Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Singleton Copley: John Quincy Adams, 1796

When Henry Adams defined politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds,” he knew what he was talking about. Politics ran in the family. His great-grandfather John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the United States, hated the French Revolution and considered the third president, Thomas Jefferson, the next thing to an anarchist. Henry’s father, Charles Francis Adams, served as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain when sectional hatred in the United States burst out into civil war. But it was Henry’s grandfather John Quincy Adams, born in 1767, who held more high federal offices not only than anyone in the family but more than anyone in the history of the republic.

He began his public career as minister to the Netherlands (1794–1797) and Prussia (1797–1801), then represented Massachusetts as a US senator (1803–1808) until Boston federalists broke with him over his support for Jefferson’s trade embargo. His diplomatic service resumed when President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia (1809–1814) and then to Britain (1815–1817). As secretary of state (1817–1825) under President James Monroe, he was the principal architect of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine and negotiated the purchase of Florida from Spain as well as a new border between the United States and Spanish possessions in the west. In 1824 he succeeded Monroe to the presidency but was defeated in 1828 by Andrew Jackson. Three years later, Massachusetts voters sent him to the House of Representatives, where he served, despite what some called his “derogatory descent” from the nation’s highest office to that of a mere congressman, until his death in 1848.1

Even by Adams standards, John Quincy was a good hater. He hated idleness, small talk, and nightlife. He hated “the extremes of opulence and of want” that he encountered in England, where starving beggars came by night to the doors of country estates and had to be carted away, dead or alive, by the groundskeepers in the morning. He hated what we would call “elites” for their “great Notions, of high Family” (his father’s phrase), and demagogic politicians for their “Charlatanery of popular enticement” (his own phrase). During his years abroad he disliked, if not quite hated, the incessant dinner parties where he had to deliver “Table-Cloth Oratory.” He was good, too, at holding a grudge. For decades he blamed his father’s loss in the presidential election of 1801 on “the joint work of [Aaron] Burr and Alexander Hamilton” and relished the “divine retributive justice” made manifest in “the murder of one of them by the other in a duel, and the irretrievable ruin of the murder[er.]”

Long on anger, Adams was short on humor—a case in point for his grandson’s doubt that “New England Calvinists ever laughed.” His notion of a joke was comparing the affection Pennsylvanians felt for Andrew Jackson to that of “Titania Queen of the Fairies, for Bottom, after his Assification.” Although not a Calvinist in matters of doctrine, he was Calvinistic in temperament, convinced that “the grace of God is yet necessary to controul the depravity of my nature.” Nor did he confine his severity to himself. When his wife, Louisa, after one of many miscarriages, tried to hide the pallor in her face with a dab of rouge, he took a towel and scrubbed it off.

For close to seventy years, this formidable man—astringent, erudite (his mastery of Greek and Latin earned him appointment as Harvard’s first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory), severely disciplined yet fearful of the slightest lapse into self-indulgence—kept a diary almost every day. When nearing fifty, he injured his right hand firing a pistol, and thereafter tried to limit lifting it off the paper while writing by signifying commas with dots or bulges joined to the ends of words. When the press of public business prevented him from making full entries, he settled for short notations to be expanded in retrospect whenever time allowed. In the interim, he feared that “I shall lose irretrievably the Chain of Events.” He never did. His last entry is dated February 20, 1848, the day before he collapsed on the floor of the House and three days before he died.

The diary ultimately filled fifty-one handwritten volumes comprising some 15,000 pages. A quarter-century after his death, Adams’s son Charles Francis made a selection amounting to roughly half of the whole, which was published between 1874 and 1877 in twelve volumes. Fifty years later, the historian Allan Nevins cut the twelve down to one. Now, working from the manuscript held at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a team of editors at the Library of America, led by the constitutional scholar David Waldstreicher, has issued a new two-volume selection with annotations and a detailed chronology of Adams’s life and times. It is a superb edition that should secure a place for the diary in the canon of American literature.


