Racism, the 19th century, and the prescience of John Quincy Adams

August 31, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Civil War, history, journalism.

Despite the fact that one of America’s great accomplishments of the 19th century was the ultimate abolition of slavery, racial attitudes did not advance toward accepting racial equality at all. By the end of the century, the nation had wrapped itself into the knots of Jim Crow laws that embedded segregation into just about every part of life and in every part of the country.

For the most part, even white people who thought themselves benign toward the races did not think about racial equality. Rather, there was a general acceptance of the reality that everybody had “their place.”

Remarkably, one white person who approached 20th-century awareness of race was the man who would become the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams.

Adams had a remarkable habit of keeping a detailed journal, something he did for most of his life, even as a teenager. In 1820, as the nation was debating the issue of accepting Missouri as a slave state or a free state, Adams concerned himself with part of that state’s constitution that would deprive free Blacks of their rights as citizens. Adams wrote in his journal:

If acquiesced in, it would change the terms of the federal compact — change its terms by robbing thousands of citizens of their rights. And what citizens? The poor, the helpless. Already cursed by the mere color of their skin, already doomed by their complexion to drudge int he lowest offices of society, excluded by their color from all the refined enjoyments of life accessible to others, excluded from the benefits of a liberal education, from the bed, from the table, and from all of the social comforts of domestic life, this barbarous article deprives them of the little remnant of right yet left them — their rights as citizens and men. . . and I would defend them should the dissolution of the Union be the consequence.

Adams did not stop at that. His agile mind continued to think about the consequences of slavery.

If slavery be the destined sword of the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave=holding States, combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result might be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and calamitous and desolating as this course of events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.

Adams wrote these words more than four decades before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter. At the time, he was secretary of state under President James Monroe. In five years he would be president.

These passages are included in William Lee Miller’s book, Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress, a book in which Adams is an undiluted hero. As Miller points out, Adams’ Biblical “avenging angel” metaphor would in the decades that followed be replaced with another Biblical metaphor: a house divided cannot stand.

More on JPROF about John Quincy Adams, see Should ex-presidents continue in public service?

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