A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Amistad: John Quincy Adams, the Shutdown, and the Restart of Antislavery Politics, 1787-1836
It has been easier to celebrate John Quincy Adams’ transformation into an antislavery tribune in Congress than to understand why it took him so long to get there. Fans of the sixth president tend to see the evolution as natural and inevitable, a story (like U.S. history) of progress and redemption; critics can draw on the conventions of “presidential history” to showcase a flawed personality’s inevitable failure and ironic, if not bitter, salvation. Historians and biographers have done better, perhaps, than producers of the long-running show known as Founders Chic, who at times go so far as to backdate Quincy Adams’ antislavery by decades in order to shine glorious light on his father John and other pragmatic American revolutionaries.1 These competing contemporary desires draw attention away from the implications of John Quincy Adams’s long political career for our understanding of antislavery politics. We might begin again by adopting the stance of recent work that sees slavery as a constitutive part of national politics well before the Missouri Crisis as well as later, though in different ways. In this view, it took as much work to broker and tamp down the politics of slavery after the Revolution as it did to reinvent it in the 1830s. Recent interpretations of both 1
When asked by a puzzled journalist in 2011 why she said that the Founding Fathers stood heroically against slavery, former Representative Michele Bachmann cited John Quincy Adams. Michele Bachmann Says John Quincy Adams Was 'One Of Our Founding Fathers,' Flubs Slavery Remarks,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/28/michele-‐bachmann-‐john-‐quincy-‐adams_n_885868.html. For the contemporary politics of remembering the American Revolution and the starkly different outlooks on offer with respect to slavery see especially Andrew M. Schocket, Fighting Over the Founders: How Americans Remember the Revolution (New York, 2015) and Jill Lepore, The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Boston, 2010). The title of this essay is intended to offer an alternative to the recent penchant for tragic early republic history as Broadway musical comedy (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Hamilton).
national politics, proslavery politics, and antislavery politics seem to suggest more complications and contingency for all three, and perhaps signal a renewed realization for scholars of what politicians like Adams knew: that long-term developments were far from inevitable, precisely because both the rhetoric and the reality of slavery responded to shifting ideological, partisan, and material investments as well as changing international conditions.2 A younger John Quincy Adams indicated antislavery beliefs in private, and fellowtraveled briefly with New England Federalist critics of the slave power. Yet as a mainstay of National Republicanism he helped to keep slavery off the national agenda for a quarter-century. At the height of his political career he epitomized the political forces that would shut down, rather than elaborate or create, an antislavery politics. Until, that is, he asked if he was gagged or not, and denounced a slave power conspiracy to grab Texas. Adams thus embodies both the shutdown and the stunning restart of antislavery politics. There is a story here that cannot be reduced to a personality quirk, to latent beliefs, or to improved timing.3 His antislavery politics responded to collateral effects of the shutdown he had enabled and supported but lost the ability to shape. Adams followed in his father’s footsteps. Both recognized that silence about slavery constituted a compromise among the leadership classes, a sine qua non for the vigorous nationalism they promoted. Briefly, as a Federalist senator, John Quincy Adams baited southern 2
See especially Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (New York, 2001); Matthew Mason, Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008); John Craig Hammond and Matthew Mason eds., Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation (Charlottesville, VA, 2011); Padraig Riley, Slavery and the Democratic Conscience: Political Life in Jeffersonian America (Philadelphia, forthcoming 2015). 3 Leonard L. Richards’ subtle study of The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (New York, 1986) called attention to his neutral or confusing record on slavery before 1836, stressed the changing orientation Adams’s specific Plymouth constituency and suggested the ex-president’s sour grapes. For overviews incorporating more recent scholarship and stressing changing national political contexts see Matthew Mason, “John Quincy Adams and the Tangled Politics of Slavery” and David F. Ericson, “John Quincy Adams: Apostle of Union” in David Waldstreicher ed., A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams (Malden, MA, 2013), 402-21, 367-82.
planters in writings that anticipated his later antislavery politics. Yet he limited his critique to a loyal, nationalist vision of sectional balance and carefully kept even these writings anonymous. Breaking with the Federalists between 1804 and 1807, he placed expansion over partisan and sectional goals – and rose to the Cabinet as a result. As president, Adams’s attempts to continue the Monrovian agenda and create a post-partisan political base for nation-building foundered on the politics of slavery. Only afterwards did he posit, privately by 1829 and a few years later in public, that his policy visions had fallen to the slave power, more than to democracy or the partisan ambitions of his rivals. Events during the key first several years after his presidency gradually transformed his perspective and helped him begin to find a new voice, an antislavery nationalist politics, the building blocks for which can be found in earlier writings including his diary. Adams’s new politics also enabled him to embrace democracy less ambivalently while helping to explain why his own considerable political arts, which he did not see as involving “corrupt” or undemocratic bargains, had failed. Adams’s novel antislavery nationalism was effective and potentially transformative precisely to the extent that it developed the relationship between slavery and other issues. His speech of May 25, 1836, now known as his flinging of the “war powers” gauntlet in the context of the Gag Rule debates, established links between Indian removal, proslavery, and Texas question; it demonstrated a relationship between the development of those seemingly discrete policy choices and the silencing of antislavery petitions. The funding of a border war against Seminoles and fugitive slaves admitted the possibility of federal antislavery action during some future war. As such, it exemplified the linkage of issues upon which the very existence of the federal union hinged. In other words, John Quincy Adams did more than turn the politics of slavery into a matter of white rights, or deftly anticipate Lincoln and Congress’s use of the war
powers to emancipate, though he had done those extremely important things. More importantly, he inverted the silencing of slavery in U.S. constitutional structures: not only demonstrating the possibility or necessity of a politics of slavery but performing it by turning loyal silence about slavery into voice.4 For Adams, it was the nationalist ambition that remained the same and enabled him to feel as justified in linking slavery to other issues as he had earlier felt in delinking slavery from policy questions. The war powers speech reinterpreted the history of the previous dozen years as the unholy ascension of an empire against, not for, liberty. By its very nature, the war powers argument for the constitutionality of antislavery politics also addressed the central problem of Adams’s presidency: the power of a partisan Congress, the presidential horserace, and the opportunistic uses of foreign affairs by both Congress and the president, all polarized by the politics of slavery, to break down his version of the American system. Even expansion and supremacy over Native claims – which Adams had always supported -- had limits if they threatened American nationalism and exceptionalism. Adams’s political skills were rhetorical as well as diplomatic. His were the arts of linkage: to explain the relationship of issues that might otherwise be dealt with as distinct. As such, he is not so much the anomalous, tragic or pathetic Yankee foil to “the rise of American Democracy” from Jefferson through Jackson to Lincoln as he is the switch that explains why Lincoln could say “all honor to Jefferson” and yet want little to nothing to do with Jackson.5 Nor do consistently held beliefs about slavery or race per se explain Adams’s politics or his role in history. The changing relationships between slavery and other national issues that he perceived, suppressed, and acted upon are the key to understanding his importance to the antislavery 4
For the classic delineation of these qualities as aspects of politics see Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Loyalty and Voice (Cambridge, Mass., 1970). 5 Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, 2006).
bulwark. Despite having been a major player in the National Republican shutdown of antislavery politics, a role that put him in a position to be secretary and state and president of the slaveholders’ (or at best slavery-neutral) republic, John Quincy Adams’s incomparable experiences as a diplomat, senator, secretary of state and chief executive – his extraordinary loyalty -- made it possible for him to craft a nationalist antislavery voice out of his forced exit at the hands of the Jacksonians. He laid the intellectual and political groundwork for the civil war over slavery because he, more than anyone else, was in a position to do so.
