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Adams, John Quincy, On African Americans

Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Lynn Hudson Parsons

Adams, John Quincy, On African Americans 

Toward the end of his long life, the congressman John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), son of John and Abigail Adams, was notorious for his militant stands against slavery and its expansion in the Republic that his parents had helped found. It is possible to argue that he absorbed many of his views from his mother, who told her husband that she had doubts about southerners and their commitment to liberty. On 31 March 1776 Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband,

I have sometimes been ready to think that passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain, that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing unto others as we would that others do unto us. (Withey, p. 81)

In fact, Abigail Adams's son's earlier career shows distinct caution on matters having to do with slavery and race. In time, however, he moved from casual indifference to intense passion.

The young Adams demonstrated his ambivalence during his years in the U.S. Senate, where he represented Massachusetts from 1803 to 1808. In 1805 he supported a group of Quakers who had introduced a petition calling for restrictions on slavery's growth, although two years earlier he had opposed any attempt to limit the importation of slaves into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. “Slavery in a moral sense is an evil,” he declared; nevertheless, he went on to state that “as connected with commerce, it has its uses.” Also in 1805 when some senators moved to implement three years in advance the outlawing of slave importation as provided for in the U.S. Constitution, Adams joined those who argued that the measure was premature.

Whatever antislavery instincts Adams may have had at this point in his career, they were outweighed by his nationalism and expansionism. His nationalism was enhanced by his service in Europe from 1809 to 1817 as the American minister first to Russia and then to Great Britain. In London, Adams had no reservations whatsoever in arguing for the legal rights of southern slaveholders whose slave “property” had either escaped or been kidnapped during the War of 1812 and who, Adams maintained, were entitled to restitution under the recently negotiated Treaty of Ghent.

Not until after his return to the United States in 1817 to become secretary of state does any evidence of antislavery thinking appear in Adams's famous diary. In the midst of the congressional debates over slavery in the proposed state of Missouri, Adams had an extended conversation with the young proslavery secretary of war, John C. Calhoun. Adams later asked himself, “What can be more false and heartless than this doctrine that makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” In his diary he reflected upon the possible wisdom of northerners insisting that slavery expand no further than its present borders. If that resulted in the breakup of the Union, he considered, so be it; if it led to civil war, “as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.” However, as the secretary of state and as a man with presidential ambitions, he kept these views to himself. Later, as president, Adams attempted to acquire Texas, then a slaveholding province of Mexico, revealing that his expansionism was still competing with his antislavery instincts.

His ambivalence carried over into ideas on race. Although at no time does he seem to have indulged in any extensive reflections on the subject, like nearly all white males of the early nineteenth century Adams was a product of the stereotypical ideas about race that pervaded the era. In a published interview in 1833 he told the British actress Fanny Kemble that Shakespeare's Othello was flawed as drama because the white heroine Desdemona's love for her African husband was repugnant and “contrary to the laws of nature.” (Adams may have had in mind the accusations aimed at the late president Thomas Jefferson regarding his fathering of children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings—about which as a young man in 1803 Adams had published some racy lines of poetry.)

Yet years earlier, while in London, Adams's family had made the acquaintance of an African American schoolteacher from Boston named Sanders, who often accompanied Adams's three children on excursions in and around town. Sanders traveled to Haiti in the hope of establishing a school system there, and Adams advised him on the project while procuring the necessary passports. Throughout his life Adams corresponded with a number of blacks, including Thomas Gaillard, the mulatto son of a man whose cousin had been a colleague of Adams's in the Senate. Sympathizing with and encouraging Gaillard's arguments in favor of equal rights, Adams sought further information about the man's slave mother. Adams also took an interest in the case of Dorcas Allen, a black woman who had killed her two children in order to prevent them from being sold into slavery. She had in fact been free for many years but, lacking the proper papers, was being forced back into slavery. The case attracted the attention of not only Adams but also Francis Scott Key and others opposed to slavery. After several visits from the woman's husband, Adams donated fifty dollars to a fund raised to buy Allen's freedom.

