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John Quincy Adams Discusses the Politics of Slavery
Digital History ID 333

Author:   John Quincy Adams


Five years after the Amistad affair, and a year after the House of Representatives ended the Gag Rule, Adams expresses his resignation about the possibility of further actions against slavery, such as the abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia. Not until April 1862, long after Adams's death, did Congress pass an act providing for compensated emancipation of "persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia."

In 1836, Adams had warned the South that if a war was fought in the South, the government would abolish slavery. "From the instant your slave-holding states become a theater of war--civil, servile, or foreign," he predicted, "--from that instant the war powers of the Constitution extend interference with the institution of slavery in every way that it can be interfered with."

In 1846, a year after he wrote the following letter, Adams suffered a paralytic stroke. Although he recovered sufficiently to return to Congress, he suffered another stroke in February 1848 at his House desk. The stricken former President was moved to the Speaker of the House's office, where he died two days later. With his death, the last tangible political link with the world of the founders was broken.


It would be far more agreeable to me, to concur in opinion with you upon the controverted principles connected in the abolition of Slavery, than to differ with you; but it is a case in which my judgement depends not upon will. --My opinion is that Slavery never will be abolished in the District of Columbia otherwise than it has been abolished in Pennsylvania, New York, and other States--prospectively--. Two years ago, I offered to the House Resolutions to that effect. The House refused to receive them and the leading abolitionists declared their explicit disapprobation of them.

Since that time...I have concluded that no action of mine can in the present state of things contribute either to the abolition of Slavery in general, or to its extinguishment in the District of Columbia. Believing as I do that this great revolution in the history and condition of man upon the earth will be accomplished by the will of his maker, and through means provided by him in his good time, I have felt the obligation to act my part in promoting it so far as any exertion on my part may be cheered by his smile of approbation inseparabble from success. But when I find my opinions...conflicting with the deliberate judgement and purpose of both parties in this great controversy, I feel the finger of Heaven pressing upon my lips and dooming me to silence and inaction. I consult the sortes biblicae [the words of the Bible], and read that when David proposed to build a Temple to the Lord, the prophet, speaking from the inspiration of his own mind, approved his design and exhorted him to carry it into execution. But when reposing upon his pillow, the Lord appeared to him in vision, and commanded him to go to David and tell him, to build a Temple to the Lord, but that he was not the chosen instrument to accomplish that great undertaking, but that it was to await the halcyon age reserved for the wisest of mankind, Solomon, his son.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: John Quincy Adams to Arthur Tappan

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