Even before 1776 the senior John Adams had prided himself on his ability to get along with southerners like Thomas Jefferson. He was among the first to realize that silence on slavery would be the price of intercolonial unity and, later, independence. On several occasions he noted southern colleagues’ restlessness as matters of representation, taxation, and military service, led to policy debates that could affect the future of slavery. In response, he sought to tamp down the issue, expressing resignation or a wish that the issue would be compromised. Adams’s political roles during the war and the 1780s reinforced his sense of the delicate geopolitics of slavery and his preference for balance in the service of national unity. As a mainstay of the committee that oversaw the Continental Army he promoted sectional balance in the officer corps. He insisted on distance from foreign powers and argued in a learned treatise that America’s new republican governments were radical enough when considered in light of world history.6 While John Quincy Adams served as his father’s secretary in Paris he would have little to no reason to believe that
6 John Adams to Joseph Hawley, Nov. 25, 1775 in John Adams: Revolutionary Writings, 1775-1783 ed. Gordon Wood (New York, 2011), 36; David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (New York, 2009), 51-52; Wendy H. Wong, “John Adams, Diplomat” and Karen N. Barzilay, “John Adams in the Continental Congress” in Waldstreicher ed., Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, 78-101, 125-41; Gordon S. Wood, “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams,” Revolutionary Characters (New York, 2010), 173-202.
the duty of a statesman or diplomat in a republican confederation required him to condemn slavery. If anything, it might require abjuring such excesses. The younger Adams made his name by developing his father’s revolutionary nationalism publicly and eloquently. In his July 1787 commencement address at Harvard, he named the “critical period, when the whole nation is groaning” and ascribed it to the failure of “national credit,” the foundation of “national grandeur.” Economic distress in Massachusetts could ultimately be understood as the “erosion of the bands of union which connected us to our sister states, [which] have been shamefully relaxed by a selfish and contracted principle,” an unwillingness to pay taxes to retire the revolutionary war debt. Localism was the problem, thinking bigger the solution. When Massachusetts folk abided by their agreements, the “radiant sun of our union” would not only reappear but begin, again to protect “the wretched object of tyranny and persecution in every corner of the globe.” This was a call to republican virtue, to be sure, but one that deliberately emphasized national union over the rather specific events in Massachusetts that summer of Shays’s Rebellion. 7 The years John Quincy Adams had spent abroad even before he returned to attend Harvard confirmed his nascent American exceptionalism as well as his sense that what Americans had in common trumped any relationship that might be forged with particular European nations. At a time when his father, now vice-president, was being attacked as a closet monarchist, Anglophile, and old-fashioned champion of “balanced,” insufficiently democratic constitutions, he insisted in his first published newspaper essays that the U.S. Constitution (which he had actually at first opposed in 1787) had the virtues of both the British and new French constitutions “without the evils of both.” He gained the attention of the rest of the
7 John Quincy Adams, “An Oration, Delivered at the Public Commencement in the University of Cambridge, in New England,” Columbian Magazine 1 (Sept. 1787), 625-28.
Washington administration with thorough defenses of the neutrality policy as the only sure guide against partisanship and “foreign usurpation.” Earlier than most, and more consistently, he defined both British and French influence in America as “the shameful fetters of a foreign bondage.”8 Successes in the arena of non-partisan statesmanship affected the younger man’s sense of who he was and would be. When Washington offered John Quincy a diplomatic post, he worried about leaving the center of the action, but his father argued, apparently from experience, that a diplomatic post would actually enable his son to “broaden his network to include ‘able Men in the southern and middle states.’” In 1795, during the increasingly strained period in AngloAmerican relations, he responded anxiously to the sectional cast of politics, construing British undersecretary Hammond’s attempt to sound him out on sectionalism as a kind of seduction: “What sort of soul does this man think I have? He talked about the Virginians, the Southern People, the democrats; but I let him know that I consider them all in no other light than as Americans.” Six months later, he wrote his brother of his worry that a war with Great Britain would split the country: “all my hopes of national felicity and glory have invariably been founded upon the continuance of the union…. Much as I must disapprove of the general tenor of southern politics,” he wrote, “I would rather even yield to their unreasonable pretensions and suffer much for their wrongs, than break the chain that binds us together.” Without union, the United States would be swamped by the European powers anyway. During these years Adams contemplated quitting his diplomatic post and settling in the south, perhaps in Georgia. The next
8 JQA, “Publicola,” “Marcellus” and “Columbus,” Writings of John Quincy Adams ed., Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York, 1913) [hereafter WJQA] I, 91, 159; Robert A. East, John Quincy Adams: The Critical Years, 1785-1794 (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 31, 142.
year he shocked his parents by marrying Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of a prominent Maryland merchant whom he met in London.9 Watching U.S. politics from his post in Berlin during his father’s presidency, Adams remained aloof from the Anglophile and Francophile extremes and shared his father’s pride in avoiding war with France: “You were not the man of any party, but of the whole nation,” he wrote, in a turn of phrase that would become his mantra. News of Gabriel’s Rebellion spurred him to write to his brother that “those absurd principles of unlimited democracy which the people of the southern states… encouraged, are producing their natural fruits, and if the planters have not discovered the inconsistency of holding in one hand the rights of man and in the other a scourge for the back of slaves, their negroes have proven themselves better logicians than their masters.” Nevertheless, he hoped the “dreaded catastrophe” of Haiti would not recur: the eastern states should help put down any slave rebellion. While he imagined a black Haiti itself in a possible alliance with the United States, as indeed a kind of proof of the new dispensation – a post-colonial new world beyond “metropolis and colony, or in other words master and servant” - he saw Caribbean revolt in terms of its implications for American independence, not the future of African slavery. Slave revolt was most interesting insofar as it became another way to convince southerners the error of their political ways, though he believed that nothing short of actual insurrection would force “democratisers of the Old Dominion” to “feel their need of assistance from their sister states, nor the importance of the Union to them.”10
9 John Quincy Adams Diary, Dec. 1, 1795, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. (Boston, Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004), http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries [hereafter JQA Diary]; Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy for the Republic (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), 59; JQA to Charles Adams, June 9, 1796, in WJQA, I, 493-4; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1949. repr. New York, 1973), 87; Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York, 1997), 97. 10 JQA to JA, Nov. 25, 1800 JQA to William Vans Murray, March 20 and July 14, 1798, to Thomas Boylston Adams, July 11, Nov. 25, Dec. 3 1800, to William Vans Murray, Dec. 16, 1800, WJQA II, 271, 386, 398, 485-6n; Diary, Jan. 28, 1802. Compare Ronald Angelo Johnson, Diplomacy in Black and White (Athens, GA, 2013), who
When he returned to the U.S. and won a seat in the Massachusetts state senate, Adams participated with his brother in the Port Folio circle and shared in its culturally specific Federalist nostalgia. He saw the need to “look coolly” at the possibility that the federal union might not last, though he did not think that Jefferson (with whom he had discussed slavery in Paris fifteen years earlier) had disunion in mind.11 He scolded his brother Thomas, for example, for a piece that sneered at Washington D.C.’s southern sensibilities. He did, however, follow closely the revelations by James Thomson Callendar about Sally Hemings, and published anonymously a parody of Jefferson-Hemings and his alleged paternity of her children. Dear Thomas, deem it no disgrace With slaves to mend thy breed, Nor let the wench’s smutty face Deter thee from thy deed. Prefaced by a quote from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia about a young country and its “generative force of nature,” this Horatian ode mocked Jefferson as a would-be emperor whose inflated sense of self-worth, like Nero, allowed him to break his own rules (“Vice turns to virtue at his Nod”).12 Elevated in 1803 to the U.S. Senate, John Quincy Adams had found a political home in New England federalism, partly by necessity. Like his father, he had plenty of reasons to resent Jefferson and to reconsider the role of slavery in the Jeffersonian ascendancy. Yet he held back, intellectually and politically. Later he cited 1802 not as the moment he was in harmony with interprets John Adams’s Haiti policy as more intentionally pro-black and antislavery than seems warranted by the evidence. If Thomas Jefferson’s policy proved a departure, John Quincy Adams provided no record of seeing it that way. 11 Adams to William Vans Murray, Apr. 7, 1801, WJQA II, 525-26; Diary of John Quincy Adams ed. David Grayson Allen et al, (Cambridge, MA, 1982) I, 262. 12 JQA to Rufus King, Oct. 8, 1802, WJQA III, 7; “Original Poetry. For the Port Folio. Horace, Book II, Ode 4,” The Port-Folio 2: 43 (Oct. 30, 1802); Linda K. Kerber, Federalists in Dissent (Ithaca, NY, 1971), 25-26n, 51; Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008), 145-46.
