Author: Timothy Sandefur
Sunday is John Quincy Adams’ birthday—he would be 243 years old on July 11th. Adams is one of the great heroes in the history of American freedom, but except for fans of the 1997 Steven Spielberg film Amistad, most Americans know little of Adams’ great contributions to freedom, particularly in the years after his presidency, when he was elected to the House of Representatives.
As the son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy knew he had a reputation to live up to, and his parents did not exactly treat him gently. If he’d had his way, he would probably have chosen to be a poet, or a professor of literature (he did end up teaching rhetoric at Harvard, and published two volumes of lectures on the subject). But his parents pushed him hard into a career of law and public service, and at the age of 15, he became translator to the American minister to the court of the Russian Czar. He returned to the United States for college and to practice law briefly, but in 1794, he was appointed by President Washington to serve as minister to the Netherlands. From that point until 1848, when he suffered a fatal stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives, Adams was in virtually constant public service—and is today the only person to have been chosen for all of the highest offices in the federal government: Senator, Congressman, President, and the U.S. Supreme Court (where he was nominated and confirmed by the Senate, but chose not to accept the appointment).
A conscientious public servant and a brilliant, if bookish, polymath, Adams’ presidency was not a success, and he’d be forgotten today if it weren’t for the final phase of his career, when as a Representative for Massachusetts, Adams spearheaded the rising anti-slavery movement. Although not an abolitionist himself, he was zealously hostile to slavery, and enjoyed tormenting southern Congressmen in debate. In addition to arguing the famous Amistad case and vigorously opposing the annexation of Texas (a measure sponsored by friends of slavery’s expansion), Adams was also the leading figure in the two great crises of the 1830s: the petition crisis and the nullification crisis. In both of these efforts, Adams defended the classical liberalism of America’s founding against the reactionary romanticism that was becoming increasingly popular, especially among Southerners who were developing the “positive good” theory of slavery.
In particular, Adams argued that the Declaration of Independence was not merely a political statement, but law—constitutional law—and that it set the terms for understanding the Constitution. No political or legal principle inconsistent with the Declaration’s premise of equality—including any notion of “state sovereignty”—could be admitted within the American constitutional framework. Southerners (and their northern allies) were developing a theory that states were sovereign and could decide questions of slavery for themselves, without interference from the federal government, and they often had recourse to the 18th century lawyer William Blackstone, who argued that sovereignty was “supreme, irresistible, absolute” power. These pro-slavery forces argued that American states also had this power. But Adams said no; the Declaration
proclaims the natural rights of man, and the constituent power of the people to be the only sources of legitimate government. State sovereignty is…a mere reproduction of the omnipotence of the British parliament in another form, and therefore not only inconsistent with, but directly in opposition to, the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The legal arguments that Adams developed at this time were taken up by the next generation of political leaders, who were either tutored by Adams directly (as was Charles Sumner) or who, like Abraham Lincoln, read Adams’ congressional speeches in the newspapers. William Seward, the leading anti-slavery politician of his day, who was narrowly beaten for the Republican nomination by the little-known Abraham Lincoln, published the first biography of John Quincy Adams. Adams’ anti-slavery constitutional theories formed the basis of the brief PLF filed in McDonald v. Chicago.
Even more remarkable was Adams’ service in the petition crisis of 1836-1844, what William Freehling has called the “Pearl Harbor of the Civil War.” Congress enacted a rule barring all petitions against slavery from being introduced into Congress. For nearly nine years, John Quincy Adams railed against this rule, as a clear violation of the First Amendment, which protects every American’s right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Adams tried to introduce petition after petition, baiting southern Congressman, on two occasions in particular. Once, Adams asked whether it would be in order to introduce a petition purporting to come from slaves. (A southern Congressman demanded to know if Adams would introduce a petition coming from a horse or a pig or a dog. “Sir,” he responded, “if a horse or a dog had the power of speech and of writing, and he should send [me] a petition, [I] would present it to the House—ay, if it were from a famished horse or dog, [I] would present it.”)
On another occasion, Adams introduced a petition from his constituents seeking a dissolution of the union because they could not be in a union with slaveholders. The southern Congressmen, shocked—shocked!—that anyone would suggest dissolving the union, tried to have Adams thrown out of Congress for this action. After pro-slavery Congressmen spent days reviling him in their speeches, Adams rose to his own defense:
Mr. Adams:…I desire the clerk to read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence [Raising his voice The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence! [Raising his voice to a still higher pitch] The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence!
The clerk then read as follows: “When, in the course of human events….”
Mr. Adams: Proceed! Proceed! Proceed, down to the “right and duty.”
The Clerk continued reading…”it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government….”
You can read more about this dramatic clash in William Lee Miller’s outstanding book Arguing About Slavery. And to learn more about Adams, I recommend Paul Nagel’s very readable biography, as well as James Truslow Adams’ classic The Adams Family and (for a somewhat darker, personal story) Cannibals of the Heart by Jack Shepherd. And, of course, I urge everyone to watch the great film Amistad, that tells the true story of another of Adams’ great anti-slavery achievements. Here’s a clip:
Happy 243rd, Mr. Adams!