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JQA and the Missouri Compromise

The Missouri crisis pitted Adams against himself, weighing the coexisting factions of his antislavery convictions and his firm commitment to constitutional union. In July 1819, his first diary entry on the issue made it clear that he was opposed to “the attempted restriction upon the State of Missouri, because I believe it is not compatible either with the Constitution of the United States or with the Louisiana Treaty.” He also echoed the sentiments of Rufus King. “The slave-drivers . . . bluster and bully . . . and the Northern men, as usual, pocket all this hectoring, sit down in quiet, and submit to the slave-scourging republicanism of the planters.” The battle was brewing for Adams, and he was simmering, ready to engage, but only on solid constitutional footing.

A December entry swung the pendulum to a more radical thought. A congressman from Maine visited Adams at his house about another matter, but Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence became the topic of conversation. Adams was shown a letter from Jefferson dated 1810. Adams praised Jefferson as “one who has “contributed largely to the formation of our national character.” But according to Adams, the Declaration of Independence “also laid open a precipice into which the slave-holding planters of his country sooner or later must fall. With the Declaration of Independence on their lips, and the merciless scourge of slavery in their hands, a more flagrant image of human inconsistency can scarcely be conceived than one of our Southern slave-holding republicans.” Adams ominously noted that “the seeds of the Declaration of Independence are yet maturing. The harvest will be what West, the painter, calls the terrible sublime.”

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.”

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