hub in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, Missouri was the fifth largest state and St. Louis was the fourth largest city, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and one of the few cities with two major league baseball teams, the Cardinals and the Browns; Missouri after the 1900 Census had 16 congressional districts.

Today, Missouri does not loom as large in the national consciousness, yet it is in some ways still central. In the 20th century, Americans—like the Browns who moved to Baltimore in the 1950s and the football Cardinals who moved to Phoenix in the 1980s—increasingly headed toward the coasts, to the big cities of the East and West, and eventually to Florida and Texas. Missouri has had below average population growth since 1900, and today it is the 17th largest state, with just nine congressional districts. But Missouri was the geographic center of the nation’s population in the 2000 Census: an imaginary, flat map of the United States population, if everyone weighed the same, would balance near Edgar Springs in Phelps County, Missouri. Missouri started perking up demographically in the 1990s, growing by 9% (its greatest decennial increase in a century); growth was particularly strong in the outer suburbs of St. Louis and Kansas City and in the Ozarks; dozens of rural counties that have been losing population for most of the 20th century started growing again. The state economy, long sluggish, was showing signs of solid growth. And Missouri has again captured Americans’ imaginations: if Americans in 1904 flocked to St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi, in the 1990s their vans and buses were jamming the two-lane road through the Ozarks to Branson, population 7,010, now one of America’s top tourist destinations (with nearly eight million visitors a year), with country music stars and soft rock veterans.

Culturally, Missouri remains more conservative than most bigger states. Its relatively slow-growing metro areas have not overwhelmed the countryside; the only big growth is at the far edges of the metro areas and in the Ozarks. This rural Missouri is a land of farms and small towns, thick with churches and free of glitzy shopping centers, laced with man-made lakes and boat launches, with only one town over 150,000 (Springfield) and 103 counties where life—and politics—seem not to have changed much over the past half-century.

For most of the 20th century, Missouri was one of America’s political bellwethers: it has voted for every presidential winner but one (Eisenhower in 1956) since 1900. From the 1960s to the 1990s it mirrored national trends by moving its congressional politics from pretty solidly Democratic to leaning Republican. Starting with the excruciatingly close presidential year of 2000, the results in Missouri have been very close as well. Missouri had eight contests for president, senator and governor between 2000 and 2006, and only one of them has been decided by a wide margin, Senator Christopher Bond’s reelection in 2004. In the other seven contests, Republicans got between 47% and 53% of the vote, Democrats between 46% and 50%. Republicans won four of those contests, Democrats three. The Republicans’ percentages averaged 49.7%, the Democrats’ 48.4%. The popular vote margins in seven elections in which 16 million votes were cast was less than 260,000 votes.

The patterns of support in these 21st century elections were very different from what prevailed for most of the 20th century. Then Missouri’s ancient Civil War political divisions still held: Little Dixie in the northeast, first settled by Virginians, and the northwest, settled by Southerners, voted Democratic; the Ozarks in the southwest, which was pro-Union, was unusually Republican; the southeast was split, like next-door Downstate Illinois. Now the real divide is between the state’s two big metropolitan areas and the rural remainder of Missouri. The St. Louis metro area voted 54%-45% for John Kerry; metro Kansas City, about half as big, voted 52%-47% for Kerry. But the rest of Missouri, casting 43% of the votes, went 63%-36% for George W. Bush. Kerry carried St. Louis city, St. Louis County, Kansas City’s Jackson County and just one of the 112 other counties in the state; Bush carried 111. The 2006 Senate race was a contest between incumbent Republican Jim Talent and Democratic Auditor Claire McCaskill, who lost a race for governor in 2004. McCaskill won 50%-47%, carrying metro St. Louis 55%-43% and metro Kansas City, her home area, 57%-40%; she lost the rest of the state 52%-42%. Ancestrally Democratic rural counties have taken to electing Republican congressmen and legislators. Only one Democrat, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, represents a congressional district that is predominantly rural. Missouri remains closely divided between the parties, just as it is uniquely divided in another way: this is the only state whose name is pronounced differently in different regions: in metro St. Louis they say Missouree, in the rest of the state Missouruh.


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