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JQA and Slave Insurrections-1800-Book Excerpt



While in Europe, Adams served as Minister to Prussia from 1797 to 1801. But Adams was concerned about what was happening in several Southern states back home, particularly uprisings in Virginia and South Carolina. An insurrection by a Richmond man named Gabriel Prosser in the summer of 1800, prompted Adams to write to his brother Thomas that “those absurd principles of unlimited democracy which the people of the Southern states . . . encouraged, are producing their natural fruits, and if the planters have not discovered the inconsistency of holding in one hand the rights of man and in the other a scourge for the back of slaves, their negroes have proven themselves better logisticians than their masters.” For Adams, this was an early, indirect acknowledgement of the founders’ hypocrisy of promoting freedom but enslaving others. Adams was not surprised at the revolt, and pondered why there had not been others. Two weeks after he wrote his brother Thomas, Adams penned a letter to his good friend, William Vans Murray, in regard to slave insurrections in South Carolina and Virginia. “The conduct of men is much more governed by their passions than by their interests; the whole history of mankind is one continued demonstration of this axiom. Fear, you will say, is a passion too, and so it is; but the influence of fear is merely instinctive, and never found on argument,” Adams argued. “It seldom survives the pressure of actual danger, and therefore, seldom interferes with the operation of active violent passions," he added. Adams predicted that “so long as the slaves shall not break out in formal rebellion, the Virginians will not feel their need of assistance from their sister states, nor of the importance of the Union to them.”


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