New England federalism, but rather as the year that he gave two orations that made a difference in public life. One, to the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society, “Implored and shamed the Bostonians out of their inveterate fondness for wooden houses,” a quintessential Adamsian gesture to improvement and rational planning by benevolent gentlemen. The second, even more important in his own retrospection, praised the Pilgrim fathers for establishing the right of settlers to North American lands. Native title existed “upon a questionable foundation” because they were hunters not improvers,” an argument “which was afterwards useful to me at Ghent and which after the lapse of more than twenty years I still think unanswerable.”13 It isn’t clear why Adams thought his recapitulation of the doctrine of res nullius was original: it seems to have been more important to him that it was timely and effective, developed in an oration and put to use in diplomacy for the national good.14 Settlement was improvement, north or south. The lesson would apply to the Louisiana territory, and ultimately inform his split with the Federalists. He was the lone Federalist senator to vote both to admit the territory and against limiting slavery there. Adamsian attitudes toward American diplomacy and empire dovetailed with Jeffersonian expansionism. He also found himself newly in tune with an administration that seemed committed to neutrality in order to best protect American interests and borders. Besides, he believed that a U.S. senator should seek to represent the interests of the entire nation. While other New Englanders canvassed against Jefferson in the election of 1804, John Quincy Adams conferred at the White House about foreign affairs, explaining in letters to his father why his seeming apostasy made sense.15
13 Adams, An Oration Delivered at Plymouth (Boston, 1802), 25; Adams, “Ecce Iterum” [1825?], WJQA, III, 11; Lynn Hudson Parsons, "A Perpetual Harrow upon My Feelings": John Quincy Adams and the American Indian,” New England Quarterly 46 (Sep., 1973), 339-379. 14 For earlier uses of res nullius see Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Britain, Spain and France, 1500-1800 (New Haven, CT, 1995) 15 Robert R. Thompson, “John Quincy Adams, Apostate: From ‘Outrageous Federalist’ to ‘Republican Exile,’ 18011809,” Journal of the Early Republic 11 (1991), 161-183; JQA to JA, Nov. 3, [Nov., 1804], WJQA III, 78, 79.
In the meantime, he tried to fashion a constructive critique of planter ascendancy that would preserve balance and the union. He wrote a speech defending the Ely amendment, a proposal originating in the Massachusetts assembly to eliminate the three-fifths clause, but did not actually deliver it on the Senate floor: instead, he published a revised and extended version anonymously in a Boston newspaper. Adams trod carefully in trying to stake out a nationalist antislavery position and salvage his political base in Boston. As an electioneering piece that raked New England Jeffersonians for kowtowing to Virginians, the “Publius Valerius” series is notable both for its structural analysis of slaveholders’ political power in light of the three-fifths clause and its well-developed argument for constitutional adjustment in a permanent union.16 Adams did not try to argue his way out of the implications of the Louisiana Purchase, which he was known to have supported. New England’s present and future decline in power was “founded in nature.” The real question was whether southern power would be “enjoyed with moderation.” Things had not worked out as anticipated in 1787: slaveholders reaped their representation but without the federal taxation that had supposedly been part of the deal, since no direct tax had been passed except during the war scare of 1798, during the Adams administration. As a result, representation in the United States had turned “unequal and oppressive” to states holding few or no slaves: “At present the people of the United States consist of two classes. A privileged order of slave-holding Lords, and a race of men degraded to a lower station, merely because they are not slave-holders.” Northerners had representation by numbers; planters by numbers plus property, so “we are doubly taxed, and they are doubly represented.” It was a vicious cycle: less representation meant less power to determine economic policy and
16 Leonard L. Richards considers Adams’s arguments in the debate on the Ely amendment an important moment in the evolution of the “numbers argument” against slave representation. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge, LA, 2000), 44-45. The speech did not appear in the Senate’s printed debates. Most Adams scholars believe he did not deliver it, and then rewrote the substance and published under “Publius Valerius” in the Boston Repertory.
taxes. How else could one explain the election of a president who identified cities, not slaves, as sores on the body politic? Besides, the reopening of the slave trade by South Carolina meant that the Constitution, as it currently operated “makes the highest privilege of freedom the purchase of accumulated slavery.” Jeffersonians who argued that the Ely amendment insulted the slave states and endangered the union made a “slavish” argument, “the language of a negro driver.” A good constitutional amendment restoring balance to representation and taxation would actually save the union. The speech he had considered making to colleagues in the senate made the argument for constitutional change even more pointedly. The compromise of 1787 was no longer fair. The south was more than safe: it was in the saddle. All sections had “a deep a permanent and a paramount interest in Union.” Planter interest in the union should allow for an adjustment.17 Looking back, Adams identified the Chesapeake affair and the embargo crisis in 1807 as a decisive moment in his political career. He decided to attend a Republican sponsored town meeting, making his affiliation with the administration quite visible. Yet particularly because he had never publicly engaged in Federalist denunciations of the Virginian “negro president,” as the other Massachusetts senator did, he could plausibly insist on his own consistency. He supported the administration, he told a friend, because the nature of the opposition, in time of war, could lead to civil war and the subservience of the Atlantic states to Britain. At a time when he was hearing rumors of a secession plot, he wrote to Harrison Gray Otis, an alleged plotter, of the need to consider the whole union objectively. For Adams, New England disunionism was not only misguided, it was “British usurpation,” a deliberate effort to divide the sections and undermine the nation. The recurrent “Essex Junto” controversy, which has since seemed mythical or even comical, was deadly serious, even foundational to Adams. Twenty years later he spent some of
17 “Publius Valerius,” WJQA III, 49-50, 59, 70-1, 73; “Proposed Amendment to the Constitution on Representation” [December 1804],” WJQA III, 88.
the waning weeks of his presidency writing a book-length corrective to Otis’s attempt to deny the existence of a New England conspiracy, arguing that if anything he himself deserved credit for the end of the embargo. He had gone directly to President Jefferson with news of the plot, arguing that the embargo be repealed to combat the secret Federalist-British negotiations. His efforts were particularly appreciated by secretary of state James Madison, who compared Massachusetts’s rapid unseating of Adams as senator to the backbiting he and Jefferson received from the likes of John Randolph, who repeatedly called them soft on federal threats to the south and slavery. Before it became clear that he’d be consoled with a diplomatic post, Adams wrote in his diary that he had “sacrificed” himself to “the Constitution.” 18 His “exile” to Russia as foreign minister confirmed his identity as a national as opposed to regional statesman. In “American Principles,” a review of the posthumously published writings of Fisher Ames, he decried Ames’s fatalism regarding north-south differences. Patriotism and statesmanship could overcome them. Disunion was self-fulfilling prophecy, a sure road to war: “union is peace, and peace is liberty.” The concurrence of party politics and Virginian power was “accidental and temporary,” a quirk of the Constitution. Virginians were “not uncontrollable.” Besides, they had felt and acted during the 1790s just as some New Englanders did now. To compare westerners and southerners to “barbarians,” as Ames did, ignored migration patterns: “they are literally our children and our brethren.”19 Adams consistently bewailed the British threat and the partisan nature of Federalist dissent, so much so that he came to function as an exception that proved the rule for the Jeffersonian Republicans. His expertise on both Massachusetts and Britain reinforced the party’s
18 JQA to Harrison Gray Otis, March 31, 1808, to Orchard Cook, Nov. 25, 1808, to Nahum Parker, Dec. 8 and 15, 1808, to William Plumer, Oct. 16, 1809, WJQA IV, 193, 255-56, 258-59, 340-41; Henry Adams ed., Documents Relating to New England Federalism (1877. Repr. Boston, 1905), 11-13, 107-330; JQA Diary, Jan. 20, Apr. 23, 1808, May 31, 1820. 19 Adams, American Principles. A review of the Works of Fisher Ames (Boston, 1809), 36-37, 40-41, 43-44.
sense of the threat to the union. Reading from St. Petersburg of his senatorial successor’s attempt to derail Louisiana statehood in 1811, he wrote home that though he loved his native land he could as easily settle on the banks of the Red River. The continent was destined to be one nation. “The relative proportion of power between the different members of the Union is as insignificant, as the same question between the North End and the South End” of Boston. In the same series of letters he reflected on the relationship between his own political philosophy and that of his father. John Adams had been more consistently concerned about how social questions could corrupt a republic, but “Union is to me what the balance is to you, and without this there can be no good government among mankind in any state, so without that there can be no good government among the people of North America in the state in which God has been pleased to place them.”20 For years he had been especially appalled at the impressment of sailors and some New England leaders’ willingness to justify it as the cost of doing business, or even a British right. When the time came he did not hesitate to call it a just cause for war. British sailors were their Helots; they were kidnapped “like African negroes,” and by 1812 he called it “manstealing” to Madame de Stael and any other European who would listen. Everything he read while in St. Petersburg confirmed his predictions. The slave trade was terrible, but abolitionists in England and the U.S. were factional, and impressment just as bad. The impressment issue informed his unwillingness to give any ground at Ghent regarding American demands for compensation for liberated slaves. They were private property. To concede British rights to tamper with American bodies would mean caving in to British imperial pretensions. He swallowed and broadcast the American line that British officers had taken slaves only to sell them in the West Indies. If slaves
20 JQA to William Plumer, Aug. 16, 1809, to Abigail Adams, June 30, 1811, to John Adams, Aug. 31, Oct. 31, 1811, WJQA III, 341, IV, 127-28, 208-9, 267.
