Like most contemporaries, John Quincy Adams' views on slavery evolved over time. Historian David F. Ericson asks why he never became an abolitionist. He never joined the movement called "abolitionist" by historians—the one led by William Lloyd Garrison—because it demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and insisted it was a sin to enslave people. Further, abolitionism meant disunion and Adams was a staunch champion of American nationalism and union.
He often dealt with slavery-related issues during his seventeen-year congressional career, which began after his presidency. In the House, Adams became a champion of free speech, demanding that petitions against slavery be heard despite a "gag rule" that said they could not be heard.Adams repeatedly spoke out against the "Slave Power", that is the organized political power of the slave owners who dominated all the southern states and their representation in Congress. He vehemently attacked the annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846–1848) as part of a "conspiracy" to extend slavery. During the censure debate, Adams said that he took delight in the fact that southerners would forever remember him as "the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed".
Biographers Nagle and Parsons argue that he was not a true abolitionist, although he quickly became the primary enemy of slavery in Congress.Though he, like most anti-slavery contemporaries such as Henry Clay, held the preservation of the union as the primary goal, he increasingly became more forceful for the anti-slavery cause. Remini notes that Adams feared that the end of slavery could only come through civil war or the consent of the slave South, and not quickly and painlessly as the abolitionists wanted.
6th President of the United States
John Quincy Adams was born into a family that never owned slaves, and was hostile to the practice. His mother, Abigail Adams, held strong anti-slavery views. His father, President John Adams, despite opposing a 1777 bill in Massachusetts to emancipate slaves, opposed slavery on principle and considered the practice of slavery abhorrent. Adams' career before his election to presidency in 1824 was focused on foreign policy where the slavery issue seldom came up. There were no major slavery-related controversies during his presidency. The union issue became hotly contested under his successor, Andrew Jackson, when South Carolina threatened to secede, partly due to the tariff. This event, the Nullification Crisis, was successfully resolved, with a lower tariff and an end to threats of disunion.
The debate on the Missouri Compromise in 1820 was a turning point for Adams. During that debate, he broke with his friend John C. Calhoun, who became the most outspoken national leader in favor of slavery. They became bitter enemies. Adams vilified slavery as a bad policy while Calhoun countered that the right to own slaves had to be protected from interference from the federal government to keep the nation alive. Adams said slavery contradicted the principles of republicanism, while Calhoun said that slavery was essential to American democracy, for it made all white men equal. Adams predicted that if the South formed a new nation, it would be torn apart by an extremely violent slave insurrection. If the two nations went to war, Adams predicted the president of the United States would use his war powers to abolish slavery. The two men became ideological leaders of the North and the South.
In 1841, Adams had the case of a lifetime, representing the defendants in United States v. The Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court of the United States. He successfully argued that the Africans, who had seized control of a Spanish ship, La Amistad , on which they were being transported illegally as slaves, should not be extradited or deported to Cuba (a Spanish colony where slavery was legal) but should be considered free. Under President Martin Van Buren, the government argued the Africans should be deported for having mutinied and killed officers on the ship. Adams won their freedom, with the chance to stay in the United States or return to Africa. Adams made the argument because the U.S. had prohibited the international slave trade, although it allowed internal slavery. He never billed for his services in the Amistad case.The speech was directed not only at the justices of this Supreme Court hearing the case, but also to the broad national audience he instructed in the evils of slavery.
Adams was elected to the United States House of Representatives in the 1830 elections as a National Republican. He was elected to eight terms, serving as a Representative for 17 years, from 1831 until his death, as a Whig.He became an important antislavery voice in the Congress and was regarded by Southern legislators as the "hell hound of abolition". In 1836 Southern Congressmen voted in a rule, called the "gag rule," that called for the immediate tabling of any petitions about slavery. Congress had been flooded with petitions signed by citizens protesting slavery; most originated from the Anti-Slavery Society based in New York. The Gag rule prevented discussion of slavery from 1836 to 1844, but Adams frequently managed to evade it by parliamentary skill.
