Home > Uncategorized > The underappreciated heroism of John Quincy Adams – posted 6/1/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/9/2019

The underappreciated heroism of John Quincy Adams – posted 6/1/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/9/2019

John Quincy Adams has been generally panned by historians as an undistinguished president. Our sixth president, he won the presidency in 1824 after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes. Adams also did not win a majority of the popular vote. The House of Representatives decided the election in Adams’ favor. Adams became the first elected president not to obtain a plurality of the national popular vote.

During his presidency, Adams proposed major infrastructure programs including building roads, bridges, canals, and a national university. He particularly supported science and he wanted to build a national observatory. Little got passed. Adams lost the presidency after one term to Andrew Jackson.

What is interesting about Adams is that he did not retire from politics after his presidential defeat. Adams began a new career as a Congressman. He ran for Congress from the Plymouth district in Massachusetts. At the age of 63, in 1830, he got elected. He proceeded to serve in Congress for 17 years until his death.

Besides being a president, a secretary of state, a Massachusetts senator, a United States senator, ambassador to Great Britain and minister to the courts of Russia, Prussia, Holland, Sweden, Portugal and France, Adams was named to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Madison and was confirmed but he declined the position. Adams had an unmatched resume.

In what is most unusual in U.S. history at least as far as presidents are concerned, Adams’ work as a Congressman turned out to be his most extraordinary public service, surpassing anything he did as President.

In Congress, Adams led the fight against slavery and the Slave Power. His contribution to the anti-slavery fight has been unrecognized and underrated in its importance.

When Adams got elected to Congress in 1830, slavery was very deeply entrenched in American society. It was a dominant institution and the mainstream view was that slavery could never be abolished. In his wonderful book, Arguing About Slavery, William Lee Miller put the politics of the early 19th century in perspective:

“Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders; for thirty-two of the nation’s first thirty-six years, forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty-four, the nation’s president was a slaveholder. The powerful office of Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation’s first thirty-five years. The president pro tem of the Senate was virtually always a slaveholder. The majority of cabinet members and – very important – of justices on the Supreme Court were slaveholders.”

This was the world abolitionists faced. As of 1830, they were a tiny minority and they were viewed as “vile fanatics” and “fiends of hell”. Mainstream opinion in the South and the North despised and scorned the abolitionists. Hardly any Congressmen were willing to come forward and support abolition of slavery. Overwhelmingly, it was seen as a political loser.

Even in the North in the mid-1830’s, mobs broke up abolitionist meetings while abolitionist speakers faced rocks, eggs, lashings and clubbing. In 1837, a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed Elijah Lovejoy, a preacher-editor, who wrote against slavery. Lovejoy had been trying to defend his printing press.

It was into these headwinds that John Quincy Adams tried to introduce petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. He was almost alone in Congress in speaking against slavery.

To his everlasting credit, Adams doggedly fought the slave interests. Tirelessly and repeatedly for years, he brought up petitions from his constituents and others demanding an end to slavery. He met a stone wall of opposition. Southern Congressmen invoked a gag rule. For years, they had the votes to prohibit any discussion about the abolition of slavery. From 1836 to 1844, anti-slavery petitions could not be heard. The House tabled all petitions directed against slavery.

Adams, in part, saw the battle as a matter of free speech. He hated the idea that the House could bar discussion of a national issue. As a master of parliamentary procedure and a creative legal mind, Adams drove the Southern Congressmen crazy. Always looking for an opening, he brought petitions on behalf of women and on behalf of slaves. Southern Congressmen would give no standing to slaves and they were horrified by Adams’ actions.

The Southern Congressmen began to attack Adams personally. Many rose to publicly condemn and disparage him. A movement started to censure Adams or even expel him from the House. Only two Congressmen, Caleb Cushing and Levi Lincoln, rose to defend Adams during the 1837 censure debate.

Adams used the controversy to defend himself and he prepared days of arguments against the slave trade and against ownership of slaves. Cleverly, he turned the censure motion into an attack on slavery. He also forced House members to consider the bad precedent of censure for free speech on the House floor.

The House effort to censure Adams failed. On February 8, 1837, the House tabled the motion to censure Adams. Adams’ stature as a former president and his brilliant parliamentary tactics created divisions among his opponents. Unfortunately, the House never accepted Adams’ argument that slaves had a right to petition Congress. That right continued to belong only to free white persons.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that during this period in 1841, Adams successfully represented the defendants at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Amistad. In that epic case, memorialized in the Steven Spielberg movie, Adams argued that African slaves who had mutinied on their ship should not be deported to Cuba and should be considered free. Adams won the slaves their freedom, arguing that the U.S. had prohibited the international slave trade (even though slavery was accepted internally).

Adams was 74 at the time he argued the Amistad case. He had not appeared as a lawyer before any court for 31 years. Over two days, he orally argued for seven and a half hours. He never billed anyone for his time on the case.

I think there are several reasons why Adams’ anti-slavery advocacy has not been more acknowledged. The time period of Adams’ tenure as a Congressmen is a relative dead zone in American history. The Civil War sucks up so much attention that the 1830’s and 1840’s is not much taught in American history.

Also, I think, compared to presidents, not much attention is typically paid to the history of Congress. Abolitionists, who were activists outside of institutions, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison, garnered more credit for their actions.

Adams went out on a moral limb at a time when he was virtually alone. And he did it continuously for years in the face of massive opposition.

During the fight over his House censure, Adams said that he hoped he would be remembered as “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed”. How cool a legacy is that!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 3, 2019 at 7:04 am

    “Adams went out on a moral limb at a time when he was virtually alone. And he did it continuously for years in the face of massive opposition.”

    What a great article. There’s something Gandhian about fighting for a moral cause against overwhelming odds. I’m reminded of when he was arrested in 1922, accused of writing seditious articles. He proudly pled guilty and challenged the judge to give him the harshest possible sentence if he’d actually done something wrong, or resign if he didn’t want to endorse an unjust law. (He got a six-year sentence.)

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