We live in an age of “journaling,” with planners and organizers galore, but it was John Quincy Adams who devised the mother of all systems. He had spots for long entries (some upwards of 5,000 words), short entries, line-a-day entries, year-end summaries, drafts (filed under the heading “Rubbish”), memoranda, and lists. And he kept it up for almost 70 years, including a peak period of more than a quarter-century without a missed day.
This Iron Man among diarists could not have been aware of the historical significance of his project when he began to “journalize” at the ripe age of 12, as he departed on his second trip to the Continent in the company of his father. Nonetheless, the boy’s title page gives evidence of a healthy ego and high aspirations:
JOURNAL BY ME
J Q A
At the end of his life, Adams knew how remarkable the endeavor had been: “There has perhaps not been another individual of the human race,” he writes in Volume 46, “whose daily existence from early childhood to fourscore years has been noted down with his own hand so minutely as mine.”
Yet Adams, always self-critical, laments that the account of his life and times could have been of more value to the world if his own “conceptive power of mind” had been greater. If he had been the sort of Genius who could “have banished War and Slavery from the face of the earth forever” then “my diary would have been next to the holy scriptures the most precious and valuable book ever written by human hands.”
High aspirations, indeed, but then J.Q. was the scion of the Adams dynasty and had been told during a fallow period in his mid-twenties that if, with all his privilege, he did not become President, it would be because of his “lasiness, slovenliness and obstinacy.” Of course, he did achieve that office, and much more besides—as is often noted, the presidency wasn’t the high point compared to his achievements as a diplomat, lawyer, essayist, member of Congress, and James Monroe’s Secretary of State—making the diaries a “precious and valuable book,” albeit not the “most precious and valuable book ever.”
So well known by his contemporaries was the Adams diary that it sometimes served as the government’s unofficial institutional memory. Adams was asked to consult it to confirm the details of cabinet meetings, diplomatic demarches, and even dinner conversations. To get a sense of the scale and fascinating complexity of these 14,000 margin-less pages, there is a great online repository, but the most interesting of the long-form entries have been judiciously collected by David Waldstreicher in two Library of America volumes, one covering 1779 to 1821, the other 1821 to 1848.
This remarkable record traces the shape of two lives, the nation’s and the man’s, which turn out to be intimately connected. As Adams perceives what is happening to America—“the death-struggle now in continual operation between the spirit of liberty and the spirit of bondage”—his temper shifts, gradually and reluctantly, from diplomatist to activist. By 1837, Adams remarks that “This subject of slavery, to my great sorrow and mortification, is absorbing all my faculties.” In recognition of this central concern, Oxford University Press has brought out John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery: Selections from the Diary, edited by Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason. This may be the best introduction to the diary; certainly, it is the most dramatically charged.
Although he was always anti-slavery, Adams’diplomatic responsibilities during the early 1800s committed him to important principles that stymied expression of his anti-slavery views. Thus, in negotiations with the British, he insisted on American sovereignty, demanding compensation be paid for American slaves who fled to the British in the War of 1812. On similar grounds, he refused to grant the British Royal Navy, intent on suppressing the international slave trade, the right to stop and search American vessels. As Adams understood the concession, “that would be making slaves of ourselves.” This anti-colonialist stance outlived him, not to be scaled back until the Lincoln administration quietly negotiated the Seward-Lyons Treaty in 1862.
There were other complications also, like the Constitution of the United States. Adams realized very early the unequal, sectional effects of the Three-Fifths Clause in tipping the political balance toward the slave-holding side. In the last of the Publius Valerius essays (his anti-Jefferson writings for the Massachusetts newspapers during the 1804 election season) he pressed for its amendment, denouncing the provision as a “national scandal.”
When that effort failed, he resigned himself to complaining in his diary. In 1820, he traced the blame for the pro-slavery outcome in Missouri all the way back to the original bargain: “The fault is in the Constitution of the United States, which has sanctioned a dishonorable compromise with slavery.” By 1843, in the wake of the annexation of Texas and the gag rule, he described “the hideous reality of the slave ascendency in the Government of this Union—the double representation of the slave-owners in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral Colleges for the choice of President and Vice-President,” leading as well to “the disproportion of slave-holding Judges on the bench of the Supreme Court.”
Yet Adams retained his fidelity to the national compact. Edging closer, over time, to the more politically astute wing of abolitionism, he always kept aloof from the Constitution-haters, like William Lloyd Garrison and his associates, who “acted [more] like Bedlamites than reasonable men,” what with their “crack brained, . . . no government and non-resistance balderdash.”
While Adams spared no extremist of any stripe his choice terms of abuse, he reserved special invective for the Southern “doulocracy” (doulos is Greek for “slave”). Calling Southern representatives “the serviles,” he implied that it was not the slaves but the masters who were most in thrall to the institution. He castigated their hypocrisy, as when he spoke of “the slave-scourging republicanism of the planters.” He used metaphors of disease—“the gangrene of slavery” and “the leprous contamination”—and, finally, metaphors of diabolic possession: “Calhoun is the high-priest of Moloch—the embodied spirit of slavery.” He described the symbolism of an imaginary tri-colored Southern banner: “of overseer, black, dueling, blood-red, and dirty, cadaverous, nullification, white.”
