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JQA and Britain's Abolition of Slavery


The British had abolished slavery in 1833 in the West Indies, Canada, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope as part of the Slavery Abolition Act, which specifically dealt with blacks held as chattel slaves by Europeans. Historians, generally speaking, may have brushed over the impact of this act upon the defenders of slavery, but the impact was very real. Southerners paid close attention as the Charleston Mercury noted that the issue was comparable to South Carolina and the federal government, where the rights of the minority were trampled by the majority. Southern planters received reports from the West Indies that planters were in heavy debt, and the resentment of Jamaican white planters at the abolition of slavery were conveyed via abstracts from the planter newspaper, the Jamaican Despatch. Duff Green, the editor of the United States Telegraph, a Democratic newspaper, who also happened to be an associate of John Calhoun, reprinted an editorial in his newspaper, presenting the issue of slavery as a subject under Southern purview, not that of the federal government. The editorial noted that “the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies have awakened the fears of the South, who are ever alive to the surmise that plots are forming by the people north of the Potomac, to deprive them of their property.”

Years later, Adams wrote to his friend Richard Rush, and discussing emancipation said, “I cannot see fraud or hypocrisy in the sacrifice of one hundred millions of dollars for the purchase of eight hundred thousand slaves to set them free.” In actuality, the Abolition Act stipulated an indemnity of one hundred million dollars by exchange rates of the day. Adams was less hopeful about events in his own country, telling Rush “I see the cotton, rice and tobacco farmer breeding his own children for sale, fattening upon the sweat of the brow of his slaves . . . proclaiming slavery the corner stone of the edifice of freedom, and railing at the fraudulent munificence and hypocritical abolitionism of the ‘grasping and perfidious Albion.’” Adams was using a phrase that represented acts of treachery or duplicity in pursuit of self-interest.

As white West Indian planters slowly became awash in debt and financial ruin, planters of the South renewed an even greater sense of resistance to any form of emancipation. In October, Adams read a review of a debate in the Virginia legislature, written by Professor Thomas Dew of The College of William and Mary, attempting to defend the virtues of slavery, which further illustrated Southern intransigence on emancipation. According to Dew, “slavery is a great improvement upon the morals of Mankind, that all schemes, whether colonization or of emancipation, immediate or gradual are equally impracticable—That Slavery is a very excellent institution, inasmuch as it raises the standard ofcomfort among the masters.” His most outrageous statement postulated “that the natural relation between masters and Slave is so tender and affectionate that it would be barbarously cruel to rend it asunder.”

Adams was aghast. “It is a monument of the intellectual perversion,” he wrote in his diary, “produced by the existence of slavery in a free community.” Dew’s argument was that danger of insurrection decreased as the numbers of slaves grew, something which Adams dismissed out of hand. It is clear that he was thinking about the thirty pages he had read, for the next day, he pondered that “this pamphlet deserves great meditation, and has in all probability, the wedge which will ultimately split up the Union. It is the source of all the disaffection to it in both parts of the country.”

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