The St. Louis Junto played a key role in shaping the politics of early nineteenth-century Missouri. A coalition of French Creole elites, merchants, lawyers, landowners, and conservative-minded city residents, the junto sought to protect the land and commercial interests of St. Louis’s gentry. The group won the favor of US territorial officials, competed against American newcomers for political influence, and ensured that the Missouri Constitution of 1820 protected slavery and had conservative features. As Americans flocked into Missouri in the late 1810s and early 1820s, the junto’s hold over Missouri politics collapsed. But its impact on the state constitution guaranteed that its legacy would be felt until the eve of the Civil War.
The St. Louis Junto profoundly shaped Missouri’s politics as Missouri transitioned from a territory to a state. Called “the little junto” by its rivals, the group’s diverse membership shared several political interests: the protection of land grants promised by the Spanish colonial government in 1800, the removal of US-operated trade factories to secure their fur-trading ambitions, the improvement of public schools and transportation, and the desire to influence American officials. Supported by St. Louis’s French-speaking elites, the junto’s leadership included merchants Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, lawyer Edward Hempstead, and politicians Thomas Hart Benton and John Scott.
Networks of French elites, led by the Chouteaus, dominated St. Louis politics before the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The junto’s organizational ties emerged in the early years of American territorial rule. Although they were promised thousands of uncultivated acres by the Spanish administration, the powerful Chouteau family and other French merchants feared that their land grants would be rejected by the newly arrived American territorial officials. From 1804 onward, French elites attempted to secure their land claims by winning over American officials—such as General James Wilkinson and Governor William Clark—with dinner invitations, business ventures, and political support.
The junto’s land claims and alliance with leading territorial officials enraged American land speculators and farmers who settled in Missouri throughout the 1810s. These disgruntled American newcomers sought both Indian land and uncultivated French acres to establish farmsteads or to sell to incoming American settlers. They were represented by an “anti-junto” group led by Missouri Gazette editor Joseph Charless, politician Rufus Easton, speculator William Russell, district judge John B. C. Lucas, and his son Charles Lucas. Charless often criticized the elitism of the junto in the Gazette, sarcastically describing his rivals as “the honorable bench, bar, and military.”
With a growing American population and a rival political faction, the junto’s hold on Missouri politics weakened in the second half of the 1810s. In 1815 the Territorial Assembly appealed to the American majority, passing legislation that first taxed uncultivated lands and later all lands. The junto and its French supporters felt threatened by the tax, as many elites such as Chouteau had yet to cultivate the lands promised to them by the Spanish. Moreover, the US government increasingly interfered in the Native American fur trade with its trading factories, which drained the funds of the junto’s fur traders.
The political tension between the junto and anti-junto forces erupted after junto member Edward Hempstead refused to seek reelection as territorial delegate to Congress. Missouri voters selected anti-junto member Rufus Easton as Hempstead’s replacement in 1814. In 1816 the junto challenged Easton’s reelection by supporting fellow member and St. Genevieve native John Scott. Junto members said that Scott would solve Missourians’ problems with US fur-trading factories, the federally controlled saline and lead lands, and Missouri’s sluggish path to statehood.
Scott won the election in 1816, but the Congress declared the election invalid and issued a new election in the summer of 1817. Scott once again defeated Easton, but his victory did not resolve Missouri’s political tensions. Anti-junto member Joseph Charless believed that the militia’s pro-Scott parade on election day influenced what he called a “MILITARY ELECTION.”
The animosity between the anti-junto and junto forces sparked an election-day duel between Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Lucas. After Lucas questioned whether Benton paid his taxes, Benton publicly denounced the young Charles as a “puppy.” This was a terrible insult in nineteenth-century America. An infuriated Lucas challenged Benton to a duel. Benton mortally wounded Lucas in the duel. The killing further intensified the junto and anti-junto tensions.
Despite these tensions and an increasingly anti-junto American population, the junto managed to play a key role in shaping Missouri’s state constitution. After the Missouri Enabling Act tasked Missourians to draft a constitution in March 1820, the junto—led by lawyer David Barton—ensured that they would dominate the constitutional convention. While it allowed for universal manhood suffrage for whites, the Missouri Constitution of 1820 had several conservative features, including a strong judiciary with judges appointed for life and lofty salaries for the governor and judges. Like most white Missourians, the junto and the framers of the constitution sought to protect slavery. The framers prevented the legislature from restricting the importation of enslaved blacks and from emancipating enslaved peoples without an owner’s consent. Charless complained in the Gazette that the junto’s influence on the constitution represented a “determination . . . to dispose of the loaves and fishes in the future state of Missouri.”
Missouri’s early statehood years spelled the downfall for the St. Louis Junto. The 1820s witnessed widespread democratic fervor throughout the United States. Political candidates who supported the interests of the common white man won political seats, often at the expense of conservative elites. This democratic climate would have consequences for the junto and territorial governor William Clark. In the summer of 1820, Alexander McNair, who had broken away from the junto because of their declining influence, challenged Clark for the governorship of the new state. Clark’s ties to the junto ruined his chances for election, as McNair defeated him 6,576 to 2,656. While junto members David Barton and Thomas Hart Benton served as Missouri’s first US senators, Benton soon abandoned his ties with the St. Louis elite in favor of ordinary white Missourians. Many of the group’s Frenchmen—such as Charles P. Chouteau—would eventually become members of the Whig Party. Despite its downfall, the St. Louis Junto’s influence on the state constitution—especially the protection of slavery—would shape the state and its politics until the Civil War.
Aron, Stephen. American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Foley, William E. The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Gitlin, Jay. The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Primm, James Neal. Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri. Boulder, CO: Pruett, 1980.
Published September 16, 2021; Last updated July 14, 2022
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)