He refused to honor the House's gag rule banning discussion or debate of the slavery issue. Using unconventional tactics, Adams evaded and ignored the gag rule until his persistence irritated his colleagues to the point that he was threatened with censure. Although the House never voted to censure Adams, the discussion ignited by his actions and the attempts of others to quiet him raised questions of the right to petition, the right to legislative debate, and the morality of slavery.
|Part of a series on|
In the South, abolitionist tracts and publications were barred from the mails. The result was that the issues of slavery and free speech began to intersect and therefore concerned larger portions of the American public.During the censure debate, Adams said that he took delight in the fact that southerners would forever remember him as "the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed".
Adams had been presenting anti-slavery petitions on the floor of the House since he was first elected to the Congress. He made it clear that it was a free speech issue, and that he personally disagreed with the demands for immediate abolition contained in the petitions. But he demanded they be heard.In the wake of the coinciding slavery and free speech debates surrounding the increasingly present abolitionist literature, the number of petitions brought to the house floor concerning the matter was multiplying rapidly. Some estimate that the numbers of petitions approached the tens of thousands in the first months of 1836. The southern congressmen, led by James Henry Hammond of South Carolina, moved to eliminate any discussion of the issue from the House floor. Hammond asked that any anti-slavery petitions submitted to the House not be accepted. Congress engaged in heated debate over the right to petition the government, but the "gag rule" soon came to be adopted, and any discussion of the slavery question and the presentation of any associated petition were banned. The practice was to immediately table any petition or resolution concerning slavery and never act on it thereafter.
Aside from the blow this action dealt to the expanding abolitionist movement, the gag rule also prompted questions of free speech and its role and limitations in the proceedings of the House of Representatives. The House is and was subject to its own Rules and the ability of the members to ban discussion of a national issue became fodder for intense debate.
Adams felt that he had to challenge not only the country's acceptance of slavery, but also the House's adoption of a rule that would limit debate of national issues and issues that were at the forefront of public debate. Adams used his formal legal training to mount an involved attack against the gag rule and against the movement to limit the congressional discussion of the contentious issue of slavery. At the time, there were a series of gag rules instituted at the urging of several southern members according to the parliamentary requirements of the House. Adams found creative and unique ways to continue challenging these same rules on different grounds and with different tactics.
|Presentation by William Lee Miller on Arguing About Slavery at the Adams National Historic Site, June 26, 1996, C-SPAN|
In William Lee Miller’s book, Arguing about Slavery, the author chronicles much of John Quincy Adams’ fight against this censorship of speech on the House floor. Adams engaged his colleagues first by requesting that petitions brought before the institution of the gag order be reviewed. Figuring that the gag rule could not pertain to items brought to the attention of the chair prior to its existence, Adams suggested the presentation of those petitions. This request was disallowed, now effectively making the gag rule a retroactive rule of the House. Adams then, with his colleague from Massachusetts, began to present a series of petitions from other nearby states and states up and down the eastern seaboard, as he was no longer allowed to present petitions from those in his own state. Both he and his colleague also presented petitions from women praying for abolition. Women, as non-voters, were not directly banned from petitioning per the gag rule. All of these parliamentary tricks were in vain, however, as the gag rule resulted in each being summarily dismissed.
Miller discusses Adams’ actions on February 6, 1837 in great detail. On that day, John Quincy Adams stirred up the debate in the House with conniving adeptness by further challenges to the gag rule specifically as it concerned petitions. Adams began to present a petition from what he said were nine ladies from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Prevented from doing so by the house ban on such petitions, Adams moved on, but not without creating interest among his colleagues. One of the congressmen who was from Fredericksburg became intrigued as to who the nine abolitionist ladies from a proud slave-holding southern state were, and reviewed the petition. He then challenged Adams on the grounds that the women purported to have offered the petition were not "ladies" as Adams has suggested. The congressman from Virginia suggested that the women, if any existed, were free black women or women of mixed race, and implied that all were of questionable character. Adams amended his petition, saying it was a petition from women rather than ladies, but insisted he could still present it to the House. Adams’ challenge to the notions of his colleagues about what sort of citizens were appropriate candidates to petition was ill-received, but he would press farther still.
