Printable Version

John Adams and Slavery
Digital History ID 205

Author:   John Adams


During the Revolution, the British army had liberated thousands of slaves in the South, including a third of the slaves in Georgia. A key question in post-Revolutionary America was whether slaveholders would receive compensation for those losses.

Written in response to a letter announcing his appointment as American Minister to Great Britain, John Adams (1735-1826), writing from France, states that his opposition to slavery would not stand in the way of a staunch defense of Southern interests--and firm efforts to win restitution for the freed slaves. Such a position, Adams saw, was a prerequisite for national unity and trust. Adams proceeds to discuss the difficulties and challenges facing an American ambassador who must negotiate with wily and sophisticated European diplomats.


1. It is very true that I have little Admiration of the Philosophical Philanthropy or Equity of the Slave Trade. This Defect however has never prevented, nor will ever prevent me from doing all in my Power to obtain Restitution of the Negroes taken from the Southern States and detained from them in violation of the Treaty. I am not conscious that any Philosophical Speculations upon this subject, have ever influenced my Conduct in this respect, nor do I see that they ought to enter into this Business.

2. In negotiating the Treaty, I was not sensible, nor do I now remember that any of my Colleagues were more anxious than myself respecting the American Debts. There was no difference of Sentiment among us, upon this head that I can recollect. We were all sensible of the hardships upon many Individuals, but it was so much a Point with the British, and a point that would have appeared in the Eyes of the World so much to our disadvantage, to have stood out upon, that We all thought alike upon the Subject.... If you send a Minister to St. James's, he must have an Answer. What it will be, I know not, although I am apprehensive it will be difficult to obtain the Interposition of Government in the matter of Debts. It is clear to me, that the delay desired and proposed, will be at least as advantageous to the British Creditors as to the American Debtors and if government cannot be prevailed with to stipulate, I hope they may be convinced of the Necessity of the Measures taken by the States, and not treat them or consider them as Breakers of the Treaty, and that if the Creditors may be quieted, in the Case of the Negroes it is clear, that they ought to restore every one of them or pay his full value....

In truth I have not cared a Farthing, since the Peace whether I went home or remained in Europe. I have for some time intended to come home at the Expiration of our present commissions...for no Swiss was ever more homesick than

I. An arrangement with England to mutual satisfaction so as to prevent War, and consequently prevent the military Gentlemen from creating a European System among us, is all that remains in Europe near my heart. And I am persuaded that a settlement with Spain, harmony with France, and Agreement with all the other fourth & Nations of Europe would follow it, of course. This done, the Sooner I get home the better: for altho I am persuaded you must have Ministers, for many years with several Courts I assure you I don't desire nor intend to be long one of them.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: John Adams to Elbridge Gerry

Copyright 2021 Digital History