The diary was a stenographic record designed to help Adams prepare speeches, articles, memoranda, and legal briefs. But it was also a discipline for his mind and a private outlet for emotions he was unwilling to expose in public. He fretted that he had “filled my journals with trash, and with every whimsey that passed across my mind,” but anyone hoping for the sort of trash to be found in another famous diary by another public man, Samuel Pepys—who reports penetrating one chambermaid “devante and backward” and being caught by his wife as he tried to persuade another with “my main in her cunny”—will be disappointed. On the evidence of Louisa’s frequent pregnancies, Adams, too, had a busy sex life. But his only comment on the subject is to endorse “the superior happiness of the marriage state over that of celibacy.”

In part because Charles Francis Adams deleted from his father’s diary all “details of common life and events of no interest to the public,” the inner life of John Quincy Adams has been until now mostly a secret. One of the gifts of the new edition is to give us a glimpse into his heart—from his delight at swimming in the Potomac to his pleasure in reading bawdy novels by Sterne and Fielding, of whose Tom Jones he writes that “this book cannot lead a person to form too favorable an opinion of human nature; but neither will it give a false one.” There are tender expressions of love for his parents—John Adams, to whom he owed his zeal for public service, and Abigail Adams, whom he adored beyond measure, a “Minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action,” who comforted him “by my mere consciousness of her existence.”

The diary records his helpless pity for his ravaged wife, who was assaulted in body and spirit by frequent miscarriages, one stillbirth, and the almost unbearable shock of the deaths of two young children. There is evidence, too, of Adams’s own periodic depressions, manifested not as lassitude but as mania to make the most of every moment, driven by his chronic fear that the moments were fast running out. “A listlessness,” he writes,

which without extinguishing the love of life, affects the mind with the Sentiment that life is nothing worth. An oppression at the heart which without being positive pain is more distressing than pain itself…. Time is too short for me…. If the day were of forty-eight hours instead of twenty-four I could employ them all, so I had but eyes and hands, to read and write.

But the most gripping pages of the diary are those that convey the rise of slavery to the top of Adams’s hierarchy of hatreds. What begins as a sort of perplexity at the persistence of a barbaric institution in a putatively civilized country turns, year by year, into irrepressible outrage at the mortal threat slavery posed to the American republic, which was arguably the thing he loved best.

As early as 1804, Adams wrote a series of pseudonymous articles attacking the US Constitution for granting disproportionate power to the South by adding “three fifths of all other Persons” to the white population for the purpose of calculating representation in the House. Years later, as secretary of state, he found himself besieged by slaveholders demanding restitution from Britain for slaves who had run away or been captured by the British during the War of 1812. Leaders of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, sought his support for their idea of shipping off free blacks to establish a settlement—eventually to be named Liberia—on the west coast of Africa. Adams regarded the Colonization Society as a “fraudulent charitable institution” bent on turning the young nation into an imperial power on the pretext “of expurgating the United States, from the free people of Colour.” As for the notion that slave owners would be inspired to emancipate their slaves and send them to Africa, that seemed to him about as likely as burrowing underground through the earth to the North Pole.

Earlier than most contemporaries, Adams understood that a fateful collision between North and South was coming, and that halfway measures such as voluntary or compensated emancipation would never take hold among a sufficient number of slave owners to fend it off. The path to a reckoning had been charted by the Founding Fathers themselves, including Jefferson, who wrote soon after the revolution that “the spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust” in the vain hope that slavery would somehow fade away. Adams held the Virginians chiefly responsible (though he served two Virginian presidents, Madison and Monroe), but he granted no exemption to acquiescent Northerners for their part in “the dishonourable compromise with Slavery” that lay at the heart of the Constitution. Not only in the three-fifths clause but in several other measures, including the notorious clause stipulating that fugitive slaves seeking sanctuary in free states must be returned to their owners, the Constitution made a “morally and politically vicious” bargain with slavery—an accommodation that Adams was sure would not last very long.


Nevertheless, “from extreme unwillingness to put the Union at hazard,” he supported the renewal in 1820 of the original bargain—a new compromise by which Congress averted the nation’s first major sectional crisis by voting to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thereby preserving the sectional balance in the Senate. The Missouri Compromise also established a geographic dividing line—the 36º30’ latitude—south of which slavery would be permitted and north of which (except for Missouri itself) it would be excluded. During the fierce debate over whether Congress possessed the constitutional authority to ban slavery from federal territories, Adams insisted that it did (“What can be more needful to the establishment of Justice, than the interdiction of Slavery where it does not exist”?), and he viewed the Missouri Compromise as a temporary reprieve that would give way to resurgent sectional rancor as territorial expansion advanced. It was a good prediction. Forty years later, exclusion of slavery from the federal territories became the main plank of the Republican Party platform, in response to which eleven slave states seceded from the Union, precipitating the Civil War.

