by Matthew Sitman
In a long review of three recent books about John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, Susan Dunn considers the accomplishments of his post-presidential career, which saw Adams return to public life as a member of the House of Representative and take up the abolitionist cause:
Though launched anew upon what he called “the faithless wave of politics,” Adams had a guiding star, a clear path forward: the battle against American slavery. In 1831 and again in 1832, he dined with an impressive young Frenchman who queried him about the culture of democracy in America. “Do you look on slavery as a great plague for the United States?” asked Alexis de Tocqueville. “Yes, certainly,” Adams replied. “That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and fears for the future.”
Ending slavery became Adams’s great mission. But because he understood that slavery was the one issue that could tear apart the union, he decided that, instead of taking it on frontally, he would attack it on the flanks. He aggressively defended the right of abolitionists to petition Congress and denounced the “gag resolution” that mandated the tabling of all petitions and propositions relating in any way to slavery, and he opposed Texas’s admission to the union as a slave territory. Invoking the immortal values of the Declaration of Independence, taunting his foes, barely surviving a censure resolution, he became known to sympathizers, as Robert Remini noted in his excellent short biography of Adams, as “Old Man Eloquent” and to southerners as “the Madman from Massachusetts.”
In 1847, Abraham Lincoln, a freshman congressman from Illinois, took his seat alongside Adams in the House of Representatives. John Quincy, whose mother had taken him more than seventy years before to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill from atop Penn’s Hill in Quincy, was a living link between the revolutionary generation that created a republic tragically flawed by its compromise with slavery and Abraham Lincoln, who would end slavery and rescue the republic from its own undoing.
Focusing on Fred Kaplan’s biography, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Carol Berkin emphasizes that “John Quincy did not find his independent voice until he was in his 70s,” when his anti-slavery activism reached its peak:
As Kaplan lays out the events that heightened Adams’ commitment to abolition, the narrative’s tempo increases and the story unfolds more powerfully. It culminates with the Amistad trials, which revolved around 53 Africans seized by Portuguese slave traders. Sold to Spanish planters, they were loaded onto the Amistad to be sent to Caribbean plantations. They rebelled, killed the captain and attempted to sail to Africa, but the ship was seized by an American brig off the U.S. coast. The Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut. As the planters, the Spanish government and the brig captain argued over who owned this human property, abolitionists insisted the Amistad passengers were free individuals, kidnapped illegally.
When the case came to the Supreme Court, it was Adams who argued — and won — the defendants’ case. This, at last, was Adams’ moment — not a tribute to his father’s memory but a declaration of his own commitment to human equality and justice.
(Image: John Quincy Adams in 1843, via Wikimedia Commons)