could be enticed, he asked Lord Liverpool, where were the limits to war? Postwar efforts to cooperate against the slave trade also foundered, for Adams, upon questions of sovereignty. One could not trust the British to board American ships or try American citizens. The idea that ships of all nations could be boarded by each other was an example of British “impudence,” he explained to a “disappointed” William Wilberforce. Later he went so far as to worry that the disposition of Africans liberated from illegal slavers would interfere with state rights to determine their free or bound status. Only in 1823 did he find a way to get around the impressment comparison – by defining slave traders as pirates at war with the world.21 Adams’s loyalty and consistency earned him the coveted State department post in Monroe’s administration. The prior two secretaries of state – Virginians – had proceeded directly to the presidency. There was considerable irony in the structural position Adams had come to play among National Republicans. He was the New England man in the cabinet, there for balance as well as his manifest skills, and thus suspect; but he was also a one-man argument for the flourishing of nationalism, and the end of partisanship and sectionalism, in the era of good feelings. The self-evident breakdown of the Virginia chain of succession, however, helped turn the Monroe presidency into an eight-year presidential campaign, affecting dynamics inside a cabinet stuffed with would-be successors, as well as in the Congress, where Henry Clay nursed his wounds and looked for allies. Relying especially on Adams’s diary, Ernest F. May brilliantly analyzed how the secretary of state’s careful distancing from Britain in the seemingly bold Monroe Doctrine reflected his need to seem unlike a Yankee Anglophile, much less an
21 Adams to Albert Gallatin and Richard Rush, Nov. 2, 1818, WJQA 6: 470-1; Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundation of American Foreign Policy, 428.
antislavery one, in the leadup to the election of 1824.22 The secretary’s stalwart refusal to enter a concord regarding the slave trade reflected the same dynamics. In this way, Adams came to play a key role in national republicanism’s bid to bind the nation together and secure a partisan antipartisan future.23 The politicization of slavery that had already occurred during the war threatened that vision, whether in the southern Old Republican proslavery states’ rights version or in a northern antislavery qua anti-Virginia key. Most striking in this phase of Adams’s career was his political success in working with Madison and Monroe – even at the expense of southerners Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and William H. Crawford. When General Andrew Jackson crossed the border and almost provoked a war with England and Spain, that trio were ready, with good reason, to disavow Jackson and his insistence that border security and slave property justified aggressive action against the Seminoles and their freelance English allies.24 But Adams sized up the geopolitics and the domestic politics and defended Jackson’s actions. In his widely circulated public letter to consul William Erving, he depicted the British men Jackson tried and executed as at the head of a “negro-Indian banditti,” “parti-colored forces” in the service of a possible British invasion. Everyone knew that Great Britain used “savages” to fight Americans: they had caused every Indian war since 1776. Arbuthnot and Armbrister were “political filters to fugitive slaves and Indian outlaws,” and the laws of war entitled Jackson to hang them without the court-martial he provided. To his father Adams wrote 22
Ernest R. May, The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 180-84. For the dynamics of partisan antipartisanship in the early republic see David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997), 201-7. For an application to a later period suggesting its continued importance, see Adam I.P. Smith, “Partisan Politics and the Public Sphere: The Civil War North,” American Nineteenth Century History 2 (2001), 182-203. 24 JA to Monroe, July 8, 1818, to Onis, July 23, WJQA 6: 384, 387. Recently historians have come to recognize the centrality of the fugitive slave issue in the borderlands to the ensuing First Seminole War and to Jackson’s designs in the region. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire (Mechanicsburg, PA, 1996), 64-76; Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansionism and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), 166, 220. 23
that it had been justifiable self-defense on Jackson’s part. Besides, partisan attacks on Jackson were really directed at him.25 Together, Jackson and Adams pried Florida and more from Spain. Yet the Transcontinental Treaty remained at stake in Congress when Representative James Tallmadge offered his famous amendment to make Missouri statehood conditional upon abolition. Indeed, Adams’s immediate success at growing the nation in a southwesterly direction is part of what made the question of slavery in a new state so momentous.26 In discussions within the cabinet, Adams took the position that slavery restriction was unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Louisiana Purchase treaty. He continued to worry that Missouri would derail the Spanish treaty. The pressures mounted. He asked his wife Louisa Catherine to insert a request in one of her regular letters to his father begging him not to be quoted on Missouri: “Mr. A—has never given any opinion on this business and is not at all pleased to be drawn into it as long as he can possibly avoid it.” She had already become a factor just by sitting in the Senate gallery, where, listening to an attack on restriction, “even my Countenance was watched” for clues as to her husband’s sympathies. On February 4, 1820, he wondered if Rufus King was thinking disunion, for any politician so willing to condemn slavery in public should realize “it must end in that.” Yet a week later he wrote that he would have to be prepared for an active role in the crisis.27
25 Mr. Adams’s Defense of General Jackson’s Conduct in the Seminole War (n.p., 1818), 5, 9, 13-14; Erving Letter in WJQA 6: 477, 482, 488, 499-500; JQA to John Adams, Dec. 14, 1819, WJQA 6: 528-32. Experts remain divided over whether Adams’ actions and words were propaganda or a consistent extension of his ideology. For Adams’s defense of Jackson as crisis of conscience and a betrayal of his own principles, see William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington KY, 1996), 124-25; for Adams’s consistent policy goals see James E. Lewis Jr., The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire, 1783-1829 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998), and the more celebratory account in Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. Lynn Hudson Parsons splits the difference by describing Adams as brilliant but clueless: Parsons, John Quincy Adams (Madison, WI, 1998), 142-43. 26 James E. Lewis Jr., John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union (Wilmington, DE, 2002), 62-63. 27 Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, ed. Judith S. Graham et al (Cambridge, Mass., 2013), 2: 472, 462, 464; JQA Diary, Feb. 4, 11, 1820.
The orator and statesman felt himself drawn in. The problem with the restrictionists’ arguments was that they were not bold enough. All the passion lay with the proslavery side, he thought. He foresaw a new arrangement of parties – never a good thing to an Adams. Still, “this is a question between the rights of human nature and the Constitution of the United States. Probably both will suffer by the issue of this controversy.” During a gripping evening with John C. Calhoun, he came face to face with the emerging positive good argument on behalf of slavery expansion. The founding fiction that slavery would die of its own accord or wither from the end of the international slave trade had clearly faded if the cabinet colleague he most admired for his intelligence and devotion to the republic found a neo-colonial dependence on Great Britain preferable to a union in which slavery existed on sufferance, banned from the western future. A few days later, on March 4, Adams joined a cabinet majority advising the president that slavery restriction was, in fact, constitutional.28 His own position had flipped, but clarified. Slavery questions were restricted to the states where slavery existed; where it did not yet exist was a different matter. Missouri was ambiguous, so a deal was inevitable. “The fault is in the Constitution of the United States, which has sanctioned a dishonorable compromise with slavery.” The dishonor lay in the conflict with the Declaration of Independence, which had grounded the American Revolution in the consent of the governed. Yet now it was clearer than ever that “slave representation has governed the Union.” Maybe he should not have signed on to the compromise by not objecting in the cabinet meetings. Maybe he could propose a constitutional convention. In public, however, he stayed out of the line of fire. Revealingly, he expressed increased admiration for the Rufus King’s stance but in a signal instance of projection he noted that it scotched any hopes the sixty-nine-year-old New
28 Adams to James Monroe, Feb. 24, March 4, 1820, WJQA 7: 1-2; Chandra Miller, “’Title Page to a Great and 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 94 (2000), 365-88.
