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Will the real John Quincy Adams please stand up?

By R. B. Bernstein


Historians these days regularly have to brace themselves for some new, hallucinatory version of the American past. The latest example is Representative Michele Bachmann’s claim that the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery.

Really?

In framing the Constitution in 1787, the Federal Convention ducked the issue, writing into the Constitution clauses compromising with slavery while avoiding the word. Nonetheless, pro-slavery delegates assured their state ratifying conventions in 1788 that the Constitution gave slavery every protection they could desire. Further, Southern founding fathers worked with sympathetic or indifferent Northerners to tilt the federal government toward protecting slavery in domestic and foreign policy. In 1820 and 1850, crises over slavery and its expansion threatened to shatter the Union. Finally, in 1861, nearly twenty-five years after the death of James Madison, the last first-rank founding father (and a slaveowner), the nation plunged into civil war. As President Abraham Lincoln reminded the nation in his second inaugural address in 1865, slavery was “somehow” the cause of the war — as well as being its leading casualty.

So what was Representative Bachmann thinking?

When critics challenged her, Bachmann stood her ground — by invoking John Quincy Adams. The response? Adams was too young to sign the Declaration of Independence or to help frame the Constitution. How could he be a founding father? Bachmann insisted that John Quincy Adams was a founding father, having served as his father’s secretary on a diplomatic mission when he was 10 years old, and that he worked tirelessly all his life to end slavery.

Representative Bachmann has it partly right. Calling John Quincy Adams a founding father makes sense. But Bachmann makes two distinct claims — first, that John Quincy Adams was a founding father, and, second, that he worked tirelessly all his life to end slavery. Her second claim is problematic.

The founding fathers include signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the Constitution’s framers and signers in 1787 and its supporters and opponents in 1787-1788; those who fought in the Revolutionary War as officers or enlisted soldiers; and those who held office under the Confederation and in the first years of government under the Constitution. John Quincy Adams fits into that last category.

Born in 1767, oldest son and second child of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams realized early in his life that his parents wanted him to achieve greatly, and he struggled to fulfill their hopes for him. In 1778, when his father went to Europe as an American diplomat, he took the ten-year-old John Quincy along as his secretary and to further his education. After living with his father in France and in the Netherlands, for three years he served Francis Dana as a secretary and interpreter in Russia. Returning home to continue his studies, he was graduated from Harvard College in 1788 and became a lawyer in Boston. In 1794, President George Washington named the 26-year-old Adams American minister to the Netherlands, and then in 1796 named him American minister to Portugal. In 1797, at Washington’s urging, President John Adams named him American minister to Prussia, where he served until 1801.

After returning to the law, John Quincy Adams was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, lost an election for the U.S. House of Representatives, and was chosen a United States Senator from Massachusetts. In 1808, his political independence cost him his Senate seat, but in 1809 President James Madison named him American minister to Russia. In 1814, he was the lead American negotiator in the peace talks ending the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Then Madison named him American minister to Great Britain (a post his father had held), and from 1817 to 1825 Adams was America’s greatest Secretary of State. In 1824, he ran for President; after the election landed in the House of Representatives, he was declared elected — despite charges by backers of his chief rival, Andrew Jackson, that he had made a corrupt bargain to win the Presidency. In 1828, Jackson trounced Adams, who thought that his political career was over. But, in 1830, he was elected to the House of Representatives from his home district in Massachusetts, serving until his death in 1848.

In his length and diversity of public service, John Quincy Adams was a truly distinguished American, and because he was a junior member of the Washington and Adams administrations, he qualifies as a founding father. But what of his opposition to slavery?

Although his parents never owned slaves, and although his mother questioned slavery in private letters, neither was an abolitionist — someone demanding the immediate end of the institution of slavery — nor was he. Whenever, as an American diplomat and as Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams had to advocate the interests of slaveowners, he did so with his full determination and ability. Further, when Secretary of State Adams confronted the incident of the Antelope, a slave ship captured by a U.S. Treasury cutter, he showed himself startlingly indifferent to the fate of the enslaved men, women, and children who were the ship’s cargo.

In his later years, when, as a member of the House, Adams was responsible to nobody but his constituents and his conscience, he emerged as a fierce opponent of slavery — when it collided with constitutional principles that he held dear. At first, however, he was wary of such issues, writing in his diary in 1832 that public discussion of slavery “would lead to ill will, to heart-burnings, to mutual hatred, where the first of wants was harmony; and without accomplishing anything else.”

What roused him to action was the House’s adoption of a “gag rule” requiring any petition concerning slavery to be tabled without debate. From 1838 to 1844, when the House repealed it, Adams opposed the gag rule as a violation of the right of petition protected by the First Amendment and an attempt by the slavery interest to protect itself by violating the people’s rights.

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R. B. Bernstein, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School. His most recent book, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, was a finalist for the 2010 George
Washington Book Prize.

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2 Responses to “Will the real John Quincy Adams please stand up?”
  1. [...] circle of Founders in order to get more blunt and more direct statements against slavery (though not all that direct, and not all that early in his career) into the mix – from out of David Barton’s work.  In that sense, this is probably [...]

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