Perspective

John Quincy Adams on freedom and justice

From birth, John Quincy Adams was instilled with the belief that his destiny was inextricably linked to the fate of the United States. His hope was for the country to become the most just and free nation in the world.

Adams sought to establish the proper foundations for a moral and educated nation to flourish. This meant instituting laws and supporting philosophies that promoted peace, productivity, and a spirit of improvement. Most importantly, it meant promoting a vision of justice that resisted interference with an individual’s God-given liberties.

Justice … is the constant and perpetual will to secure every one his own right.

John Quincy Adams, “Amistad Defense,” February 22, 1841

John Quincy Adams was the second of five children born to John and Abigail Adams on July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Massachusetts. Privileged as the eldest son, and one of exceptional talent, John Quincy’s prominent parents often impressed upon him of the responsibility he held to be “a guardian of the laws, liberty and religion of your country.” A dutiful son, Adams took this task to heart, studying diligently with tutors, reading the Bible daily, and learning about current affairs through the newspaper.

But a most powerful reinforcement of this responsibility came on June 17, 1775, when Adams’ mother took the seven year old to a hilltop near their home to witness the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Approximately 800 British soldiers were killed in an attempt to gain a stronghold, while the colonials suffered 300 casualties. The outnumbered Americans were forced to retreat, and the British ultimately won the battle. Adams later recalled that he “heard Britannia’s thunders … and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of [General Joseph] Warren, a dear friend of my father.” The moment served to underscore the price of freedom and the cost of defending it for Adams, who later attributed this seminal moment to his lifelong “abhorrence of tyrants and oppressors … [who] wage war against the rights of human nature and the liberties and rightful interests of my country.”

A ruler without good sense will be a cruel tyrant. One who hates dishonesty will rule a long time.

– Proverbs 28:16 (GNT)

In 1778, 10-year-old Adams accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France, in order to serve as his father’s secretary. This was the beginning of a series of transatlantic voyages and intercontinental travels for Adams that provided him opportunities to study throughout Europe and attain fluency in seven languages. By the age of 14, the precocious teen was chosen to serve as translator and secretary to Francis Dana on a diplomatic mission to Russia, an experience that allowed the boy to mature into a self–sufficient, young cosmopolitan.

Adams had blossomed into an internationally known figure at 16, with a social and political knowledge rivaling that of adults twice his age. When he wasn’t studying or writing in his journal, he spent his time meeting with leaders like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Marie Antoinette. By the time Adams returned to Massachusetts in 1785 with the goal of entering Harvard College, he had already received an education far beyond his years. This, along with the biblical and classical education instilled by his parents, would assist Adams in forming his moral character and developing his views of politics, law, and foreign policy.

By the time he graduated from Harvard and entered the study of law, Adams was deep in contemplation about how to secure the best future for America. In his mind, the nation needed to protect itself from foreign interests and expand its territory, while also working to cultivate a virtuous citizenry and desire for self–improvement conducive to republican government. How to best achieve these goals, however, was still forming in his mind.

We are sent into this world for some end. It is our duty to discover by close study what this end is and when we once discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.

John Quincy Adams, Letter To Charles Adams, June 6, 1778

In 1817, President James Monroe named Adams to the position of Secretary of State. Adams used the relationships he had fostered abroad to help him negotiate the Treaty of 1818 with Great Britain. This agreement established the American-Canadian border from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, giving the United States northwest access to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1819, Adams used his diplomatic expertise in securing the Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain that established the boundary of US territory through the Rocky Mountains and west to the Pacific Ocean. Spain agreed to give up claims to territories in Florida in exchange for the United States’ forgiveness of $5 million in debts, and also relinquished parts of Spanish Texas. In his “Address …Celebrating the Anniversary of Independence,” on July 4, 1821, Adams wrote:

[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is: Freedom, Independence, Peace.

To further reinforce America’s identity as an independent nation, Adams worked with President Monroe to develop and promote the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Americas closed to future colonization by European powers. This approach remained a core tenet of US foreign policy for decades.

Union, justice, tranquillity, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty – all have been promoted by the Government under which we have lived.

– John Quincy Adams, Presidential “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1825

While Adams worked diligently to secure the nation’s borders and expand its territories, he was also hard at work on fostering the public virtue of its people. Adams held a deep interest in the Bible and theology. On Sundays, he attended morning, afternoon, and evening services of various church denominations. In 1818, while serving as Secretary of State, Adams accepted the role of Vice President of the newly formed American Bible Society. He supported its goal of ensuring that all Americans had affordable access to the Bible, because he saw the Bible as contributing to their spiritual development and moral character, thus their civic virtue and participation. It was a role he held until his death in 1848.

Adams was elected President in 1824. After his first term in office he lost re-election in 1828, and yet Adams decided not to retire from public life. Instead in 1830, at the urging of friends and neighbors, he ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives. Adams would go on to serve nine terms in Congress, spending his post-presidential career as a member of Congress protecting fundamental human rights – in particular, fighting for the abolition of slavery.

That kingdom of the just, which had floated in the virtuous visions of John Adams, while he was toiling for his country’s independence, – that kingdom of our Father in Heaven, for which his son taught us to approach him in daily prayer, – has it yet come; and if not, have our advances towards it been as pure, as virtuous, as self-denying, as were those of our fathers in the days of their trial of adversity? … The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this–it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts of Christianity.