After his petition from the women of Fredericksburg was denied, Adams asked for clarification as to whether it was within the rules of the House to present a petition signed by twenty-two enslaved persons. His question ignited pandemonium in the House. Adams’ colleagues came to the floor to express their disapproval, shock, indignation, and outrage. Many attacked the former president personally. Ultimately, congressman Dixon Hall Lewis of Alabama offered a motion that Congressman Adams be punished, and suggested that if Adams were not punished, all members from slaveholding states should protest by leaving the proceedings.Many members offered suggestions and objections until Congressman Waddy Thompson offered a motion to censure former president Adams and bring him before the speaker to receive a formal reprimand. The actual proposal for censure follows: Resolved, that J.Q. Adams, a member from the State of Massachusetts, by his attempt to introduce into this House a petition of slaves for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of the Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House; and by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House, and censured by the Speaker.
Miller describes Adams’ response as an intentionally understated and humble attempt at correcting the misinformation in the censure proposal. According to Miller, Adams took issue with the following: "The resolution charged him with attempting to present a petition from slaves asking for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. In the first place, he would remind the House that he had not attempted to present the petition; he had simply asked for a ruling by the Speaker about the status of such a petition under the Hawes resolution".
Furthermore, Adams took issue with the assumption that the petition was a petition for the abolition of slavery. He informed the House that the petition was actually not asking for the members to consider abolishing slavery, but in fact was supplicating in favor of the opposite view. This revelation further angered the members of the House, who now believed that Adams was acting in contempt of the rules and decorum of the body. Miller suggests that while many of Adams’ colleagues were enraged at his manipulation of the House and his deceptive tactics to control the debate, the true issue was that Adams had suggested that, regardless of its content, a petition by slaves would be considered legitimate.
Over the next days, many of the members of the House rose to publicly condemn Adams and disparage his actions, but not all felt that he should be censured. Even two representatives of slaveholding states suggested that a censure of Adams could be conceived as an attack on the liberty of speech. Many of the congressmen from the northern states who spoke during the uproar would say the same, but few if any, would defend Adams absolutely. The only two congressmen to vocally defend Adams during the debate over censuring him were his Massachusetts colleagues: Caleb Cushing and Levi Lincoln.
Controversy remains over the origin of the petition of the slaves against Adams’ cause. Some suggest the petition was a ruse entirely fabricated by Adams or his allies to initiate the debate that ensued. Others believe the signatures were authentic but products of coercion or force. A contemporary of Adams alleged that the petition had been a hoax planned by enemies of Adams, designed to make him look ridiculous for presenting so many petitions by having him present a petition for his own expulsion by mistake.
Whatever the origin of the petition, Adams took advantage of his right to defend himself in front of the members to deliver days of prepared and impromptu remarks against slavery and in favor of abolition. He spoke against the slave trade and the ownership of slaves. Adams went so far as to suggest the dissolution of the Union on the grounds that to remain whole would mean supporting the institution of slavery and the views of southern slaveholders. To this end, he presented yet another signed petition that actually called to dissolve the union of states. He had angered his colleagues yet again, who now believed his censure necessary not only for trickery and indecency, but even for treason. As others continued to attack him and call for his censure, Adams continued to debate the issues of slavery and the evils of slaveholding. Adams had cleverly lifted the gag rule by debating slavery on the House floor in the moments he was allowed to rise in his defense against the threat of censure.Adams also called into question the actions of a House that would limit its own ability to debate and resolve questions internally. He forced his colleagues to consider the precedent they were setting for the legislative arm of the United States government if members could be censured for speech on the House floor.
On February 8, 1837, the United States House of Representatives voted to table the motion to censure Representative Adams. No further motion personal to Adams concerning his issue was accepted by the House, and so the former President of the United States was not censured by the House of Representatives. Years later, a more orchestrated attempt at censuring former-President Adams would take form, but this would be politically motivated and planned.
