On the 28th, Adams noticed another advertisement for Allen and her children, and he made the fateful decision to go investigate himself. When he arrived at the auction, he was faced with the stark reality of slavery in all its horror and abject misery. Adams would never be the same. The years of presenting petitions from faceless people from distant corners of the country proved nothing but theoretical compared to what he saw in Edward Dyer’s auction house. “The woman and children, girls of 7 and 9 years of age were there,” he wrote, “the woman weeping and wailing most piteously.” Adams inquired about Allen’s status and Dyer told him she and her children were sold to Nathan Allen, her husband for $475. . . . Francis Scott Key, the District Attorney of Washington, was also present and suggested to Adams that “a subscription might be raised to enable Allen to pay for the purchase of his wife and children” and Adams impulsively pledged fifty dollars towards the subscription. . . . As a public servant, Adams was careful not to get himself involved in any illegal activities that could jeopardize his political career. But what he had done was enmesh himself in the personal affairs of a slave, perhaps for the first time in his seventy years. . . . Allen then returned to Adams’s house later in the day. “I gave him the check for 50 dollars,” wrote Adams, “and told him when the sale was completed to bring me the Bill of sale that I may see it—I could pursue the question of Birch’s title no further, without becoming liable to the imputation of shrinking from my own promise, and prevaricating upon the performance of my engagement.”
Adams summed up the experience in his diary entry that night as only he could: “Such is the
condition of things in these shambles of human flesh, that I could not now expose this whole horrible
transaction, but at the hazard of my life. Any attempt to set aside this purchase for illegality would be
stigmatized as mean and dishonourable—Iniquity must have its whole range—I therefore made the
promise of 50 dollars, for their emancipation . . . without ever being sure of effecting it—rather than
attempt to bereave the man-robber of his spoils.”
Special thanks, again, to Alison T. Mann for her outstanding material on Dorcas Allen and JQA.