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JQA and the Legacy of the Missouri Compromise


The new year just brought more angst to Adams. The Missouri question engulfed Adams to such an extent that he found “his ideas connected with it very numerous, but confused for want of arrangement” and decided to commit his ideas to paper. He furtively noted that “there are views of the subject which have not yet been taken by any of the speakers or writers by whom it has been discussed.” Adams did not reveal those positions, but he admitted to himself that the Missouri question “is a mere preamble—a title page—to a great tragic volume.” But Adams was pondering the next great leap. “The time may come,” he wrote, “when it will be my duty . . . to give my opinion, and it is even now proper for me to begin the preparation of myself for that emergency.” Monroe thought a compromise was in the offing, but Adams remained concerned that “it [Missouri question] is not destined to survive his political and individual life and mine.”

Adams was concerned about the upcoming battle in Congress. Slaveholders more formidable representation “than the simple freemen,” as Adams referred to his Northern colleagues. “With the exception of Rufus King, there is not in either House of Congress a member from the free states able to cope in powers of the mind with William Pinckney or James Barbour.” Adams noted that the slaveholders “have . . . a deeper immediate stake in the issue than the partisans of freedom. Their passions and interests are much more profoundly agitated, and they have stronger impulses to active energy than their antagonists, whose only individual interest in this case arises from its bearing on the balance of power between North and South.” For all the bluster in his diary, Adams remained silent on the issue. But outside the confines of his personal thoughts, the Missouri question remained a topic of conversation everywhere.

Adams foresaw the sectional divide that was happening, but was certain that it could only be forestalled. It was creating havoc during Monroe’s first term. The solutions for ridding the US of slavery were all unreasonable and impractical. For now, Adams would watch from the sidelines and pontificate in private. On February 11, 1820, Adams went to the Senate to hear Rufus King’s speech on the Missouri question. Adams only heard the second half, but did remark that King “unraveled with ingenious and subtle analysis many of the sophistical tissues of the slave-holders. He laid down the position of the natural liberty of man, and its incompatibility with slavery in any shape. He spoke . . . with great power, and the slave-holders in the House gnawed their lips and clenched their fists as they heard him.” That evening, Adams attended a party at John Calhoun’s, most likely hoping for some degree of relaxation and diversion, but instead heard nothing but talk about the Missouri question. Adams observed that “there is a great mass of cool judgment and plain sense on the side of freedom and humanity, but the ardent spirits and passions are on the side of oppression.”

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