JQA in Europe-1781-Book Excerpt
Over the next several months, I will be blogging excerpts from my book, highlighting some of
the more interesting and incredible moments in John Quincy Adams's life as it relates to slavery. On
November 15, 1779, JQA accompanied his father to Europe for the second time in his young life.
Never could he have predicted, the turns it would take at such as early age. As a young boy, his diary
had already been started. He was fourteen years old when he made the entries quoted below in his
In June 1781, John Quincy Adams, only fourteen years old, was selected to be the private secretary of Francis Dana, who was appointed Minister to Russia. Dana was a friend of John Adams, and sailed on the same ship to Europe as the Adamses, and was originally designated as secretary to the peace commission to France. Dana had an impressive resume. He was a Harvard graduate, a successful attorney, and a member of both the Massachusetts state government and the Continental Congress. His mission was to open diplomatic relations with Russia and to argue for American membership in an alliance of neutral nations to counterbalance British power. Unfortunately for Dana, the language of the Russian court was French, which Dana did not speak very well, but John Quincy was fluent. It was to be a 2,500-mile journey in primitive conditions. But Adams would comment in his diary on what he saw that would expose his conscious and sometimes his unconscious feelings.
As Adams made his way through Berlin, he noted the handsome city, but also how Frederick the Great treated his subjects like slaves. On August 21, Adams wrote to his wrote to his father about the scenes he observed in one particular province in Poland. “All the farmers are in the most abject slavery; they are bought and sold like so many beasts, and are sometimes even chang’d for dogs or horses. Their masters have even the right of life and death over them, and if they kill one of them they are only obliged to pay a trifling fine; they may buy themselves, but their masters in general take care not to let them grow rich enough for that; if anybody buys land there he must buy all the slaves that are upon it.” In September 1783, Abigail had written John Quincy imploring him to write her with his account on the countries he had traveled through, and he decided to write about Russia. It was yet another dismal observation. “The country is wholly composed of nobles and serfs,” wrote Adams. “The countryman is attached to the land in which he is born; if the land is sold, he is sold with it, and he is obliged to give his landlord the portion of his time which he chooses to demand.” Adams railed against the government. “One of each five hundred [serfs] they are obliged to furnish one to the Empress every year, and this forms her army” and “this form of government is disadvantageous to the sovereign, to the nobles, and to the people . . . for it exposes the sovereign every moment to revolution . . . [and] “as the nobles all depend wholly on the sovereign, they are always in danger of their estates being confiscated and themselves sent into Siberia.” Already at a young age, Adams had seen the degradation of his fellow human beings and these shocking scenes were sure to imprint themselves on a highly intelligent yet still fairly impressionable young man.