Although any move to censure Adams over the slavery petition was ultimately abandoned, the House did address the issue of petitions from enslaved persons. Adams rose again to argue that the right to petition was a universal right granted so that those in the weakest positions might always have recourse to those in the most powerful.Despite a rigorous defense launched by Adams, the house resolved almost unanimously, with the support of even the northerners who defended Adams, that the right to petition one's government applied only to free white persons.
The two resolutions passed at the end of this period of debate follow:
Resolved, that this House cannot receive the said petition without disregarding its own dignity, the rights of a large class of citizens of the South and West, and the constitution of the United States.
Resolved, That slaves do not possess the right of petition secured to the people of the United States by the constitution.
John Quincy Adams was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, and diarist who served as the sixth president of the United States, from 1825 to 1829. He previously served as the eighth United States Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825. During his long diplomatic and political career, Adams also served as an ambassador, and as a member of the United States Senate and House of Representatives representing Massachusetts. He was the eldest son of John Adams, who served as the second U.S. president from 1797 to 1801, and First Lady Abigail Adams. Initially a Federalist like his father, he won election to the presidency as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, and in the mid-1830s became affiliated with the Whig Party.
The 1844 United States presidential election was the 15th quadrennial presidential election, held from Friday, November 1 to Wednesday, December 4, 1844. Democrat James K. Polk defeated Whig Henry Clay in a close contest turning on the controversial issues of slavery and the annexation of the Republic of Texas.
A gag rule is a rule that limits or forbids the raising, consideration, or discussion of a particular topic by members of a legislative or decision-making body. The most famous example of gag rules is the series of them in effect in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844, concerning slavery.
"Slavery and States' Rights" was a speech given by former Confederate States Army general Joseph Wheeler on July 31, 1894. The speech deals with the American Civil War and is considered to be a "Lost Cause" view at the war's causation. It is generally understood to argue that the Union was to blame for the war, and downplays slavery as a cause.
William Lloyd Garrison , who signed and printed his name Wm. Lloyd Garrison, was a prominent American Christian anarchist, abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer. He is best known for his widely-read anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, which he founded in 1831 and published in Boston until slavery in the United States was abolished by Constitutional amendment in 1865. Garrison promoted "no-governmentism" and rejected the inherent validity of the American government on the basis that its engagement in war, imperialism, and slavery made the government corrupt and tyrannical; he initially opposed violence as a principle and advocated for Christian nonresistance against evil -- though at the outbreak of the civil war, he abandoned his previous principles and embraced the armed struggle and the Lincoln administration. He was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and promoted immediate and uncompensated, as opposed to gradual and compensated, emancipation of slaves in the United States.
The source of Garrison's power was the Bible. From his earliest days, he read the Bible constantly and prayed constantly. It was with this fire that he started his conflagration. ...So also, a prejudice against all fixed forms of worship, against the authority of human government, against every binding of the spirit into conformity with human law, — all these things grew up in Garrison's mind out of his Bible reading.
United States v. Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (1841), was a United States Supreme Court case resulting from the rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839. It was an unusual freedom suit that involved international issues and parties, as well as United States law. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it in 1969 as the most important court case involving slavery before being eclipsed by that of Dred Scott in 1857.
The Free Soil Party was a short-lived coalition political party in the United States active from 1848 to 1854, when it merged into the Republican Party. The party was largely focused on the single issue of opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States.
The American Anti-Slavery Society was an abolitionist society founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, had become a prominent abolitionist and was a key leader of this society, who often spoke at its meetings. William Wells Brown, also a freedman, also often spoke at meetings. By 1838, the society had 1,350 local chapters with around 250,000 members.
Angelina Emily Grimké Weld was an American abolitionist, political activist, women's rights advocate, and supporter of the women's suffrage movement. She and her sister Sarah Moore Grimké are the only white Southern women who became abolitionists. The sisters lived together as adults, while Angelina was the wife of abolitionist leader Theodore Dwight Weld.