Already by the mid-1830s, Adams had become convinced that slavery would be “the wedge which will ultimately split up this Union.” Even as he acted the public part of a compromiser, he confided to his diary that “my hopes of the long continuance of this Union are extinct.” As late as 1829, he had asserted that “cases of extreme oppression and cruelty” were “very rare, and that the general treatment of Slaves is mild and moderate,” but reading Theodore Weld’s compendium of atrocities, American Slavery as It Is (1839), changed his mind. Now, he wrote in his diary, his “stomach heaves at the…numberless cases of human suffering inflicted by human hands.”

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams; drawing by David Levine

Adams believed that even the best minds of the South were being perverted by their fidelity to the slave system. Among his colleagues in Monroe’s cabinet, he had respected Secretary of War John C. Calhoun as a man of “quick discrimination and keen observation” and “enlarged philosophical views” who believed (in Adams’s paraphrase) that enslaving blacks “was the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” But by the 1830s, as slavery came under attack not only from abolitionists but also, in Calhoun’s view, from the federal government, which had imposed what he considered punitive tariffs threatening the rights of Carolina planters, Adams was “deeply disappointed in him, and now expect[ed] nothing from him but evil.”

When he looked back to the revolutionary generation, Adams found the same contradiction between their professed devotion to liberty and their defense of slavery. Writing while the Missouri Compromise worked its way through Congress, he observed that Jefferson, who had established “the first foundations of civil Society” in the Declaration of Independence, did “not appear to have been aware” that he had also opened “a precipice into which the Slave-holding Planters of his Country, sooner or later must fall.” This was not so much a charge of hypocrisy as of self-deception:

With the Declaration of Independence on their lips and the merciless Scourge of Slavery in their hands, a more flagrant image of human inconsistency can scarcely be conceived than one of our Southern Slave-holding Republicans.

Adams had his own inconsistencies. Like many antislavery Northerners, he could not begin to envision a society of whites and blacks living together in full equality. He believed sincerely that nothing could “be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin,” yet he found himself disgusted by Desdemona’s passion in Othello for “a rude, unbleached African soldier.” “The great moral lesson” of the play, he wrote in an 1835 article about Shakespeare, is “that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature.”

Despite his horror at the specter of intimacy between the races, Adams’s reputation today—to the extent that he has one outside the coterie of professional historians—is as an antislavery firebrand ahead of his time. There is merit in this view. Upon returning to government in 1831, he spoke often and passionately in the House against slavery as “the great and foul stain upon the North-American Union.”

In an episode made famous by the 1997 movie Amistad (in which Anthony Hopkins portrays him as a thundering moralist), Adams stood before the Supreme Court on behalf of a group of slaves who had revolted aboard a Spanish slave ship that was carrying them along the Cuban coast. The rebels—or mutineers, as some preferred to think of them—tried to force the crew to sail to Africa, but turning by night toward the northwest, the white sailors managed to steer into Long Island Sound, where the Amistad was seized by the US Coast Guard. Imprisoned while awaiting return to their Spanish owners, the slaves were defended by abolitionist lawyers in a Connecticut state court, which ruled that they must be freed.

The US government appealed to the Supreme Court, where, over several days in the winter of 1841, Adams argued for their freedom. In the end, the Court—presided over by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the same man who would rule sixteen years later in the infamous Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”—sustained the lower court ruling and ordered the prisoners released. The Amistad case is sometimes invoked as a milestone of the antislavery movement, but in reality the ruling was a narrow one confirming that the prisoners had been transported and sold in violation of international agreements banning the slave trade—a verdict with little impact on the status of domestic slavery in the United States.2

In fact, Adams never joined the party of radical abolitionists, whom he accused of “effusions of frenzy” that would only hurt their cause. He refused to endorse a declaration by the American Anti-Slavery Society condemning every slave owner as a “Man Stealer.” Even though he loathed it, he recognized the constitutional requirement to return fugitive slaves upon claim by their owners. For many years, he opposed bringing up slavery for debate in Congress lest it magnify the “ill will…heart-burnings, [and] mutual hatred” that threatened the stability of the national government.

