Prophet Of Abolition

John Quincy Adams wasn’t mentioned in Garry Wills’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg” (1992), in which Mr. Wills showed how Abraham Lincoln in his 1863 address implicitly reached back to the Declaration of Independence and put its proclamation of equality “in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution.” But Charles N. Edel noted in “Nation Builder” (2014), an intellectual biography of Adams, that Lincoln’s argument had in fact been “an Adams innovation—and one that [Adams] advanced publicly,” insisting that the Declaration’s embrace of equality “presaged the demise of slavery.”

Mr. Edel’s is one of several fine books that have appeared in recent years about the nation’s sixth president (and son of the second). Another is Fred Kaplan’s “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary” (2014). That biography, however, had a misplaced emphasis, reflected in its subtitle. President Adams did set out a farseeing agenda in his 1825 State of the Union message, calling for a national transportation infrastructure—new roads, bridges and canals—and a national university, a Pacific exploratory expedition and even a national observatory. But his visionary agenda was doomed in Congress from the start.

Now, from James Traub, comes a new biography—penetrating, detailed and very readable—with a different angle on this extraordinary man, highlighting his patriotic bravery. “Though he never wore a uniform or saw battle,” Mr. Traub writes in “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit,” “[he] was a figure of immense physical and moral courage.” He “did not flinch” when, in his post-presidential career as a congressman fighting the spread of slavery, he received countless death threats or twice faced potentially humiliating censure motions.

As Mr. Traub makes clear, Adams’s careers after and before his single White House term were more significant than his presidential performance. He had been groomed for greatness by his parents, John and Abigail, and in his pre-presidential service as secretary of state under President James Monroe (beginning in 1817), he did not disappoint.

The 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain—in which the U.S. relinquished its claim to Texas but gained Florida and unimpeded title to the Pacific Northwest—was “a diplomatic coup Adams had won by a combination of patience, guile, mastery of detail, and an unyielding commitment to American national interest,” Mr. Traub observes. He also put his stamp on the Monroe Doctrine (1823), warning European powers to stay out of the Americas. His biggest contribution to the doctrine may have been “its astringency . . . his dogged insistence that American policy serve American interests.”

Adams was the “fountainhead” of foreign-policy “realism,” Mr. Traub writes, “not only because he distinguished so sharply between American interests and universal goods, but because he expressed such deep skepticism about America’s capacity to do good abroad.” His most famous words, delivered in 1821 in a July Fourth oration, were that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Less than two years after leaving the White House, Adams was elected to the House from Plymouth, Mass. His 16 years as a congressman, Mr. Traub says, would prove “far more gratifying to his soul, and to the nation, than his time as president had been.” Confronting and defeating what he called the “slavocracy” in Congress would be “the great achievement of his life.”

As early as 1820, when he was secretary of state and the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state was being debated, Adams had told his cabinet colleagues that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration’s assertion of “the natural equality of all men, and their unalienable right to Liberty.” He wasn’t ready then to say so publicly, but in his diary he confided that if the Union’s dissolution, followed by civil war, was necessary to extirpate the evil of slavery, “I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”

Fifteen years later, Adams still opposed immediate abolition, but he began to use the rise in anti-slavery petitions, and the congressional gag rule against considering them, to draw attention to the cause. “Adams was staging a theater of martyrdom,” Mr. Traub writes. It was “a species of drama to which, thanks to his rhetorical gifts, his fearlessness, his towering sense of moral purpose, he was supremely well suited.” He soon became an abolitionist hero.

In a series of open letters, Adams in 1839 decried both slavery and immediate abolition but said this about the Declaration: “The same moral thunderbolt, which melted the chains of allegiance that bound the colonist to his sovereign, dissolved the fetters of the slave.” The implication, Mr. Traub adds, was that “the three-fifths compromise embedded in the Constitution [violated] fundamental principle.”

In 1844, amid a furious congressional debate, an Alabama congressman accused Adams of having told blacks that “the day of your redemption” was bound to come and that, whether it came “in peace or in blood, let it come.” Without rising from his seat, Adams declared: “I say now, let it come.” Then, after a comment by the Alabamian, he roared: “Though it cost the blood of millions of white men, let it come! Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

That December, as a new session of Congress got under way, Adams moved, as he often had before, to revoke the gag rule. This time, astonishingly, the measure passed. For Adams, Mr. Traub writes, the gag rule’s defeat “must have been one of the greatest moments of his life.” Adams’s militancy—the theme of Mr. Traub’s splendid biography—had proved both potent and prophetic.

Three years later, still a member of the House at age 80, Adams died. The House named a committee to prepare for the funeral. Among its members was a freshman congressman and Adams admirer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln

The review was originally pubished by the Wall the Street Journal on April 1, 2016. Robert K. Landers​, the author of this review, is a writer in Baltimore, who posts his reviews and essays at robertklanders.com.

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Apr 01, 2016
James Traub
United States