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Chapter 8: John Quincy Adams

If I were asked to name the man who, next to Salmon P. Chase, most effectually and meritoriously contributed to the liberation of the black man in this country, I should unhesitatingly say John Quincy Adams.

By the great majority of those now living Mr. Adams is known only as having once been President of the United States and as belonging to a very distinguished family. His name is rarely mentioned. There was a time, however, when no other name was heard so often in this country, or which, when used, excited such violent and conflicting emotions. It can justly be said that for many years John Quincy Adams, individually and practically alone, by his services in Congress, sustained what Anti-Slavery sentiment there was in the nation. It was but a spark, but he kept it alive and gradually extended its conflagration.

When Adams entered Congress opposition to slavery was at its lowest ebb. It was almost extinct. The victory of the slaveholders in the Missouri contest had elated them most tremendously and had correspondingly depressed and cowed their adversaries. As a general thing, the latter had given [68] up all idea of making any further fight. Northern Presidents, Northern Congressmen, Northern editors, Northern churchmen, were the most ready and servile supporters slavery had. Anti-Slavery societies had been abandoned. Anti-Slavery journals had perished. Disapprovers of the “institution,” with the exception of a few men of the Lundy stamp and the Lundy obscurity, were silent. There was one magnificent exception.

It was at that crisis that John Quincy Adams entered Congress and began a fight against slavery that, covering a period of seventeen years, literally lasted to the last day of his life. He was carried helpless and dying from the floor of Congress, where he had fallen when in the discharge of his duties.

The position of Mr. Adams, who had been elected as an independent candidate, was unique. He owed his official place to no political party, and was, therefore, free from party shackles in regulating his course. He took up the fight for the black man's freedom as one who was himself absolutely free. Most wonderfully did he conduct that fight. There was nothing in the eloquence of Demosthenes in Athens, of Cicero in Rome, of Mirabeau in France, of Pitt or Gladstone in England, that surpassed the force and grandeur of the philippics of Adams against American slavery. Alone, for the greater part of his service in Congress, he stood in the midst of his malignant assailants like a rock in a stormy sea. Old man that he was, plainly showing the inroads of physical weakness, he was in that body of distinguished and able men more than a match for any or all of his antagonists. He was always “the [69] old man eloquent.” Says one of our leading historical writers:

As a parliamentary debater he had few, if any, superiors. In knowledge and dexterity there was no one in the House that could be compared with him. He was literally a walking cyclopedia. He was terrible in invective, matchless at repartee, and insensible to fear. A single-handed fight against all the slaveholders in the House was something upon which he was always ready to enter.

Speaking of his effectiveness in congressional encounters another Congressman writes:

He is, I believe, the most extraordinary man living. I have with my own eyes seen the slaveholders literally quake and tremble through every nerve and joint, when he arraigned before them their political and moral sins. His power of speech has exceeded any conception I have heretofore had of the force of words or logic.

At last his enemies in Congress decided that they would endure his attacks no longer. They took counsel together and agreed upon a plan of operations looking to his expulsion from that body. As one of his biographers, also a distinguished Congressman, expressed it: “It was the preconcerted and deliberate purpose of the slave-masters to make an example of the ringleader of political Abolitionism. They meant to humiliate and crush him, and this they did not doubt their power to do.”

Mr. Adams submitted a petition, without giving it his personal endorsement, asking for a dissolution of the Union. That furnished the pretext his [70] enemies wanted. They accused him of treason in contenancing an assault upon the Union, although they were at the time engaged in laying the foundation of a movement looking to its ultimate overthrow. The outcome of this undertaking was one of the most thrilling scenes ever witnessed in the American Congress; or, for that matter, in any other deliberative assembly.

Preparations for the affair were made with great elaborateness. The galleries were filled with the friends, male and female, of pro-slavery Congressmen. The beauty and chivalry of the South were there. They had come to witness the abasement of the great enemy of their most cherished institution. They were to see him driven from the nation's council chamber, a crushed and dishonored man. Not one friendly face looked down upon him as he sat coolly awaiting the attack, and upon the floor about him were few of his colleagues that gave him their sympathies.

The two most eloquent Congressmen from the South were selected to lead the prosecution. One was the celebrated Henry A. Wise, of Virginia; the other “Tom” Marshall, of Kentucky. The latter opened the proceedings by offering a resolution charging Mr. Adams with treasonable conduct and directing his expulsion. He supported it with a speech of much ingenuity. Wise followed in a fiery diatribe. Both speakers imprudently indulged in personal allusions of a somewhat scandalous nature, thus laying themselves open, with episodes in their careers of questionable propriety, to retaliation from a man who thoroughly knew their records. [71]

At this point we have the testimony of an eyewitness:

Then uprose that bald, gray old man of seventy-five, his hands tremulous with constitutional infirmity and age, upon whose consecrated head the vials of tyrannic wrath had been outpoured. Unexcited he raised his voice, high-keyed, as was usual with him, but clear, untremulous, and firm. Almost in a moment his infirmities disappeared, although his shaking hand could not but be noted, trembling, not with fear, but with age.

His speech was absolutely crushing. He met every point that had been urged against him and triumphantly refuted it. He handled his oratorical antagonists with merciless severity, depicting certain events in their lives with such vividness that the onlookers gazed upon them with visible and unmistakable pity. Said one of these men when he afterwards understood that a certain party was about to engage in a controversial debate with Mr. Adams, “Then may the Lord have mercy on him.”

Mr. Adams was not expelled. His opponents frankly admitted their discomfiture and dropped the whole business.

It cannot be denied that John Quincy Adams, almost by his unaided efforts, preserved and sustained the life of the Anti-Slavery cause at a time when it was almost moribund. He plowed the ground, cutting a deep and broad furrow as he went his way, and in the upturned soil such laborers as Birney and Garrison and Chase planted the seed that rooted and grew until it yielded a plentiful harvest.

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