– John Quincy Adams, Letter To An Autograph Collector, April 27, 1837

The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has chosen me and sent me To bring good news to the poor, To heal the broken–hearted, To announce release to captives and freedom to those in prison.

Isaiah 61:1 (GNT)

Adams viewed the practice of slavery as contrary to the nation’s basic principles of freedom and equality, and morally he had long found the practice to be a sin that God would judge. As early as 1820, during the debate on the admission of Missouri as a slave or free state, then Secretary of State Adams had told cabinet members that he found slavery inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence and its support of “the natural equality of all men, and their unalienable right to Liberty.” Yet he believed that the Constitution failed to give Congress any legal power to interfere with slavery in any state where it already existed, and voted for several House resolutions that placed emphasis on preserving and strengthening the Union over the abolishment of slavery. His public views on the matter shifted, however, as he saw public arguments about westward expansion shift from developing a stronger Union into an opportunity to extend the institution of slavery into new territories.

That the fall of slavery is predetermined in the counsels of omnipotence I cannot doubt; it is a part of the great moral improvement in the condition of man, attested by all the records of history.

– John Quincy Adams, Diary Entry, December 13, 1838

As a Congressman, Adams fought tirelessly for abolition. At every opportunity, he read into the record the hundreds of antislavery petitions that abolitionists around the country sent him. Eventually the House of Representatives instituted a procedural “gag rule” prohibiting consideration of anti–slavery petitions. A master of parliamentary rules, he once asked for recognition to read the prayers of a group of Massachusetts women. When another congressional representative objected to the reading of what he saw as a petition, Adams retorted that the letter was not a petition, but a prayer for “the greatest improvement that can possibly be affected in the condition of the human race – the abolition of slavery.”

Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union… A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, would now be certainly necessary … The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation.

– John Quincy Adams, Diary Entry, February 24, 1820

Adams earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his elegant arguments in the abolitionist cause. His sentiments came at a high personal and professional cost, with frequent death threats from slavery supporters and calls for his expulsion from Congress by fellow members.

Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize that nature’s God commands the slave to rise, roll, years of promise, rapidly roll around, till not a slave shall on this earth be found.

John Quincy Adams, Diary Entry, October 30, 1826

Freedom is what we have – Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free people, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again.

– Galatians 5:1 (GNT)

Adams’s most famous fight against the injustices of slavery occurred in 1839, when a schooner named La Amistad set sail from Spain with 36 West African captives of the Mendi tribe intended for slave work on Cuban plantations. The captives rebelled, killing the ship’s captain and several crew members, and directed the surviving crewmen to take the ship back to their home, near Sierra Leone. Instead, the crew tricked their prisoners and steered the ship to the New York coast, where the vessel was commandeered by a U.S. Naval ship. The West Africans were then taken into custody in Connecticut, and charged with piracy and murder. However, the ongoing debate over the institution of slavery within the United States led to a complicated series of trials culminating at the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was whether the Mendi rebels were slave or free, and Adams played a leading role.

Abolitionists banded together and filed a suit on behalf of the West Africans, citing unlawful imprisonment, assault, and kidnapping by the ship’s crew. The Spanish Government was also a party in the lawsuit claiming ownership of the “slaves,” cargo, and ship. President Martin Van Buren, concerned about alienating Southern voters so close to his impending re–election campaign, supported Spain. After two district courts ruled in favor of the abolitionists, President Van Buren appealed the case to the Supreme Court (United States v. Schooner Amistad, 1841).

The abolitionists, including prominent Bible reading businessman and philanthropist Lewis Tappan, appealed to Adams to argue the case before the Supreme Court, pro bono. Adams agreed, and over the course of two days pled more than seven hours on behalf of the imprisoned Africans. His argument persuaded the Court to rule in favor of returning the Africans to their native country.

The moment you come, to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided.

– John Quincy Adams, Argument Before The Supreme Court Of The United States, 1841

Following the Supreme Court decision, the freed members of the Mendi tribe presented Adams with a thank–you letter and the gift of a Bible. In the note they quoted Psalm 124, and told Adams: “When we get to Mendi we will tell the people of your great kindness …. We shall take the Bible with us. It has been a precious book in prison, and we love to read it now we are free!” Adams responded to their gift with his own letter, expressing his gratitude and explaining that “it was from that book that I learnt to espouse your cause when you were in trouble, and to give thanks to God for your deliverance.”

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, now may Israel say; If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us: Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us: Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: Then the proud waters had gone over our soul. Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

– Psalm 124: 1–8 (KJV)

I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and of Nature’s God on which our fathers placed our own national existence.

John Quincy Adams, Argument Before the Supreme Court Of the United States, 1841

On February 21, 1848, in his final act for his country, Adams was on the floor of the House of Representatives arguing against a resolution to decorate US Army officers who served in the Mexican–American War. An outspoken opponent of what he believed was an unrighteous and unjust war, he stood up to cast his “nay” vote, but instead collapsed into the arms of a fellow congressman. Suffering from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, Adams was taken to the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol Building, where he spoke his final words before lapsing into a coma: “This is the end of the earth, but I am content.”

The world will retire from me before I retire from the world.

– John Quincy Adams, Diary Entry, March 23, 1841

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