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President John Adams: A Mild Critic of Slavery

The Federalist Party’s John Adams, the second president, was the only non-slaveholder among the early presidents of the United States. Born in Braintree, Massachusetts in an environment sharply contrasting with that of the other early presidents who were raised amidst the raging battle between slaves and those who claimed ownership of them, Adams grew up in an atmosphere charged with the fear of Native Americans, then desperately resisting efforts to expel them from the eastern part of the continent. Adams and other leading politicians who were somewhat critical of the actions of the Southern slaveholders, and who opposed slavery to some degree, were silenced by the great premium they themselves placed upon unity whites against the twin threats of Indians and Africans domestically, and the ever-changing array of international enemies internationally.

After entering Harvard in 1751, Adams embarked upon a career that saw him rise to become one of the most prominent Founding Fathers of the new nation. Prior to the Revolution, after Crispus Attucks, an Afro-Indian fugitive from slavery, fell as the first person slain in the American Revolution. Attucks, whose name was also Michael Johnson, had been at sea as a sailor and was only in Boston temporarily. Reportedly, Attucks had a stick of cordwood in his hand when he was at the head of a crowd on King Street angrily confronting the British soldiers. He reportedly loudly stated that the “way to get rid of these soldiers is to attack the main guard and strike at the root; this is the nest.” When the crowd pushed forward Attucks took two bullets in the chest from the British Redcoats. He and three others were slain in the tumultuous event that marked the beginning of the surge in activity that led to the American Revolution.

John Adams was charged with the task of prosecuting the case for the British crown. Adams charged that Attucks knocked down a Redcoat and provoked the soldiers into firing adding that the blacks' “very looks was enough to terrify any person.” Attucks, he said, was a “hooligan”and a part of a “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes (sic), Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs . . . “ In marked contrast, Attucks was celebrated and declared a heroic martyr as his coffin was carried to Faneuil Hall and a public funeral attended by some 10,000 in Boston. Adams reportedly regretted having to take the unpopular case of the British soldiers but stood on the principle that even they had a right to a fair trial. Yet, only a year after his legal defense of the British soldiers, Adams did not hesitate to sign a protest note he authored to Governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1773, “Crispus Attucks", the black man he had recently sought to discredit. The name of the martyred Attucks then had powerful symbolic importance for the independence movement, and Adams apparently saw no contradiction in attaching himself the then iconic figure.

Adams, sympathetic to the institution and lifestyle of the British monarchy, drew Jefferson’s scorn. In turn, Adams was critical of his one-time friend Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his admiration for the French and their revolution. Morally disapproving of slavery, he seemed to recognize that its existence profoundly undermined the strength of the powerful example of the accomplishments of the American Revolution. After John Adams heard the James Otis’ statement in 1764 that “colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black” he admitted that he “shuddered” due to its recognition of the black right to freedom and liberty. James Otis was not the only American partisan that recognized the black right to liberty.

President John Adams

John Adams, 2nd President

1797 to 1801

Birth: October 30, 1735, Birthplace--Quincy, Mass.(O.S October 19, 1735) -

Death: July 4, 1826)

Education: Harvard 1755 A.B., Harvard 1758 A.M.

Religion: Unitarian

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Federalist

Online writings:

John Adams Papers--The Avalon Project

Online analyses of "Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams" Booknotes, Brian Lamb interview with author Joseph Ellis.

Thomas Paine arrived in November 1774 enthusiastic with the notion that he would shake the conscience of Americans and alert them to the contradiction involved in self-consciously struggling for liberty against the British while holding hundreds of thousands of blacks as slaves. In March 1774 Paine’s article in the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser attacked this inconsistency along with the slave trade and slavery itself. African Americans continually pointed this glaring contradiction in the ideology and outlook of the colonists. A letter to the Massachusetts Spy from “A Son of Africa” in early 1774 contrasted American problems with the British to the black problems with Americans. “A Son of Africa” asked: “Are not your hearts also hard, when you hold men in slavery who are entitled to liberty by the law of nature, equal as yourselves?”

In his 1800 presidential campaign against Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ supporters reflexively used racist terms in depicting their opponent. Not only did they charge that Jefferson was a thief, coward, and a cheat, they also termed him “a mean spirited, low lived fellow, the son of a half breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father. . . .”

Jefferson’s defeat of Adams, seventy-three electoral votes to sixty-five, was based upon the three fifths clause of the Constitution that magnified the power of the Southern voter by every slave held in the state. Without this bolstered southern political strength Adams would have won in all likelihood. The dynasty of Virginia slaveowners was only interrupted briefly by Adams’ single term as president.