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JQA: Pondering His Next Move

The events of February had greatly impacted Adams, and his diary indicated a more international frame of reference, with Great Britain’s emancipation experiment in the West Indies occupying much of his time and thought. But yet, he was holding back. His private correspondence with antislavery activists increased, and he was congratulated on his stand on basic liberties, but abolitionists still could not understand why he could not make the leap. Adams plainly stated any abolition in the District of Columbia at the present time was not realistic. That raised eyebrows with several prominent abolitionists, including Sarah Grimké who wasted no time in challenging his position on slavery in the District. To her, “it appeared to be a surrender of moral principle to political expediency” and could not be “maintained on the ground of justice.” The word property to describe slaves inflamed her. “The image of God, “she wrote, “cannot be the property of man, it is a flagrant outrage as the laws of Jehovah.”

But Adams’s practical politics earned him praises in some corners. The Massachusetts legislature had passed resolutions supporting the right of petition, but that is as far as they went. Nothing was said about the abolition of slavery or the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Adams was moving at the same speed as his constituents, and would only move as far as public opinion would endure. A letter he received praised the stand he took in the petition fight, but also revealed that while the stain of slavery in the District was a moral wrong, “a large portion of your constituents . . . concur in the opinions so candidly expressed by you in relation to the measures and the principles on which the removal of this tremendous evil may be accomplished.” Outpourings of approval greeting Adams on his return home, which further reinforced his belief that the course he was taking was correct. While harboring similar feelings held by the abolitionists, Adams prodded his friends to revisit the practicality of submitting petitions for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District, while agreeing with their premise of freedom for all slaves around the world.

Even John Greenleaf Whittier could not convince Adams to change course. Adams had received a letter from Whittier inviting him to a meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston in May. He was in a quandary as to what to do, but predictably turned him down. The dichotomy that existed in Adams’s mind was still in operation as he pondered the offer. To Adams, much was at stake and he wanted to ensure that his actions were sound. His words would be carefully scrutinized for abolitionist leanings and his political survival was on the line. “My principles and my position make it necessary for me to be more circumspect in my conduct than belongs to my nature,” Adams confided to his diary. “The most insignificant error of conduct in me at this time would be my irredeemable ruin in this world, and both the ruling political parties are watching with intense anxiety for some overt act by me to set the whole pack of their hireling presses upon me.” This past session of Congress had been a narrow escape “from that fiery furnace.” But it was clear Adams was battling his own conscience for which position would retain supremacy. “On the other hand,” he wrote, “may God preserve me from the craven spirit of shrinking from danger in the discharge of my duty! Between these two errors let me pursue the path of rectitude unmoved, and put my trust in God.”


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