On March 3, 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Secretary of War John Calhoun walked down Pennsylvania Avenue after a cabinet meeting on Missouri’s application to be admitted to the Union as a slave state – a question that had begun to divide the country.
Adams had insisted that the Declaration of Independence’s words – “all men are created equal” – should prohibit slavery. Now Calhoun told him that in South Carolina, where he came from, those words were thought to apply only to white men.
That night, in his diary, Adams recorded the exchange, adding: “The impression produced upon my mind by the progress of this discussion is that the bargain between Freedom and Slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious.”
This was an astonishing conclusion for Adams. He had known and revered the Founders, including his father, John Adams. And he had accepted the “bargain.” Now, he could not.
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He recognized that only a civil war could end slavery. Yet, he wrote, “calamitous and desolating as this course of Events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue that as God shall judge me I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”
Adams, our sixth president, is not much known today. Foreign policy students can recite the passage from an 1821 oration in which he asserts that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Readers of “Profiles in Courage” may recall the passage in which John F. Kennedy cites Adams’ willingness to defy his party and constituents in the name of principle as the incarnation of “political courage.” Yet to me, nothing is finer than when Adams surrenders to a truth that felt cataclysmic in its consequences. The expression for that is “intellectual courage.”
Adams kept this realization to himself for years. He did not speak about slavery when he ran for president in 1824, nor while in office. But he returned to Washington as a congressman, the only former president to have done so, before or since. Because the Constitution had been silent on slavery, the issue had been left to the states, and had not been a congressional matter. But in 1835, abolitionist activists began to petition Congress to end the slave trade or ban it in the District of Columbia, both of which it could do. Few Northern legislators would present those petitions. Adams did.
The great debate over slavery took place through petitions. The slaveholders passed a “gag rule” prohibiting the presentation of petitions on slavery. Adams raged against the rule and did everything he could to subvert it. As the din of debate rose, abolitionists sent petitions by the cartload. Adams concentrated all his malice on what he called “the slavocracy.”
Twice, Southern lawmakers tried –and failed – to censure Adams. The gag rule finally ended in 1845.
Adams was not only fearless in defense of principle, as Kennedy later wrote, but fearless in pursuing the logic of his own ideas. Because he understood that slavery would end only with war but could not accept that “calamitous and desolating” outcome, he refused to join the abolitionists. But he could also not accept the constitutional bargain and spoke publicly of his view that the Declaration of Independence superseded the Constitution as America’s founding document. This premise would be adopted by Abraham Lincoln, who dissolved slavery in the name of the Declaration’s principles.
Political courage came naturally to Adams; he longed to sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic. For a man of unyielding convictions, intellectual courage was much the harder. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.
James Traub is author of “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.”