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President John Quincy Adams: Staying the Course on Slavery

Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union, and it is a contemplation worthy of the most exalted soul whether its total abolition is or is not practicable . . . A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, it would be certainly necessary . . . the Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This objective is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. —John Quincy Adams

Black Resistance in the Jacksonian Era

On March 14, 1838 thousands of African Americans protested the laws disfranchising black men recently enacted by the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837. Contending that this amounted to a rank betrayal of the legacy of the American Revolution, their formal Appeal asked how was it that the Convention took it upon itself to “to deny ‘that all men are born equally free,’ by making political rights depend upon the skin in which a man is born? or to divide what our fathers bled to unite, to wit, taxation and representation?” Black resistance and the responses to it made for a fluid and volatile situation helping to set the stage for a climatic showdown between an increasingly powerful Northern free-market capitalist system and a archaic slave-driven semi-feudal slave system. While ultimately unsuccessful, the collective psychological impact of the armed revolts of blacks, individual and collective efforts to physically escape the bonds of slavery, as well as, the daily work slowdowns and sabotage on an individual level and the abolitionist movement led to counterproductive responses by the slaveholders and their representatives.

Not only the turn of the century revolt led by Denmark Vesey but another July 1822 conspiracy among African-American slaves in and around Charleston shook the plantation society to its core. In the aftermath of the Vesey revolt, legislation was passed to further restrict any possibilities that blacks could maintain any level of international, national, regional, or local political communication. It was concluded that travel by blacks was dangerous and “incendiary.” The free movement of black sailors, from either foreign countries or the North, was targeted by the new law mandating that they be confined to jails while their ships remained in the port. To be sure, the knowledge of the emancipation of Africans in the British colonial holdings in the Caribbean was spread by these men, as well as a more nuanced understanding of events in Haiti and elsewhere. Monday Gell, another leader of the revolt, revealed the Santo Domingo connection by the use of the black seaman. Using this as a justification, the South Carolina establishment mandated the imprisonment of all black sailors while their ships were docked in the port of Charleston.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, pressured by the British to heed international agreements, felt that the law violated the rights of black citizens from the North as well as the treaties reached between the United States and other nations. Adams lodged a subsequent protest with the South Carolina governor, which was soon supported by a U. S. Supreme Court decision. This pressure on the state’s plantocracy was ultimately unsuccessful as they refused to rescind the law. The Early Life of John Quincy Adams Born in 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams grew up in an atmosphere free of the routine brutality, violence, and racially tense atmosphere of the southern plantation. His mother, Abigail Adams, helped imbue him with a peculiar variety of consciousness of racial superiority shaped more by the fear of Native Americans than of blacks. These racial attitudes and sentiments suggested that whites were superior to not only Africans, but also to Native Americans, and other groups. This ingrained sense of superiority, however, was tempered by other lessons that he was to take on a kind and considerate attitude toward individuals of these groups. Key to his socialization was his mother’s principled and firm stance that insisted that a particular black child be allowed to attend school in Quincy, Massachusetts.

In 1804, Adams sided with the South in opposing amendments that would restrict slavery in the newly-acquired Louisiana territory. Later, despite his reputation for opposing slavery while serving as Secretary of State in the Monroe administration, Adams clearly gave higher priority to his sense of wounded American national pride than to his desire to eliminate slavery. Respecting slaveowner property rights to the utmost, Adams fought for the return of enslaved Africans who had escaped to British forts during the War of 1812 but was ultimately successful in winning payment from the British for this human “property.” Later, Adams was instrumental in making Florida a slave state during his tenure as Secretary of State within the Monroe administration. Until the 1830s, Adams displayed very little of his anti-slavery sentiment. While he denounced slavery as morally wrong and a blot on the reputation of the new nation, he constantly sought out the support of slaveowners and lent them his support in return. At this early stage in his life John Quincy Adams grew friendly with South Carolina's John C. Calhoun. Later, they became bitter rivals in the increasingly contentious atmosphere in Congress.

