Slavery and Race in Jeffersonian America
Digital History ID 208
In response to two abolitionists, who had sent him an antislavery pamphlet by a Quaker reformer, Warner Mifflin (1745-1798), President Adams expresses his views on slavery, the dangers posed by abolitionists (who at the time were mostly Quakers and unpopular religious radicals), and emancipation. This letter is particularly revealing in what it discloses about Adams's sense of priorities.
In his letter, Adams mistakenly concludes that slavery was an institution in decline. The 1790 census counted almost 700,000 slaves. According to the census of 1800, the year before Adams wrote this letter, that number had grown to almost 900,000.
Although I have never sought popularity by animated Speeches or inflammatory publications against Slavery of the Blacks, my opinion against it has always been known...and never in my life did I own a Slave. The Abolition of Slavery must be gradual and accomplished with much caution and Circumspection. Violent means and measures would produce greater violations of Justice and Humanity than the continuance of the practice. Neither...[of you], I presume, would be willing to venture on exertions which would probably excite Insurrection among the Blacks to rise against their Masters.... There are many other evils in our Country which are growing, (Whereas the practice of slavery is fast diminishing) and threaten to bring punishment on our Land, more immediately than the oppression of the blacks. That Sacred regard to Truth in which you and I were educated, and which is certainly taught and enjoyed from on high seems to be vanishing from among us. A general Dereliction of Education and Government. A general Debauchery as well as dissipation, produced by pestilential philosophical Principles of Epicurus infinitely more than by Shews and theatrical Entertainments. These are in my opinion more serious and threatening Evils, than even the Slavery of the Blacks, hateful as that is.
I might even add that I have been informed that the condition of the common sort of White People in some of the Southern states particularly Virginia, is more oppressed, degraded and miserable than that of the Negroes...I wish you success in your benevolent Endeavours to relieve the distresses of our fellow Creatures, and shall always be ready to co-operate with you, as far as my means and Opportunities can reasonably be expected to extend.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley
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