David 2/2/15 2:02 PM Comment :
York Federalist might still have of becoming president. Meanwhile the debates in Congress continued to slow consideration of the Spanish treaty. Missouri was “a flaming sword that waves round on all sides and cuts in every direction,” including across his desk as questions suddenly arose about slavery in Florida or, someday, Texas. What did he think? It mattered less than what he said. He spoke differently to different colleagues on the matter, or literally divided himself: as a “servant of the whole union” he had to represent the interests of all, but as an “eastern man” he certainly expected resolutions against slavery in the next wave of territories.29 It was only the second Missouri crisis, over the new constitution that banned free blacks, that made Adams sure what side he was on, though he was hardly more forthcoming or public about it. The new Missouri constitution was unconstitutional. His now oft-quoted predictions of “servile war” and the end of slavery date from this period: “if the dissolution of the Union must come, let it come from no other cause than this.” 30 But it did not come, and three months later he could write that while constitutional conflict would return, this was not the proper time. 1821 instead became the year of his most famous, defining statement, a July 4th address in Washington, D.C. that depicted “conquest and servitude” as “mingled up in every part of the social existence” of Britain--not the United States. The settlement of New England, by contrast, which stood in for the entire nation, involved the purchase of Indian lands and a social compact “in which conquest and servitude had no part.” The United States stood for natural and equal rights. It was not an empire; “her glory is not dominion, but liberty.” 31
29 JQA Diary, Feb. 23, March 3, 5, 31, April 9, 1820; Adams to Jonathan Jennings, July 17, 1820, to John D. Heath, Jan. 7, 1822, WJQA VII: 53, 191-93. 30 JQA Diary, Nov. 28, 1820; Miller, “Title Page to a Great and Tragic Volume’,” 380-85; Mason, ”John Quincy Adams and the Tangled Politics of Slavery,” 406-7. 31 JQA Diary, Feb. 28, 1821; Adams, An Address Delivered at the Request of the Committee of Citizens if Washington; On the Occasion of Reciting the Declaration of Independence, on the Fourth of July, 1821 (Washington, 1821), 9-10, 21, 28, 31. The Russian minister Pierre de Polética was so appalled by the Anglophobia and wishful thinking in this “virulent diatribe” that he sent home a copy with his own marginalia: “How about your two million black slaves who cultivate a great expanse of your territory for your particular and exclusive advantage?
Adams sent a copy of the address to his friend Edward Everett and gloated that certain “Eastern politicians” had not appreciated his drubbing of the English: those same characters had been against him ever since his 1787 address (a remark that reveals just how much he understood his career as a series of rhetorical occasions). Instead he had served “my country” and two presidents from Virginia, though he had “never flattered her prejudices.” While he gained fame for his foreign policy successes, he identified all the more with the National Republicans, and tried to push for internal improvements, which he still thought possible under the current regime. The Louisiana Purchase had changed the Constitution, he surmised in his diary, and Virginians made it happen, so “Virginian constitutional scruples were accommodating things.”32 Adams’s own room for maneuver narrowed as the election of 1824 neared. Jonathan Russell, a fellow negotiator at Ghent, went public with an accusation that he had tried to sell out claims to Mississippi River navigation in exchange for access to north Atlantic fisheries. Supporters at the south wanted to hear that he had opposed the Tallmadge amendment, so he went back to his earliest diary entries for proof, ignoring what had come after. He told the South Carolinian George McDuffie that his opinions had been greatly misrepresented: he had never favored restriction, he was just against the Missouri Constitution as a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Louisiana treaty. Adams confided in one supporter that he thought the opposition to the slave trade convention had been scared up only “to raise a popular clamor against me.” He told his wife that even the controversy over the Amelia Island expedition against You forget the poor Indians whom you have not ceased to spoil. You forget your conduct toward Spain.” Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, 357-58. For an analysis that compares the logic of the July 4th address with the Monroe Doctrine, noting that both simultaneously separated Indians from foreign policy and made slavery a foreign problem, see Gretchen Murphy, Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (Durham, NC, 2005), 33-60. 32 JQA Diary Adams to Everett, Jan. 31, 1822,WJQA VII: 200-1, 205, 356-62; JQA Diary, Oct. 20, Nov. 17, 1821, Jan. 31, 1822. Alexander Smyth of Virginia raised Adams’ votes on Louisiana and the slave trade in 1803-4, promting Adams to reply with a an address and a pamphlet, :To the Freeholders of Washington, Wythe, Grayson, Russell, Tazewell, Lee and Scott Counties, Virginia,” WJQA VII: 335-54.
slave traders had served instrumentally “to bar my access to the next Presidency.” Unlike his cabinet rivals, he “should be President of not a section, nor of a faction, but of the whole Union.” His coy “Macbeth policy” of allowing himself to be chosen rather than building a tight network reflected more than a disinclination to campaign, for it included a resolve to “indulge no sectional antipathies,” a tendency he equated with partisanship.33 Similarly, the myth that Adams wandered eyes closed and with faith in his own rectitude into a bargain or the appearance of one with Henry Clay has been shattered by a series of accounts that recognize the “superb political arts” by which he had outmaneuvered Crawford, Calhoun and Clay while surviving the Jackson challenge. Friendliness to Jackson helped to deregionalize Adams temporarily. In December 1823 he was telling friends that he actually preferred Jackson to all the other candidates. He and Louisa hosted an important party for the general on the January 8 anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans and let it be known that Jackson was welcome to serve as vice-president. Samuel Flagg Bemis noted that he avoided all comment on slavery related matters in 1824: when friends northern or southern wrote him a statement on the matter, “he would not even answer their letters.” Adams, in other words, remained confident that “slave representation” and expansion could be managed – and that he was the one to manage them.34 The problem was that his unifying program, the northeast-midwest policy bloc he immediately tried to solidify, and the divisive election itself buoyed the emergent Jacksonian
33 Diary, Oct. 1, 1822, May 1, 20, 24, 29, 1824; Adams to John D. Heath, Jan. 7, 1822, to Charles Jasred Ingersoll, June 3, Robert Walsh, July 15, 1822, to Louisa Catherine Adams, Oct. 7, 1822WJQA VII: 318; “”To the Freeholders of Washington, Wythe, Grayson, Russell, Tazewell, Lee, and Scott Counties, Virginia,” WJQA VII: 335-54; Adams, “The Macbeth Policy,” WJQA VII: 359-60; Mason, “John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery,” 408. 34 David Callahan, “The Elections of 1824 and 1828” and Catherine Allgor and Margery Heffron, “A Monarch in the Republic: Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams and Court Culture in Early Washington City” in Waldstreicher ed., Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, 325, 463-66; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 26-27, 70-71. I am especially indebted to Callahan for his argument that “the superb political arts that Adams had used in 1824 sowed the seeds of his defeat in the election of 1828.”(325)
opposition in Congress, an opposition that was essentially, as Martin Van Buren proposed, an urban worker-southern planter alliance, to be led by the southerners. The fact that Van Buren wanted to create it as a revival of the old Jeffersonian alliance is important, because Adams had made his peace with second-wave, nationalist Jeffersonianism against the New England federalists, with an eye toward international as much as domestic issues, and in the hope that an intersectional alliance – National Republicanism -- would be less partisan and more unionist than either their Federalist or Democratic-Republican predecessors. The new partisan dispensation threatened to leave him out even as he sat in the White House: to make a mockery of his principled post-partisanship and to make a principle instead of opposition to a stronger national government.35 It was, in other words, the very nightmare he might seem to have prevented by serving, and to some extent influencing, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. The Jacksonians proceeded to turn him into the very shadow of the Yankee Federalism he had run all the way to Russia to escape. But there was no easy way out, no divorce of sectional from more substantial or important issues, not during the 1820s. The improvements, the stronger federal government he advocated did threaten slavery in an era when not only canals and banks but also African colonization using federal revenues could be contemplated.36 Policy options simply did not benefit the sections equally, and anything ambitious called attention to slavery at a moment of southern slavery’s simultaneous rapid growth in the
35 Padraig Riley, “The Presidency of John Quincy Adams” in Waldstreicher ed., Companion, 335-36; William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War (New York, 1966), 141; JQA Diary, Sept. 11, 1826. For the structural constraints Adams faced in trying to consolidate Monrovian policies see especially Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush (Princeton, NJ, 1993), 110-27. 36 Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007), 9, 190-92, 195-96. Richard R. John argues compellingly that the very idea of slavery restriction, and African colonization, augured the age of increased state capacity which was a threat to slaveholders – and inspired the anti-government reactions of the Jacksonians. John, “Affairs of Office: The Executive Departments, the Election of 1828, and the Making of the Democratic Party” in Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian Zelizer eds., The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History (Princeton, NJ, 2003), 50-84.