In 1824, John Quincy Adams, a Democrat-Republican benefitted from a presidential contest in which a split among three candidates, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay, led to a deadlock. The election went to the House of Representatives, where, finally Adams emerged as the sixth president elect of the United States despite cries of a “corrupt bargain” with his future Secretary of State Henry Clay. The moderately pro-slavery administration of John Quincy Adams, spanning perhaps the gloomiest period of American history for blacks, marked a temporary break in the consecutive string of slaveowning presidents, just as his father, John Adams, interrupted the string of Virginian slaveholding presidents. Despite this, as president, John Quincy Adams’ anti-slavery principles did not have a discernable impact on his policies.

John Quincy Adams' Post-Presidency Career

In late December 1835, northern abolitionists began using the tactic of submitting petitions for the abolition of slavery to Congress. This tactic had been used for quite some time, and such petitions were routinely tabled. Having been recently aroused to action by the issue of abolitionist tracts mailed to southern post offices, southern congressmen charged that these petitions would incite nearby slaves in Washington, D. C., Maryland, and Virginia to armed insurrection. They contended that the hearing of the petitions was an offense to southern honor, an argument that won the unanimous support of their fellow southern legislators. For some Americans it was becoming apparent that the exigencies of enslaving blacks meant that their own freedoms necessarily had to be encroached upon.

President John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, 6th President

1825 to 1829:

Birth: July 11, 1767, Braintree, Massachusetts Bay

February 23, 1848

Education: Harvard University

Religion: Unitarian

Profession: Lawyer, Politician

Political Parties: Federalist, Democratic-Republican, Whig

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Secondary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: Anti-slavery Congressman

Important Online Works

Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy (July 4, 1821)--John Quincy Adams

In early 1836, the influential Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said that the Senate must protect southern senators from such insults that implied that slaveholders were sinners. The arch-racist declared that such remarks must be prohibited within the Senate. Calhoun asserted, and President Andrew Jackson agreed, that abolishing slavery would violate the basic property rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution. Discussing abolition in any way, Calhoun whispered, raised the prospect of giving courage to the “free” blacks in the North who sought to liberate their brethren by force of arms. Calhoun, of course, not only opposed black emancipation, he pushed for the expansion of slavery into the southwest, Mexico, Cuba, and beyond. Non-slave areas were viewed as threats to bordering slave areas that required “purity,” or complete insulation from the contaminating influence of any semblance of a free press, free speech, or democracy.

In May 1836, Congressman Henry Laurens Pinckney of South Carolina introduced a resolution that would prohibit “all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.”

For eight long years John Quincy Adams waged a lonely battle in the House of Representatives against the Gag Rule. Each session of Congress would renew the rule, forbidding the right of citizens to petition Congress on issues involving slavery. In the two years of 1837 and 1838 almost 200,000 petitions against slavery and 32,000 against the Gag Rule itself were received in the House, but not one was heard. To what extent was Adams motivated by a disgust for the misery slavery inflicted on blacks or by a desire to safeguard the citizen’s rights of freedom of petition and speech is debatable. Prior to the passage of the Gag Rule, Adams had denounced any congressional discussion of slavery and abolition, and opposed the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. However, the issues involved in the Gag Rule went beyond these issues from his perspective. Adams indicated that it was the fundamental rights of citizens that he sought to protect; not the fundamental rights of human beings. One of his long term concerns was the effect slavery was having on whites and American institutions.

Beyond the victory on the Gag Rule, John Quincy Adams also warned against the consequences of America’s expansionism, a tendency he viewed as deriving largely from the desire to acquire additional lands to work slaves upon. On one occasion Adams’ frustration boiled over and culminated in a remarkably prophetic statement:

Mr. Chairman, are you ready for all these wars? A Mexican War? A war with Great Britain, if not with France? A general Indian war? A servile war? And, as an inevitable consequence of them all, a civil war? . . . From the instant that your slaveholding states become the theatre of war, civil, servile, or foreign, from that instant the war powers of Congress extend to interference with the institution of slavery in every way by which it can be interfered with.

Selected Bibliography:

Sale, Maggie Montesinos. The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity.(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Miller, William Lee. Arguing about slavery: John Quincy Adams and the great battle in the United States Congress. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Paul C. Nagel. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A private life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Richards, Leonard L. The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.