Such language was not mere moralizing; his moral judgment was inseparable from his political analysis, in which the diary abounds. He diagnosed the psychology of the Southerners: “a perpetual agony of conscious guilt and terror attempting to disguise itself under sophistical argumentation and braggart menaces.” He explored (and deplored) how the North responded: “the discordant and loosely-patched policy of the free” being no match for the slaveocracy: “so compact, so cemented, and so fervent in action.” Fear for the fate of the Union had produced a class of “Northern political sopranos, who abhor slavery and help to forge fetters for the slave.” Elections were being won by intimidation and extortion.
The bondsmen’s fetters eventually (and inevitably) reached white citizens too, as demonstrated by the imposition of the gag rule (a series of congressional resolutions that prevented anti-slavery petitions from being received or considered, out of deference to Southern sensitivities). The demands of the slave power now threatened the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition.
The restoration of the right of petition became the great crusade of his last years. After losing the presidency, Adams headed back into the maelstrom of the House of Representatives, remaining there from 1831 until his death in 1848. His efforts included an emphatic defense of the citizenship rights of women who were prolific anti-slavery petitioners. When the gaggers claimed that women were stepping outside their proper sphere, Adams argued that women were “by the law of their nature, fitted above all others” to exercise the right of remonstrance in the cause of “benevolence.” (He must have been remembering the sympathetic chastisements of his famous mother, Abigail.)
A firebrand on the right of petition, Adams nonetheless picked and chose carefully among the more direct anti-slavery measures. He favored congressional prohibition of the internal slave-trade as an “incumbent duty” and also favored congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories but declined to support calls for the immediate abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Despite the absolute power of Congress over the federal district, Adams thought the measure would require the consent of the residents, in order to be consistent with republican principles. Given the state of public opinion, the project was “utterly impracticable” and thus needlessly provocative (although he fought tooth and nail for the right of citizens to petition for such action).
Another scheme rejected by Adams was colonization. The plan to expatriate free blacks (either to Africa or somewhere in the New World) was embraced by many white statesmen (and a few black leaders as well) who favored emancipation but believed racial equality on American soil unachievable. Adams dismissed the idea as “productive of evil more than of good,” giving an acute assessment of the mixed motives behind it:
There are men of all sorts and descriptions concerned in this Colonization Society: some exceedingly humane, weak-minded men, who have really no other than the professed objects in view, and who honestly believe them both useful and attainable; some, speculators in official profits and honors, which a colonial establishment would of course produce; some, speculators in political popularity, who think to please the abolitionists by their zeal for emancipation, and the slave-holders by the flattering hope of ridding them of the free colored people at the public expense; lastly, some cunning slave-holders, who see that the plan may be carried far enough to produce the effect of raising the market price of their slaves.
Readers of the diary will find plenty of expressions of personal pique, as when he refused to attend a Bunker Hill celebration in 1843 at which President Tyler, “a slave-monger,” and Senator Daniel Webster, “a heartless traitor to the cause of human freedom,” were to preside: “What have these to do with a dinner in Faneuil Hall, but to swill like swine, and grunt about the rights of man?” While declining to break bread with Tyler and Webster, John Quincy Adams had been the first President to receive black guests in the White House (decades before Abraham Lincoln consulted with Frederick Douglass or Teddy Roosevelt and family dined with Booker T. Washington).
The degenerative course of the slavery controversy led Adams to speculate about regime change. One alternative to the unsustainable present was a Southern-built empire: “The annexation of Texas to this Union is the first step to the conquest of all Mexico, of the West India islands, of a maritime, colonizing, slave-tainted monarchy, and of extinguished freedom.” The other alternative was the break-up and re-founding of the Union.
Adams had been thinking the unthinkable with prophetic clarity as early as the Missouri crisis. For good reason, his account of his conversation with John C. Calhoun, on February 24, 1820, and the “momentous train of reflection” it induced, is the diary’s most famous passage :
Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union, and it is a contemplation worthy of the most exalted soul whether its total abolition is or is not practicable: if practicable, by what means it may be effected, and if a choice of means be within the scope of the object, what means would accomplish it at the smallest cost of human suffering. A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, would be certainly necessary, and the dissolution must be upon a point involving the question of slavery, and no other. The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. This object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.
Adams did not believe it was given to him to be the nation’s savior or martyr. But by 1836, he had declared himself: “This is a cause upon which I am entering at the last stage of life, and with the certainty that I cannot advance in it far; my career must close, leaving the cause at the threshold. To open the way for others is all that I can do. The cause is good and great.” He pursued the path of duty, awaiting the “dispensations of Time.”
With his capacious mind and untiring hand, he carried out what amounts to an unrelenting examination of self and others. What underlay this examination was a trust in providence and natural right (and in his heirs to preserve and publish). It was in 1819, reflecting on our national inconsistencies as evidenced in the character of Thomas Jefferson, that John Quincy Adams delivered his truest prophecy: “The seeds of the Declaration of Independence are yet maturing. The harvest will be what [Benjamin] West, the painter, calls the terrible sublime.”