southwest and seeming vulnerability in the southeast. Madison and Monroe had hit this wall repeatedly. President Adams tried to be neutral on slavery related issues, and indeed not to raise them at all, but the fears of deep southerners during his presidency were as real as the apparent spread of antislavery sentiment, if not political action. Robert Hayne of South Carolina pounced on the Panama Congress, insisting that the appointment of a Missouri slavery restrictionist as envoy proved that diplomatic relations with emancipating republicans raised “domestic questions.” Georgia refused to reconsider the fraudulent Treaty of Indian Springs, in an episode that foreshadowed the nullification crisis but did not become a confrontation because Adams simply did not have the political capital to insist on his constitutional authority – especially when he was already suspected to be antislavery. Even so, Congressional allies came begging for assurances that the administration would not emancipate. Despite this situation he refused to see the opposition as particularly southern. That would concede too much. He could not advocate for union and a vigorous, activist state while drawing regional distinctions. The problem may be seen in his response to the Negro Seamen’s Act in 1825, which he found undoubtedly unconstitutional and not a little outrageous. Carolinians wanted assurances about slave property, but they had put it out of his hands by patently contradicting the rights of free blacks. Yet he should not force a confrontation. “To be silent, is not to interfere with state rights; and not to interfere, renounces no right of ourselves and others.” His national republican version of the federal consensus, which presumed neutrality and silence, had lost the initiative. Since Missouri, the politics of slavery had been renovated by his partisan opponents, in a proslavery key. They were making the links – and in the process undoing his agenda.37 37
JQA Diary, Nov. 21, 1825, Jan. 11, Sept. 11, 1826. Bemis suggested that “the most significant issue in the Presidential campaign of 1828 was the hidden issue… the issue of slavery” (John Quincy Adams and the Union, 147), but recent accounts seem to ignore that contention, with the important exception of Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of the United States, 1815-1848 (New York, 2006). Sean Wilentz, by
Historians lambast Adams for refusing to accede to the new realities of partisan politics. Yet the very particular conditions of Adams’s ascendancy, particularly the limits of one party rule amid the necessity of sectional bargaining, defined the partisan “outsider” stance of Jackson and the opposition. Much as Van Buren said he only wished to revive the good old alliance against Federalist aristocrats, Adams too continued to see the mix of partisan and sectional posturing through the lens of the first party system, writing in his diary during the summer of 1828 that rumors of secession in South Carolina amounted to an electioneering bid to carry state elections, a precise counterpart to Yankee politics between 1803 and 1815. National Republicanism had triumphed then; why not now? Playing the slavery card was what partial, irresponsible politicians did. If he sensed that Jackson and Van Buren had trumped him by constructing a populist, antigovernment nationalism that kept its proslavery leanings quiet whenever possible in the interest of an intersectional alliance, he did not admit of the dangers, perhaps precisely because he recognized in them a kind of inverted mirror image. Slavery remained off limits for as long as he remained in the White House, including in the campaign of 1828. To admit that his own strategies had been coopted by his opponents would have belied the very conditions of his existence as president. On the eve of Jackson’s inauguration he could still complain that although “the North assails me for my fidelity to the Union; the South for my ardent aspirations of improvement…. Passion, prejudice, envy and jealousy will pass. The cause
contrast, blames Adams for policy failures. Lynn Hudson Parsons admits the force of the three-fifths clause in 1828 but declares that the “new era” of democracy and modern politics was cause and effect of Jackson’s victory. But Donald Ratcliffe has argued persuasively that Adams’s coalition in 1824 was popular and even a majority. Wilentz, Rise of American Democracy; Parsons, The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 (New York, 2009), 128; Ratcliffe, “Popular Preferences in the Presidential Election of 1824,” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (2014), 45-78.
of Union and of improvement will remain, and I have duties to it and to my country yet to discharge.”38 The president actually spent much of the 1828 election season responding to his old New England nemeses. Electioneering debates had inspired some supporters to claim that the late Thomas Jefferson had supported internal improvements and despised Andrew Jackson. William Branch Giles wrote a response that had Jefferson, before his death, criticizing the Adams administration. Former Hartford Convention types jumped into the fray, denying that they had ever plotted disunion and demanding proof otherwise. After considerable back-and-forth in the press in which Adams tried to show that a series of plots against the union had been implicit in legislative moves to resist acts of Congress and manifest in extant correspondence in the public record, he spent even more of the first months of 1829 writing a book-length “Reply to the Appeal of the Massachusetts Federalists,” which he did not publish. Here he began for the first time to lay the blame for his political failures on the slave power. The new controversy derived from Giles and the “Virginia oligarchy,” whose “cabalistic watch-word of ‘state-rights’” hid darker motives. The lurking jealousies of slave-holders were enlisted against the nature of a state wholly free. The bone-bred dislikes of the cavalier race for the stock of the Pilgrim Puritans were summoned to the array against him; and the Virginian and Southern and slave-holding mind was thus predisposed to receive falsehood for truth, to ruin the reputation and paralyze the power of a President of the United States elected by onethird of the suffrages of the people, already basely slandered by infamous imputations upon the mode of his election. The “Essex Junto” controversy would not have occupied his time if it had not seemed to be the only safe way to explain the gap between what he knew about the last quarter
38 Diary, July 10, 1828, Feb 28, 1829; Donald J. Ratcliffe, “The Decline of Antislavery Politics, 1815-1840” in Hammond and Mason eds., Contesting Slavery, 280.
century of national politics and what he could say. Its retrospective qualities are revealing. In his own way he was trying to revive the party split of old. He had helped save the union, in part from the somewhat rational (he admitted) protests of a coalition who feared France, democracy, and slave representation. Now the very beneficiaries of slave representation sought to ally with the likes of Harrison Gray Otis.39 Having finished this treatise and placed it in the proverbial desk drawer, the newly retired Adams attempted to write a political history of the United States. Because he gave it the title “Parties in the United States” and remained critical of them in the era of their supposed triumph, it has been overlooked by historians as just another Adamsite wail against parties as a corruption of republican virtue.40 But it is actually a serious attempt to come to terms with national politics during his long career with slavery considered as a major part of the story. At the very outset Adams theorizes slavery as one of the six causes of the rise of parties. His definition of the other five causes makes it clear that the workings of slavery in politics has been the epitome, or typification, of other party-making engines, including differences of property, ethnicity, religion, and pre-existing local structures of government. He then proceeds to note that under the Articles of Confederation, the state governments in the south were based on property – with one third of the people considered to be property – rather than on persons, as in the north. At its origins, the union already had two versions of republicanism: slavery aristocracy and democracy. Sectional differences over slavery in a sense reinforced and recreated the original, 39
Henry Adams ed., Documents Relating to New England Federalism, 1808-1815 (1877. Repr. Boston, 1905), 1113, 52-53, 144-45ck, 285 40 John Quincy Adams, Parties in the United States (New York, 1941). The Adams Papers project dates the manuscript at 1829. http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0279.
material and cultural bases of partisan differences, yet also complicated national politics by creating another, cross-cutting basis for them. What saved the republic, temporarily, from the implications of these multiple sources of partisan division was the highly contingent, yet wise, creation of a supreme “national government” with “a closer union between the whole people than ever yet existed between the members of any other confederacy.” Indeed, the United States was not even a confederacy strictly speaking, but rather “a national government complicated with a federation. The national character predominated even throughout.” Antifederalists had the “advantage of numbers” in 1787, but “aristrocracy” fortunately won out, only to sacrifice itself during the next decade to its “Tory” tendencies – by which he meant Anglophilia to the point of disunionism. Here Adams backdated New England plotting against a ”slave representation” all the way to 1796-98, adapting his growing sense of slavery’s importance to the history of his father’s administration.41 The real innovation in Adams’s history emerged in his self-distancing from Jefferson. In passages that anticipate his grandson Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, Adams describes how Jefferson “quickened into life” the New England confederacy when he eviscerated the federal government through budget cuts while approving the Louisiana Purchase, “at an immense price, not of money, but of principle.” He gave “immense preponderance” to the south, aggravated the “slave representation,” and ultimately upended a federal Constitution that had been formed to protect international and interstate commerce. The third president’s seeming concession to commerce as the “handmaid” of agriculture in his inaugural address “exhibited two great and equal interests in the community in the 41
Adams, Parties in the United States, 2-4, 6, 9, 25.
