His assignments overseas prevented him from being involved in domestic politics for most of the 1810s, but as he became engaged with the British as chairman of the peace commission at Ghent, and then as secretary of state, the New Englander found himself in the curious position of advocating for the compensation of slaves taken by the British after the War of 1812. Although this issue required complex international negotiations, Adams’s position reflected the dominance of the Southern elite in shaping American policy in the early part of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Adams also resisted British efforts for the mutual right of search, loosening the British grip on impressment, and prioritizing this over the suppression of the slave trade, a policy found agreeable with most Americans. Adams himself reflected during the war that the impressment of seamen was “as unjust, as immoral, as base, as oppressive and tyrannical as the slave trade,” but that impressment “in some particulars it is more aggravated” than the Atlantic slave trade. To Adams the nationalist, antislavery was relegated to an inferior position when Britain asserted its muscle on the high seas. Fortunately for Adams, he was working for Virginia presidents and was carrying out their policies, but lurking in Adams was a deep Anglophobia, as well as a vigorous support for the union, and the presidency was a logical next step after his tenure as Secretary of State. For Adams, being a nationalist meant not identifying with sectional politics, but sectionalism was about to become an issue that would threaten the very existence of the Union and force Adams to reflect on his position on slavery and whether his private thoughts would transfer into public action.
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