Yet he also believed in the right of his constituents to petition their representatives on any subject of public consequence. By tradition, petitions to Congress were printed, entered into the official record, and referred to an appropriate committee for consideration. By the mid-1830s the flow of petitions on the slavery issue—often calling for abolition in the District of Columbia, over which Congress had jurisdiction—was becoming such a flood that at one point Adams devoted two hours a day for three weeks just to making a list of petitions submitted to him.

In December 1835, James Hammond of South Carolina called for an outright ban on any petition concerning slavery. Under Hammond’s proposal, all such petitions would be peremptorily refused without debate or even acknowledgment. In May 1836, the House passed a version of Hammond’s plan. When the outraged Adams stood up to protest, the Speaker of the House, the future president James K. Polk, ruled him out of order while Adams, demanding his First Amendment rights, shouted above the din, “Am I gagged or am I not?”

What became known as the “Gag Rule” lasted until 1844, when Adams managed to assemble a coalition to rescind it. In the intervening years, he tried without success to present petitions on one aspect or another of the slavery question, including one from a constituent who wanted Congress to “build a Wall, like the Wall of China, between the free and the slave holding States.” Others opposed the annexation of Texas (which had won independence from Mexico in 1836) as a new slave state. As if energized by the futility of his cause, Adams rose like a jack-in-the-box only to be ordered by the Speaker to take his seat, “which I did, and immediately rose again” as “the bawl of Order! Order!! resounded…from two thirds of the House.” In March 1838, citizens of Virginia sent in a petition of their own, demanding “to arraign at the Bar of the House and expel forever John Quincy Adams.”

In the South he became a hated symbol of Northern extremism. At a time when political hostility could turn quickly into physical violence, he had reason to write in his diary that “I shall henceforth speak in the House of Representatives, at the hazard of my life.” Family and friends urged restraint, while antislavery activists urged him on. “Between these adverse impulses,” he wrote, “my mind is agitated almost to distraction.”

As the uproar over slavery grew, Adams became convinced that “the elements of exterminating war seem to be in vehement fermentation.” He believed that sooner or later “the Planters of the South will separate from the Union in terror of the emancipation of their Slaves, and that then the Slaves will emancipate themselves by a servile War.” In May 1836, he managed to hold the floor long enough to deliver a speech arguing that whenever a war was going on in any state—he had in mind the Indian wars then raging in Georgia and Alabama—the federal government could assume powers ordinarily proscribed by the Constitution, which in normal times placed slavery under control of the states.

Here was an early articulation of the principle that in wartime the federal government could claim emergency power to emancipate slaves in order to prevent them from being used by the enemy. Twenty-seven years later, this would be Lincoln’s rationale for the Emancipation Proclamation—essentially an executive order justified on the grounds of military necessity.3 Even earlier, in a diary entry of February 1820, Adams had looked into the future and seen that “a dissolution, at least temporary of the Union as now constituted,” would be required so that “the union might then be reorganized, on the fundamental principle of emancipation.”

Adams’s prescience throughout his lifelong diary is stunning. Not only did he anticipate events—secession, civil war, and emancipation—that now lie behind us, but he foresaw certain hazards of American democracy whose full realization may yet lie ahead. “Demagogue policy,” he wrote in 1839, “is the first and most indispensable element” for a successful presidential candidate, and he had this to say, in a diary entry of 1803, about the function and value of political parties:

The Country is so totally given up to the Spirit of party, that not to follow blind-fold the one or the other is an inexpiable offence—The worst of these parties has the popular torrent in its favour, and uses its triumph with all the unprincipled fury of a faction; while the other gnashes its teeth, and is waiting with all the impatience of revenge, for the time when its turn may come to oppress and punish by the people’s favour.

He was outraged by politicians “just cunning enough to grow rich by railing against the rich, and to fatten upon the public spoils bawling Democracy.” He predicted in 1805 “that the dying agonies of the Constitution, will be witness’d on the floor of the Senate.” To read these volumes is to marvel at how often he was right and to hope that his darkest prophecies will yet prove to be wrong.