John Quincy Adams and abolitionism

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A copy of a lost daguerreotype of Adams taken by Philip Haas in 1843 John Quincy Adams 1824.jpg
A copy of a lost daguerreotype of Adams taken by Philip Haas in 1843

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. [1]

John Quincy Adams Sixth President of the United States

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 represented Massachusetts as a United States Senator and as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He was the eldest son of John Adams, who served as the second US 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.

William Lloyd Garrison American journalist

William Lloyd Garrison was a prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer. He is best known as the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, which he founded with Isaac Knapp in 1831 and published in Massachusetts until slavery was abolished by Constitutional amendment after the American Civil War. He was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and promoted "immediate emancipation" of slaves in the United States.

Contents

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. [2] 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. [3] He vehemently attacked the annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846–48) as part of a "conspiracy" to extend slavery. [4] 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". [5]

Slave Power

The Slave Power or Slaveocracy 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 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 widely used by the Republican Party that formed in 1854–55 to oppose the expansion of slavery.

Biographers Nagle and Parsons argue that he was not a true abolitionist, although he quickly became the primary enemy of slavery in Congress. [6] [7] 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. [6] 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. [8]

Henry Clay American politician

Henry Clay Sr. was an American attorney and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives, served as 7th speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and served as the 9th U.S. secretary of state. He received electoral votes for president in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 presidential elections and helped found both the National Republican Party and the Whig Party. For his role in defusing sectional crises, he earned the appellation of the "Great Compromiser."

Background

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818 John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818.jpg
John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818

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.

Abigail Adams 2nd First Lady of the United States (1797–1801)

Abigail Adams was the wife and closest advisor of John Adams, as well as the mother of John Quincy Adams. She is sometimes considered to have been a Founder of the United States, and is now designated as the first Second Lady and second First Lady of the United States, although these titles were not used at the time.

John Adams Second President of the United States

John Adams was an American statesman, attorney, diplomat, writer, and Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States from 1797 to 1801. Before his presidency, he was a leader of the American Revolution that achieved independence from Great Britain and served as the first vice president of the United States. Adams was a dedicated diarist and regularly corresponded with many important figures in early American history, including his wife and adviser, Abigail. His letters and other papers serve as an important source of historical information about the era.

Andrew Jackson Seventh President of the United States

Andrew Jackson was an American soldier and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Before being elected to the presidency, Jackson gained fame as a general in the United States Army and served in both houses of Congress. As president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the "common man" against a "corrupt aristocracy" and to preserve the Union.

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. [9]

Missouri Compromise legislative compromise between pro- and anti-slavery parties in the run-up to the American Civil War

The Missouri Compromise was the legislation that provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free state along with Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate. As part of the compromise, slavery was prohibited north of the 36°30′ parallel, excluding Missouri. The 16th United States Congress passed the legislation on March 3, 1820, and President James Monroe signed it on March 6, 1820.

John C. Calhoun 7th Vice President of the United States

John Caldwell Calhoun was an American statesman from the Democratic party and political theorist from South Carolina who served as the seventh vice president of the United States from 1825 to 1832. He is remembered for strongly defending slavery and for advancing the concept of minority rights in politics, which he did in the context of protecting the interests of the white South when it was outnumbered by Northerners. He began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent of a strong national government and protective tariffs. In the late 1820s, his views changed radically, and he became a leading proponent of states' rights, limited government, nullification, and opposition to high tariffs—he saw Northern acceptance of these policies as a condition of the South remaining in the Union. His beliefs and warnings heavily influenced the South's secession from the Union in 1860–1861.

Republicanism in the United States Political philosophy of individual liberty and representative democracy

Modern republicanism is a guiding political philosophy of the United States that has been a major part of American civic thought since its founding. It stresses liberty and unalienable individual rights as central values, making people sovereign as a whole; rejects monarchy, aristocracy and inherited political power, expects citizens to be virtuous and faithful in their performance of civic duties, and vilifies corruption. American republicanism was articulated and first practiced by the Founding Fathers in the 18th century. For them, "republicanism represented more than a particular form of government. It was a way of life, a core ideology, an uncompromising commitment to liberty, and a total rejection of aristocracy."

Amistad case

John Quincy Adams portrait. John Quincy Adams by GPA Healy, 1858.jpg
John Quincy Adams portrait.

