Ph.D. Octopus

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On Michele Bachmann and John Quincy Adams

with one comment

By Wiz

Michele Bachmann is running around talking about how the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery,” and using the example of John Quincy Adams as evidence of that fact. This has engendered some debate over whether or not JQ was a real Founding Father, since he was, well, 8 when the Declaration of Independence was passed. Bachmann’s supporters have taken to scrubbing wikipedia, writing in that JQ Adams was, in fact, a Founding Father.

The stakes are this: Bachmann and her supporters have adopted the view that the Founders were Moses figures– perfect law givers whose judgement SHALL NOT BE QUESTIONED. (It goes without saying, they all sat around Colonial Massachusetts and Virginia talking about how deregulation, privatization, and union-busting were God’s will.) Bachmann: “our Constitution has done for our nation is to give us the basis of freedom unparalleled in the rest of the world.

The unpleasant historical fact, though, that they personally accepted and profited off slavery, and then clearly enshrined it in the Constitution is a bit awkward. American exceptionalism must be defended! Hence the Tea Party history lesson: the Founders “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” Odd that they put in things like the 3/5 clause and the clause demanding the rendition of fugitive slaves from one state to another.

Anyway… Everyone is focusing on how ridiculous it is that Bachman considers John Quincy Adams, whose career obviously peaked in the 1820s and 1830s, as a Founding Father. But its also a bit strange to consider him an abolitionist. I thought I’d go back and look at a eulogy given about John Quincy Adams on his death. In this case, Theodore Parker, a prominent Boston anti-slavery preacher.

“It must be confessed that Mr. Adams, while Secretary of State, and again while President, showed no hostility to the institution of slavery. His influence all went the other way. He would repress the freedom of the blacks in the West Indies, lest American slavery should be disturbed and its fetters broke; he would not acknowledge the independence of Hayti, he would urge Spain to make peace with her descendants, for the same reason,– “not for the new republics,” but lest the negroes in Cuba and Porto Rico should secure their freedom.”

Working tirelessly indeed.

But Parker admits, he did change. After losing re-election to Andrew Jackson, he entered the Congress and became an antislavery leader. “In respect to the subject of slavery, he had no ideas in advance of the nation; he was far behind the foremost men. He deprecated all discussion of slavery or its abolition, in the House…’ However, he acquired new ideas as he went on, and became the congressional leader in the great movement of the American mind towards universal freedom.”

In other words, and I think Parker is generally correct here, Adams didn’t really become a prominent anti-slavery voice until the mid 1830s, when he only represented Massachusetts (and hence was freer to take positions which would alienate the South). Even then, he focused on the ways that slavery infringed on Northern freedom, far more than he did on the ways that slavery infringed the freedom of African-Americans.

The point, of course, is that its absurd to pretend that Adams was some pure, unbroken link of human rights and antislavery sentiment that stretched from 1776 to 1831. He, by and large, didn’t care about the issue, until the actions of radicals and insurgent slaves forced politicians to take sides in the 1830s. To his credit he took the right side, and was brave and forceful while doing so. But presenting his life as some vindication of the abolitionist tendencies of the Founding Fathers is an absurd re-writing of history. It is also, of course, a re-writing of history that erases the actions of the radicals (both black and white, free and enslaved) who forced the issue of slavery into the open. And it should be mentioned, many of those radicals thought that the Constitution was a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Some final words from Parker’s eulogy of Adams:

But with him the Constitution was not an idol; it was a means, not an end. He did more than expound it; he went back of the Constitution, to the Declaration of Independence, for the ideas of the Constitution; yes, back to the Declaration to human nature and the laws of God, to legitimate those ideas. The Constitution is a compromise between those ideas, and the institutions and prejudices existing when it was made; not an idol, but a servant. He saw that the Constitution is “not the work of eternal justice, ruling through the people,” but the work “of man, frail, fallen, imperfect man, following the dictates of his nature and aspiring to be perfect.” Though a “constitutionalist,” he did not worship the Constitution. He was much more than a “defender of the Constitution,” — a defender of Human Rights.

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

June 28, 2011 at 18:36

One Response

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  1. Wasn’t Parker a rabid abolitionist of John Brown’s ilk? Why should we accept such an extreme abolitionist’s evaluation of Adam’s abolitionist credentials? I wonder how he would have evaluated Abraham Lincoln.
    Also, shouldn’t Adam’s “failures” to join abolitionism earlier a reflection his refusal to use the power of the federal government in an issue that was fiercely regarded as a state issue? I wonder if your personal distaste for Michele Bachmann has led you to interpret John Q Adams anachronistically. Whether he supported slavery as an institution from 1776-1831 is different from his unwillingness to use the power of the federal government to intervene in state’s domestic institutions – which could not at that time be construed as even implicit support for slavery.

    Jim Henderson

    July 8, 2011 at 08:55


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