relative position of master and slave. It could have originated only on a tobacco plantation.” Jefferson liked the partisan division of “whig” and “tory” because it magnified his power and clothed the dominance of agriculture – actually a Tory doctrine in England – as a matter of agrarian democracy versus urban aristocracy.42 Here lay the nature and the lesson of American party politics. In the American Revolution and its aftermath, as John Adams had insisted, the classic battle of aristocracy and democracy had reemerged, and it had been openly admitted. But slavery created a “hideous contrast” in the context of such battles. As a result, in the federal system, the relation between the general and state governments itself became the issue, and a source of continuing hypocrisy. Practice would violate principle, as aristocrats and democrats rallied to states or the federal government depending on who held power. American politics was a struggle of principles and men, but the principles and men were ever “transitory” and mutable. What was permanent, material? The differences between the sections that warped neoclassical republicanism.43 Adams’s narrative broke down when he tried to come to terms with the National Republicans and what had happened to them. A long passage on Calhoun the nationalist at the War department sought to capture the promise of the new era circa 1817 yet could not but hint at the troubles to come. He leapt ahead to the problem of presidential succession in the Monroe administration yet stumbled when he remembered the sacrifice of House Speaker John W. Taylor, a friend and a Missouri restrictionist, to “slaveholding resentments” in 1821. He put aside the manuscript. Current events provided enough grist for him to work out his revision of American politics. Already in 42 43
Adams, Parties in the United States, 32, 39, 45ck Adams, Parties in the United States, 108, 119-21.
late 1829 rumors of rebellion in Texas had him predicting to his diary that Jackson would “take it by war,” which would break the union. In the early glimmerings of the tariff controversy he saw South Carolina trying to govern the union as they did their slaves. Jackson’s use of the veto meant that “the overseer ascendancy is complete.” The president had “thrown his whole weight into the slave-holding scale,” opposing internal improvements even though he had pretended to support it to get elected. Perhaps emancipation in the British West Indies would teach the south the value of union, “the only thing that can maintain their system of slavery.”44 During the winter of 1831 the publication of Thomas Jefferson’s memoir and other writings brought Adams to a more precise sense of what had changed. Seeing for the first time Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence with its paragraph denouncing the King for supporting the slave trade and arming slaves, he pronounced it “frantic,” “indiscreet beyond measure, and not a little unjust.” Yet Jefferson’s other writings demonstrated that his love of liberty had been real. He had seen the “gross inconsistency” of slavery and the Declaration and refused to justify slavery. He was “above the execrable sophistry of the South Carolina nullifiers, which would make of slavery the cornerstone to the temple of liberty.” The nullification crises came as something of a relief, as he devoted a widely read Fourth of July oration in Boston in 1831 to demolition of “the South Carolina doctrine.” The occasion allowed him to go public selectively with his reading of political history without having to attack the administration, or slavery, head on. Union, he insisted, preceded American independence; the states were not pre-existing entities, as “the colonies are not named” in the Declaration. The “hallucination of State sovereignty” was based on the same error 44
Adams, Parties, 124-33, 135; Diary, Nov. 16, 1829, June 1, 6, 22, 25, 1830, Jan. 10, 1831
of undivided sovereignty that had misled the British parliamentarians into declaring their power to legislate for Americans “in all cases whatsoever.” There was no such thing as complete sovereignty or power. American history proved it: the powers of the national government had been expanded by either party when in power. “Our collisions of principle,” then, “have been little, very little more than conflicts for place.” But worst of all, nullification “strips us of that peculiar and unimitated characteristic of all our legislation—free debate. It makes the bayonet the arbiter of law,” and could only lead to civil war.45 By 1831-32 the ex-president had developed a historical analysis positing the irreducible conflict between slavery and national sovereignty, and he had begun to hint at it on specific public occasions and to selected interlocutors, such as Alexis deTocqueville. Elected to Congress representing counties east of cotton-trading Boston, he would have more reason to develop an encompassing analysis of the politics of slavery and to put it forth in specific debates. Yet it remained unclear what would be accomplished by grandstanding about the nature of slavery and U.S. politics. Jackson himself chose national supremacy over slaveholders’ autonomy in the case of the South Carolina and the tariff, though not in that of Georgia and Indian removal. Contemporaries struggled to parse the relationship between removal and nullification while the Democrats artfully insisted they had nothing to do with each other or with slavery. While Adams’s first speech in the House presented antislavery petitions, he did
45 Diary. Jan. 18, 27, June 29, 1831; Adams, An Oration Addressed to the Citizens of the Town of Quincy, on the Fourth of July, 1831 (Boston, 1831), 6-7, 14, 23, 29, 36; Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union, 233. A month earlier (?) in his eulogy on Monroe Adams developed a new argument about the origins of sectional controversy, observing that the structure of the Articles of Confederation government required delegates to the Congress to represent their states, which led to sectional enmities over Mississippi river navigation “a coldness and mutual alienation between the north and the southern divisions of the Union which is not extinguished to this day.” Adams, Eulogy on James Monroe (Boston, 1831), 37-38.
so apologetically, insisting that he did not wish to see slavery discussed at all. He mused to his diary that the union would probably not last for another five years. 46 During those years he preached caution to himself, pronouncing his situation “dangerous,” especially as antislavery petitions began to flood in and the controversy over their content and reception heated. On occasions in Congress he pushed the boundaries and introduced abolitionist themes, such as when a tariff proponent angered him by comparing southern slaves to northern machinery. The south’s machines not only had special federal protections: the “machinery” in question “sometimes exerts a self-moving power,” he asserted, in direct reference to slave rebellions and the federal government’s obligation to put them down. He increasingly believed that slavery was the ultimate source of all disaffection to the union, as he wrote after reading Thomas Dew’s proslavery treatise. But how could antislavery dissent preserve the union? How could it match the insidious workings of the slave power, which in Jackson’s version bought partisan power over renegade southerners by giving away the cheap lands to westerners? Both nullification and the Jacksonian answer to it spelled the death knell of the American system, but what national political agenda in the early 1830s offered more than a choice among them? Antislavery agitation did, but it was limited to pamphlets and petitions. Adams felt the “grandeur” of presenting petitions, and he loved a good oration and pamphlet, but neither amounted to legislation. Neither seemed likely to make history except by lending excuses the slaveholders in the saddle. 47
Diary, Dec. 12, 1831, Feb. 20, 1832; Mason, “John Quincy Adams and the Tangled Politics of Slavery,” 413-14; Nancy Morgan, “’Fraught with Disastrous Consequences for Our Country’: Cherokee Removal and Nullification” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 2015). 47 Parsons, John Quincy Adams, 223; Diary, Feb. 20, 1832
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The latent significance of the Indian removal controversies as a catalyst for Jacksonian proslavery became easier to bring out rhetorically after Congressional colleagues tabled petitions on Cherokees and missionaries in December 1832. One colleague tempted him sorely by depicting his introduction of pro-Cherokee and missionary petitions tantamount to declaring “war” on Georgia. War might indeed be the context for thinking about contemporary events, for there was no security for property or life in the south “with reference to negroes, or Indians.” War in the south was also on the table with respect to federal responses to slave rebellions. In the House on February 4, 1833, Adams replied to an anti-tariff speech by Representative Augustus Smith Clayton of Georgia. Clayton called southern slaves “our machinery,” just as deserving of financial protection as northern manufacturing’s capital investments. “That machinery,” Adams retorted, sometimes exerts a self-moving power. Very recently.” He proceeded to cite the threefifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the federal army that guaranteed protection against “domestic violence,” all in accord with the Constitution, as protections for slavery that went far beyond anything northern industry had. Several Adams biographers, including Samuel Flagg Bemis, note a newfound passion and eloquence during this episode: “No longer did the sound of his own voice frustrate him. He suddenly became a compelling speaker.” Adams himself wrote to his son a month later that “little did I imagine that my chiffon of a speech upon the Southern Machinery would have been the most popular thing I ever did or said.” He improved on his criticisms of the south and slavery in a minority report on the final tariff compromise, going so far as to portray the southern landed aristocracy’s “holding in oppressive servitude the real cultivators of the soil, and ruling, with a hand of iron, over all the other occupations and professions of men” as “directly leading to the most fatal of catastrophies – the dissolution of the Union by a complicated, civil and servile war.”48 48
Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956), 266, 270-‐72; Marie B. Hecht, John
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He thought that the remarkable antislavery agitations and the lawless response during the “riot year” of 1834-35 suggested the likelihood of eventual southern secession in fear of abolitionism – and then a servile war and self-emancipation. But it might be “far off.” Railing about slavery or theorizing its perversion of democracy, as he continued to do in private, would not necessarily put the American polity back together again.49 The petitions controversy became a crisis in part precisely because of the convergence of Adams’s own sense of duty with the actions of constituents, and people from outside his district, who flooded him with petitions once they began to sense his particular effectiveness in presenting them. They enabled him to stand for essential individual rights as well as the democratic process. Yet the essential rhetorical building blocks for Adams’s antislavery nationalism came together only in 1835-36, in the wake of the Second Seminole War and the issue of Texas annexation.50 National politics had entered back onto his areas of unparalleled expertise: war and peace, treaties, borders, sovereignty. What did they have to do with petitions against the slave trade in federal district, or even with the theory of the slave power in American politics? And what could he do about it, as a Congressman? Perhaps everything. “There was an appropriation of 80,000 dollars for suppressing the hostilities of the Seminole Indians, the authority for which was nothing Quincy Adams (New York, 1972), 521-‐23. He did not sign this minority report, but its authorship could not have been a secret, given that he was one of two dissenters from the committee majority, and Adams went out of his way to make sure it appeared in newspapers and as a pamphlet. Bemis calls the published report “prolix” and “too much of an anticlimax to the nullification controversy” but Fred Kaplan praises it as “one of Adams’ most brilliant achievements as a writer on political and cultural topics.” Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (New York, 2014), 462-‐64. See also Mason, “John Quincy Adams and the Tangled Politics of Slavery,” 415-‐16 , for the southern response in Congress. 49 Diary, March 5, Dec. 24, 1832, Oct. 13, 1833, July 30, Aug. 29, 1834, Aug. 11, 18, 1835 50 Richards, Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams, 89-145; William Lee Miller, Arguing Against Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York, 1996); Freehling, Road to Disunion, 342-52.