Historians who debate the origins of the American Civil War focus on the reasons that seven southern states declared their secession from the United States and united to form the Confederate States, and the reasons that the North refused to let them go. Most of the debate is about the first question, the reason that some Southern states decided to secede. Most historians in the 21st century agree that conflict over slavery caused the war, but they disagree sharply on the aspects of this conflict that were most important.
The Lincoln–Douglas debates were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois, and incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. Until the 17th Constitutional Amendment of 1913, senators were elected by their respective state legislatures, so Lincoln and Douglas were trying to win control of the Illinois General Assembly for their respective parties.
Throughout the period before the American Civil War, petitions and memorials relating to the slavery question appeared in many records of the United States Congress. Between 1836 and 1844, the 21st rule of the U.S. House of Representatives provided that no petition relating to slavery would be entertained in any way; therefore, all such petitions and memorials received while this rule was in effect were tabled.
Joshua Reed Giddings was an American attorney, politician and a prominent opponent of slavery. He represented Northeast Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1838–59. He was at first a member of the Whig Party and was later a Republican, helping found the party.
Charles Gordon Atherton was an American politician and lawyer from New Hampshire. Elected to the United States House of Representatives from 1837 to 1843. Elected to the United States Senate from 1843 to 1849 and then again in 1853. He was a Democrat.
The Slave Power or Slavocracy was the perceived political power in the U.S. federal government held by slave owners during the 1840s and 1850s, prior to the Civil War. Antislavery campaigners, led by Frederick Douglass, during this period bitterly complained about what they saw as disproportionate and corrupt influence wielded by wealthy Southerners. The argument was that this small group of rich slave owners had seized political control of their own states and were trying to take over the federal government in an illegitimate fashion in order to expand and protect slavery. The argument was later widely used by the Republican Party that formed in 1854–55 to oppose the expansion of slavery.
William Slade, Jr. was an American Whig and Anti-Masonic politician. He served as a U.S. Representative from Vermont from 1831 to 1843, where he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He was the seventeenth Governor of Vermont.
Abolitionism in the United States was a movement which sought to end slavery in the United States, being active from the colonial era until the American Civil War, which saw the abolition of American slavery. The abolitionist movement originated in Western Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, seeking to end the transatlantic slave trade and outlaw the institution of slavery in European colonies in the Americas. In Colonial America, German settlers issued the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, which would initiate the American abolitionist movement. Before the Revolutionary War, evangelical colonists were the primary advocates for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, doing so on humanitarian grounds. Georgia, the last of the Thirteen Colonies to be established, originally prohibited slavery upon its founding, a decision which was eventually reversed.
Warner Mifflin was an American abolitionist and an early advocate of reparations for slavery. Born and raised in Virginia, Mifflin established himself as a planter in Delaware in 1769. As a member of the Society of Friends, he was strongly opposed to slavery and became dedicated to assisting slaves who tried to free themselves, to defending free blacks from abuse, as well as encouraging Quakers and others to free their slaves.
Slavery as a positive good was the prevailing view of white Southern U.S. politicians and intellectuals just before the American Civil War, as opposed to a crime against humanity or even a necessary evil. They defended the legal enslavement of people for their labor as a benevolent, paternalistic institution with social and economic benefits, an important bulwark of civilization, and a divine institution similar or superior to the free labor in the North. Proponents of enslavement as "a good — a great good" often attacked the system of industrial capitalism, contending that the free laborer in the North, called by them a "wage slave", was as much enslaved by capitalist owners as were the African people enslaved by whites in the South.
The slave trade in the District of Columbia was legal from its creation until 1850, when the trade in enslaved people in the District was outlawed as part of the Compromise of 1850. That restrictions on slavery in the District were probably coming led to the retrocession of the Virginia part of the District back to Virginia in 1847. Thus the slave-trading businesses in Alexandria, such as Franklin & Armfield, could remain safely in Virginia, where slavery was more secure.