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. [11] 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. [12]

<i>United States v. The Amistad</i> United States Supreme Court case

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.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution. Executive acts can be struck down by the Court for violating either the Constitution or federal law. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions.

<i>La Amistad</i> slave ship

La Amistad was a 19th-century two-masted schooner, owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba. It became renowned in July 1839 for a slave revolt by Mende captives, who had been enslaved in Sierra Leone, and were being transported from Havana, Cuba, to their purchasers' plantations. The African captives took control of the ship, killing some of the crew and ordering the survivors to sail the ship to Africa. The Spanish survivors secretly maneuvered the ship north, and La Amistad was captured off the coast of Long Island by the brig USS Washington. The Mende and La Amistad were interned in Connecticut while federal court proceedings were undertaken for their disposition. The owners of the ship and Spanish government claimed the slaves as property, but the US had banned the African trade and argued that the Mende were legally free.

As member of Congress

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. [13] [14] He became an important antislavery voice in the Congress. 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. [15]

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.

Adams as he appears in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. John Quincy Adams in National Portrait Gallery IMG 4490.JPG
Adams as he appears in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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. [16] 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". [5]

Adams’ Petitions

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. [17] 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. [18] 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. [19] 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.

External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg 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. [20]

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. [21] 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. [22] The actual proposal for censure follows: [23] 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. [24]

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". [25]

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.

United First Parish Church Adams' Burial Site 002.jpg
United First Parish Church

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. [26] 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. [27] 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. [28]

See also

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References

  1. David F. Ericson, "John Quincy Adams: Apostle of Union." in David Waldstreicher, ed., A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams (2013), pp 367-382, p 371.
  2. David C. Frederick, "John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Disappearance of the Right of Petition," Law and History Review, Spring 1991, Vol. 9 Issue 1, pp 113-155
  3. Leonard L. Richards, The slave power: the free North and southern domination, 1780-1860 (2000) p. 44
  4. Leonard L. Richards, The life and times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (1986) ch 6
  5. 1 2 Nagel, Paul C.. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Harvard UP, 1999). p 348
  6. 1 2 Nagel, Paul. "John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life". p355. 1999, Harvard University Press
  7. Parsons, Adams, (1999) p 224
  8. Remini, Adams (2002) p 142
  9. Chandra Miller, "'Title Page to a Great Tragic Volume': The Impact of the Missouri Crisis on Slavery, Race, and Republicanism in the Thought of John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams," Missouri Historical Review, July 2000, Vol. 94 Issue 4, pp 365-388
  10. "John Quincy Adams". Metropolitan Museum of Art . Retrieved September 4, 2009.
  11. Miller, William Lee, pg 402
  12. A. Cheree Carlson, "John Quincy Adams' 'Amistad Address': Eloquence in a Generic Hybrid," Western Journal of Speech Communication: WJSC, Winter 1985, Vol. 49 Issue 1, pp 14-26
  13. "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress". Bioguide.congress.gov. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  14. "Congressional biography". Bioguide.congress.gov. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  15. James M. McPherson, "The Fight Against the Gag Rule: Joshua Leavitt and Antislavery Insurgency in the Whig Party, 1839-1842." Journal of Negro History (1963): 177-195 in JSTOR.
  16. Casey Olson, "John Quincy Adams's Congressional Career," United States Capitol Historical Society. Spring 2000
  17. Jesse Macy (1919). The Anti-slavery Crusade: A Chronicle of the Gathering Storm. Yale University Press. p. 79.
  18. Olson, Casey
  19. "Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives Art & History - Historical Highlights". Artandhistory.house.gov. Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  20. William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vintage, 1998), 225-264.
  21. Miller, Arguing about Slavery, 231
  22. Miller, Arguing about Slavery, 232
  23. Miller, Arguing about Slavery, 232
  24. Gales & Seaton's Register of Debates in Congress, House of Representatives, 24th Congress, 2nd Session, 1593, Feb 6, 1837 retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llrd&fileName=027/llrd027.db&recNum=96
  25. Miller, Arguing about Slavery, 233
  26. The information in this paragraph is from the US House historian’s website.
  27. Miller, ‘’Arguing about Slavery, 270
  28. Miller, Arguing about Slavery, 281