more than a Letter from the Secretary of War to the Chair of the Committee on Ways and Means,” he noted in his diary on January 6, 1836, twelve days before James Henry Hammond silenced him with the Gag Rule. As he mulled the implications of an undebated, undeclared war, and proceeded to demand documents from the administration on Texas, he noted to a constituent that the ongoing petition debate had not allow him “to speak a tenth part of my mind.” It was not that he failed to rail like an abolitionist about the fallacy of property in man under the laws of God and nature: that wasn’t his job, not under the Constitution. He had something else in mind, something potentially more dangerous to the proslavery consensus in Washington. “I did not start the question whether in the event of a servile insurrection and war Congress would not have complete and unlimited control over the whole subject of slavery, even to the emancipation of all the slaves in the State where such insurrection should break out, and for the suppression of which the freemen of Plymouth and Norfolk counties, Massachusetts, should be called by Acts of Congress to pour out their treasures and to shed their blood. Had I spoken my mind on those two points,” Adams wrote, “the sturdiest of the abolitionists would have disavowed the sentiments of their champion.”51 If Adams could not raise these constitutional questions in the context of a debate over slavery in Washington D.C. or the right of petition, he could still raise them in the different context of war and the war powers of Congress – avoiding, in the process, any reference to Massachusetts. The “Negro and Indian War, already raging within our borders,” and the likelihood of a “Mexican War” over Texas, had possibilities that the slave trade in Washington D.C. or even the Gag Rule did not precisely because they
51 Diary, Jan. 6, 18, 1836; Adams to Solomon Lincoln, Apr. 4, 1836 in Adrienne Koch and William Peden eds., The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (New York, 1946), 383; Charles Francis Adams Jr, ”John Quincy Adams and Martial Law,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd Ser. 15 (1901-2), 439.
illustrated slavery’s tendency to ramify across realms of public policy and to recur during international crises. So it was that a seemingly minor issue of funds for refugees in Georgia and Alabama crystallized the argument for wartime emancipation. That issue allowed him to link the petitions debate with the larger problem of slavery as national governance. Appropriations for refugees, Adams argued on the floor of the House on May 25, 1836, had only ever been approved by Congress twice: for the Florida territory in the first Seminole War and for victims of the Caracas earthquake, both inapplicable precedents. The only conceivable justification for Congressional action lay in the war powers under the Constitution. That power lay with Congress, and it was “tremendous.” And it was the very reason he had wanted to explain his vote against the Pinckney Committee’s first resolution on the matter of antislavery petitions. Congress could not declare that it had no power to interfere with slavery because to do so would disavow its own constitutional responsibilities in time of war. Anyone who was for national defense – anyone who was for union – had to admit that Congress had these powers. Anyone who remembered the War of 1812, Adams said, gesturing in the process to his own shining moment of loyalty, knew that the very arguments he had made on behalf of Congress in the Treaty of Ghent against the right of the British to carry away slaves presumed the ability to deal with slaves and to regulate the comings and goings of slaves and other persons, even if those powers had almost always been exercised to insist that the chains stay on. If Congress could not deal with slavery, it could not make treaties. If
it could not make treaties, it could not make war or peace, much less protect slave property in time of war.52 The example of 1812 opened up the actual relationship between war and slavery, so apparent in every American war and yet so muted in the whitened memory of them. A civil war, indeed, was under way in Mexico between nationals who had abolished slavery and settlers who wanted to reintroduce it. This was “a war of aggression, of conquest, of slave making.” The new, second Seminole conflict obviously replayed the drama of slave raids that had spurred the first war eighteen years before. What if Mexico retaliated? “Mr. Chairman, are you ready for all these wars?” he asked Speaker James K. Polk, on the heels of accusing him, as an “Anglo-Saxon, slave-holding, exterminator of Indians,” of hating “the Mexican-Spanish-Indian, emancipator of slaves and abolisher of slavery.” Where would such wars end? Drawing an apocalyptic vision of North American conflict and possible European interference, the former president drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of diplomatic history and his own record of service to insist that the present and predictable future wars would require the government to protect slave property – or, if necessary, sacrifice slave property. “From the instant that your slaveholding states became 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, from the claim of indemnity for slaves taken or destroyed, to the cession of the State burdened with slavery to a foreign
52 For the treaty power as the link between Adams’s earlier denial of (British) wartime emancipation and his later embrace of it, see James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, 2014) , 136-39, 150-54.
power.”53 The empire of liberty might have become an empire for slavery. It might lose slaves or even some states in a war. It remained a nation-state.
John Quincy Adams may well have put off the annexation of Texas for years by linking the issue to slavery. But the long term importance of his speech lay in how he furthered an interpretation of slavery’s political reach and nature that exceeded anything that had been voiced before on the national stage. The lesson persisted, in part because Adams persisted. The freshman Congressman from Illinois who served as a pallbearer for Adams’s funeral in 1848 may have stumbled in urging Congress to think small and require the president to identify “the precise spot” Mexicans had crossed the border. Thinking to broker the issue, he drew the notion from an earlier speech by Henry Clay, the “beau ideal of a statesman” most often cited as his inspiration. Yet “Spotty Lincoln” later rose to national prominence with an eloquent, expansionist, antislavery politics that neither flinched at federal powers nor depended on hairsplitting compromise. Why even try build a national party around the frightening yet elusive relationship of slavery to everything else, something Clay would never have done? Because John Quincy Adams had demonstrated the potential of antislavery nationalism as well as dissent.54
53 Adams, Speech of John Quincy Adams, on the Joint Resolution for Distributing Rations to the Distressed Fugitives from Indian Hostilities in the States of Alabama and Georgia, Delivered in the House of Representatives, Wednesday May 15, 1836 (Washington, D.C., 1836), 3-4, 7-8. 54 For Clay’s influence on Lincoln’s spot resolutions see Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the U.S. Invasion of Mexico (New York, 2012), 249. Bemis insisted that Adams lay behind Lincoln in John Quincy Adams and the Union, 338-39n41, 545-46; see also Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 274-75; J. David Greenstone, The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism (Princeton, NJ, 1993), 192, 231, 277; Ericson, “Apostle of Union,” 378-79. For Adams as a key influence on Charles Sumner, and Sumner’s quick reminders to Lincoln of Adams’s arguments about war powers and slavery, see David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960. repr. New York, 1989), 153-54, 388.