A po­lit­i­cal por­cu­pine

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS AND THE POLITICS OF SLAV­ERY

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By James Srodes James Srodes’ lat­est book is “Spies In Pales­tine: Love, Be­trayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaron­sohn,” pub­lished ear­lier this year.

Good bi­og­ra­phy should not just bring the sub­ject in­di­vid­ual into clearer fo­cus, it also should in­form us about how that life has some­thing to tell us about cur­rent events. This metic­u­lously an­no­tated se­lec­tion from the di­aries of our sixth pres­i­dent reads like the ban­ner head­lines of today’s news re­ports of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, raw am­bi­tions and the same ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis that di­vides our na­tion today.

The John Quincy Adams who emerges from this study is not the prickly in­tel­lec­tual rebel fea­tured in the 1997 Steven Spiel­berg his­tor­i­cally flawed film “Amis­tad.” The Spiel­berg ver­sion, with An­thony Hop­kins do­ing a Scrooge im­per­son­ation, has the strug­gle to end the slav­ery of two-and-a-half mil­lion Africans held in bondage (out of a to­tal U.S. pop­u­la­tion of 17 mil­lion) com­menc­ing in the

1840s and lead­ing in­evitably to the hor­ren­dous Civil War 20 years later. Hollywood seems ad­dicted to dis­tort­ing their his­tor­i­cal films in hopes of mak­ing the sto­ries more com­mer­cially palat­able — think films about Lawrence of Ara­bia or the or­ga­nized crime fam­i­lies such as the Cor­leones or Earps — and thereby de­priv­ing their au­di­ences of richer fare.

Rather, the Adams who re­veals him­self to his di­aries is first of all, his fa­ther’s son — prone to ar­ro­gance and driven by a sin­gle vi­sion that ren­dered him hys­ter­i­cally suspicious of any op­po­nent. A pre­co­ciously tal­ented diplo­mat and sec­re­tary of state, he shared with his fa­ther the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the first two men elected pres­i­dent who be­came so un­pop­u­lar they were de­nied a sec­ond term.

The two edi­tors have the good for­tune in that the 14,000 pages of con­fes­sional be­gun in Adams’ youth are now dig­i­tized and on­line for a panoramic ac­cess to the evo­lu­tion of his po­lit­i­cal be­liefs and the firm­ing of the sin­gle vi­sion that drove him. That vi­sion sim­ply was of a truly united United States de­voted to a sin­gle na­tional in­ter­est and free from sec­tional ri­val­ries and po­lit­i­cal fac­tions.

Re­mem­ber that the new na­tion was still largely an East Coast col­lec­tion of dis­parate and jeal­ous states. The in­tox­i­cat­ing prom­ise that the Louisiana Pur­chase and sub­se­quent grab of Spain’s pos­ses­sions dan­gled be­fore ex­pan­sion­ists was just on the hori­zon. But that orig­i­nal dream of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s day of gov­ern­ment free from party ri­val­ries was al­ready moot. The ad­dict­ing wealth of the cot­ton states of the South both chal­lenged and also were threat­ened by the man­u­fac­tur­ing economies of the North­ern states.

Adams early on iden­ti­fied slav­ery as the spark is­sue that could ruin the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment in democ­racy, but he also be­lieved it merely masked the growth of sec­tional rivalry that was the real threat. In­deed, while he of­ten lamented the con­cept of hu­man bondage as be­ing dis­taste­ful, he rarely showed any sym­pa­thy for the liv­ing hu­man be­ings who daily suf­fered un­der the lash.

Adams would be 72 and rel­e­gated to his lonely seat in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives be­fore he re­luc­tantly agreed to take a hand in the Amis­tad case. One of the strik­ing im­pres­sions that comes out of these di­aries is the dis­dain he held for pro-slav­ery ri­vals like John C. Cal­houn and An­drew Jack­son, and for New Eng­land abo­li­tion­ists whose sanc­ti­mo­nious mil­i­tancy an­noyed him al­most as much. For much of his pub­lic ca­reer he flirted with var­i­ous schemes to or­ga­nize a whole­sale de­por­ta­tion back to Africa of an en­slaved pop­u­lace, by then most of whom were sev­eral gen­er­a­tions na­tive to North Amer­ica. De­por­ta­tion of those vex­ing “oth­ers” among us re­mains a pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal gam­bit, it seems.

Rather than di­min­ish Adams’ last-minute in­ter­ven­tion in the Amis­tad case, the di­aries re­veal his in­volve­ment to be the cli­max in a life­time’s evo­lu­tion of a flawed man’s moral­ity as it con­fronted a very real, very com­pli­cated strug­gle. By mod­ern stan­dards, there can be no ques­tion of the evil of slav­ery, but back then it was en­tan­gled in a host of is­sues that were en­cap­su­lated in the trial of 53 il­le­gally pur­chased Africans who had seized the ship car­ry­ing them to slav­ery and, in turn, were seized by an Amer­i­can war­ship.

The whole de­bate over the in­ter­na­tional trade in slaves was un­der­go­ing tense negotiations with the great Euro­pean pow­ers. But it also in­volved ques­tions of Amer­ica’s ef­forts to com­bat piracy and of the se­cu­rity threat es­pe­cially posed by Britain’s naval in­ter­fer­ence with our merchant ship­ping. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters was our de­ter­mi­na­tion that both France and Britain cease ef­forts to gain new footholds else­where in our hemi­sphere.

The truth is that Adams in his elo­quent ar­gu­ments be­fore the U S Supreme Court did have a far-reach­ing im­pact on the slav­ery is­sue and be­yond. The di­ary en­tries have a dra­matic cli­max to them that would be worthy of a se­ri­ous film treat­ment by some­one. In the mean­time this book is a great read and an in­for­ma­tive re­al­ity check on is­sues that vex us even now.

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