JQA: For the Defense

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life

by Paul C. Nagel
Knopf, 432 pp., $30.00


a film directed by Steven Spielberg, and produced by Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen and Colin Wilson


an opera, musical score by Anthony Davis, libretto by Thulani Davis

Within the past two years or so the historical visibility of John Quincy Adams has been enhanced to a degree that could scarcely have been anticipated a few years earlier. William Lee Miller’s Arguing about Slavery was a circumstantial account of how Adams, in his post-presidential career as a Massachusetts congressman, almost singlehandedly beat down the efforts of Southern members to prohibit the House’s reception of antislavery petitions.1 At the end of last year came two dramatic spectacles, each with the same name, one a film and the other an opera, depicting the mutiny in 1839 of black African captives aboard the schooner Amistad who were destined for slavery. Recaptured off the Long Island coast by an American naval vessel and incarcerated in a Connecticut jail, they were eventually released following the powerful plea on their behalf before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams. Finally, we have a new biography of Adams himself by Paul Nagel, which aims to exhibit aspects of the man’s personality hitherto, the author believes, imperfectly understood.


The African slave trade depended on black Africans capturing other black Africans and selling them to dealers on the coast for shipment to plantations in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas. This is what happened to a group of Mende tribesmen in West Africa in the spring of 1839. They were transported in a Portuguese slaving vessel to Cuba, where fifty-three of them were sold to two Spaniards who planned to carry them by sea in the chartered ship Amistad for resale at Puerto Principe on the island’s northeast coast. But on the fourth night out one of the captives, Joseph Cinqué, managed to get free of his manacles and unchain the others.

Seizing sugar-cane machetes they found in the hold, they killed the captain and ship’s cook; the other two crew members escaped in a ship’s boat; and the lives of the two Spanish traders were spared on condition that they navigate the Amistad back to Africa. The Spaniards thereupon tricked the mutineers by steering eastward by day but maneuvering the ship by night northward into US coastal waters, bringing it eventually to anchor off Montauk Point. The ship and its African refugees were captured, and their would-be Spanish owners rescued, by a patrolling American revenue cutter. The Africans with their by-then acknowledged leader, Cinqué, were taken to Connecticut by a federal marshal and lodged in the county jail at New Haven, there to await the adjudication of their status.

The legal issues, understandably somewhat slurred over in the Spielberg movie and all but ignored in the opera, were in fact fairly knotty. On the one hand the seaborne slave trade had by this time been outlawed throughout the Atlantic world for some eighteen years, both by municipal law and by international agreements. Engaging in it was punishable by death in both England and the United States, and the King of Spain had decreed that any slave brought into a Spanish colony was…

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