In the 1830s, following the enactment of the congressional gag rule that prevented Congress from reading petitions dealing with slavery, Adams became slavery's most vociferous opponent in Congress. At the beginning of each session he could be counted on to tie up the proceedings of the House in defense of the right of petition. However, he disappointed the growing abolitionist movement in the North by refusing to enlist in their ranks and appearing to accept slavery where it already existed. To hard-liners like William Lloyd Garrison and James Gillespie Birney, Adams was a weak-kneed compromiser. Birney declared, “There is no man who is doing so much … to deaden the awakening sensibilities of our countrymen against the private iniquity and public disgrace of slavery, as Mr. Adams.” Adams not only failed to join the abolitionist movement but also refused to support some of their more moderate proposals. In rebuttal to arguments for banning slavery in the District of Columbia, Adams pointed out that the passage of such a ban would merely result in slaveholders' removing their “property” to Virginia and thus would not free anyone. Moreover, unlike Birney or Garrison, Congressman Adams had taken an oath to support the U.S. Constitution, which, whether he liked it or not, had embraced slavery; he could not violate that oath and remain a member of the House of Representatives.

In 1841, however, his standing as a champion of both racial justice and antislavery was markedly enhanced when he appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court as senior counsel in the Amistad case. Two years earlier, in violation of the ban on the international slave trade, a group of free Africans had been kidnapped from their homes and taken to Cuba in the Spanish schooner Amistad. While in transport from one part of Cuba to another, the Africans rebelled and took over the vessel and demanded that its crew return them to their West African homeland. Through trickery the Spanish captain sailed the ship not to Africa but to Long Island, New York. Since landing in the United States the Africans had languished in jail. Northern abolitionists recruited Adams to add prestige to their side, which was working against attempts by Spain and the proslavery administration of President Martin Van Buren to condemn the Africans and return them to Cuba—to certain slavery and possible execution.

Adams did not disappoint the abolitionists. To the charge by the Spanish authorities that the Africans were robbers and pirates, Adams directed his notorious sarcasm. “Who were the merchandise, and who were the robbers?” he asked. “According to the Spanish Minister, the merchandise were the robbers and the robbers were the merchandise. The merchandise was rescued out of its own hands, and the robbers were rescued out of the hands of the robbers.” Later, pointing dramatically to a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the wall of the courtroom, he declared, “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, as an inalienable right, this case is decided.” It was clearly the high point in Adams's career as an antislavery crusader. “Some of us may have at times done thee injustice,” wrote the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “but, I believe we now appreciate thy motives.”

Adams died in 1848 after suffering a stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives. In the chamber at the time was a young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. There is no record of their ever having met, but Adams's views on race and slavery reflected those of a growing majority of northerners as well as those of Lincoln himself. African Americans may not have been brothers and sisters, but they were men and women and were included in the scope of the Declaration of Independence. Both Adams and Lincoln were ambivalent about race, and neither man was an abolitionist, but both recognized that slavery's end would occur in a matter of time and that the least painful way to hasten that end would be to stop its growth. That events would turn out differently was a product of decisions made by others.

See also Abolitionism; Adams, John, on African Americans; Constitution, U.S.; Declaration of Independence; Europe; Foreign Policy; Hemings, Sally; Jefferson, Thomas, on African Americans and Slavery; Kidnapping; Laws and Legislation; Louisiana; Massachusetts; New Spain and Mexico; Petitions; Race, Theories of; Slave Trade; Slavery: Mid-Atlantic; Slavery: Upper South; Society of Friends (Quakers) and African Americans; Supreme Court; and War of 1812.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Union. New York: Knopf, 1956.Find this resource:

    Hecht, Marie. John Quincy Adams: A Personal History of an Independent Man. New York: Macmillan, 1972.Find this resource:

      Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the “Amistad.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

        Maclean, William Jerry. Othello Scorned: The Racial Thought of John Quincy Adams. Journal of the Early Republic 4 (Summer 1984): 143–160.Find this resource:

          Parsons, Lynn Hudson. John Quincy Adams. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1998.Find this resource:

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

              Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 1981.Find this resource:

                Lynn Hudson Parsons