Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

1804: In setting up a government for the Louisiana Territory Congress passed a bill to forbid the slave trade (but not slavery) there.  Freshman Senator John Quincy Adams, who felt the people of Louisiana had never asked  to be part of the United States and that therefore such a government would be colonialism, voted against the bill.  “Slavery in a moral sense is an evil; but as connected with commerce it has important uses.  The regulations offered to prevent slavery are insufficient.  I shall therefore vote against them.”  (Hecht,  152.)

1804: Adams claimed that the clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of  a free person when calculating congressional representation created a “privileged order of slave-holding Lords, and a race of men degraded to a lower status, merely because they were not slave-holders.  Every planter south of the Potomac has one vote for himself and three votes in effect for every five slaves he keeps in bondage; while  a New England farmer, who contributes tenfold as much to the support of the government, has only a single vote.” (Hecht, p153-4.)

1815:  As Ambassador to Great Britain at the end of the War of 1812 John Quincy Adams negotiated the return of American property taken by the British – including slaves captured by the army and others who sought refuge with them.  (Hecht, p259.)

  1820:  "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."  (Adams, p228-9)

1820:  "If I were a member of the Legislature of one of the free States, I would move for a declaratory act, that so long as the article in the Constitution of Missouri depriving the colored citizens of the State, say of Massachusetts, of their rights as citizens of the United States within the State of Missouri, should subsist, so long the white citizens   of the State of Missouri should be held as aliens within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not entitled to claim or enjoy within the same any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States."  (Adams, p246)

1826: John Quincy Adams wrote in a poem on the anniversary of his father’s death:  “Who but shall learn that freedom is the prize / Man still is bound to rescue or maintain: / The native’s God commands the slave to rise, / And on the oppressor’s head to break his chain, / Roll, years of promise, rapidly roll around, / Till not a slave shall on this earth be found.”  (Hecht, p152.)


1826: A decade after leaving the presidency Adams explained why he hadn’t attempted to convince Congress to recognize the free Black government of Haiti: “A bare hint to Congress of the possibility… would have suggested that negroes and mulattoes were not only human beings but capable of constituting a sovereign state and if I had escaped impeachment there would have been a Resolution carried…that featherless bipeds with wool for hair and their descendants till bleached into Anglo Saxons are not entitled to the rights of man.” (Hecht p548)

1833:  After leaving the presidency Adams became a member of the House of Representatives (the only ex-president ever to do so).

Congress debated a tariff which would have protected the manufacturers of the North and hurt the farmers of the South.  Congressman Clayton of Georgia  complained: “Our slaves are our machinery,  and we have as good a right to profit by them as do the northern men who profit by the machinery they employ.”  In replying Adams  referred to the Constitutional clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a free person for calculating how many congresspersons each state was entitled to): “Now those machines have twenty-odd Representatives in this Hall, Representatives elected not by the machines, but by those who own them… Have the manufacturers asked for representation from their machines?  Their looms and factories have no vote in Congress…  Everybody knows  that where this type of machinery [slaves] exists there is liable to be more violence than elsewhere because the machinery sometimes exerts self-moving power.  Such a case [Nat Turner rebellion] has been exerted.  Very recently…  My constituents have as much right to say to the people, ‘We will not submit to the protection of your interests [by paying for a standing army]’ as the
  people of the South have the right to address such language as them.”  (Hecht, 152.)


1833: "I believe that the spirit of the age and the course of events is tending to universal emancipation.  But bound   as I am by the Constitution of the United States, I am not at liberty to take a part in promoting it.  The remedy must arise in the seat of the evil [the south]."  (Falkner,  p 52)

1836:  "Suppose a civil war.  Suppose Congress were called to raise armies, to supply money from the whole  Union, to suppress an insurrection, would they have no authority to interfere with the institution of slavery?  ...Can it for an instant be pretended that Congress, in such a contingency, would have no authority to interfere with  the institution in any way?  It would be equivalent to say that Congress has no constitutional authority to make peace.  From that instant that your slaveholding states becomes the theatre of war, civil, servile or foreign... the war  power of Congress extends to interference with the  institution of slavery."  This argument was used by Lincoln  26 years later in making the Emancipation Proclamation. (Falkner.  p133-4 )

1836:  "The war in Texas is a Mexican civil war, and a war for the reestablishment of slavery where it was abolished.  It is a war between slavery and emancipation, and every effort has been made to drive us into the war on the side of slavery.  Do not you, slaveholding exterminators of Indians, from the bottoms of your souls, hate the Mexican-Spaniard-Indian emancipator of slaves?  ...And this is the nation with which, at the instigation of your executive government, you are now rushing into war – a war of conquest."  (Falkner, p134.)

1837:  Adams attempted to present to the House of Representatives a petition from free Black women of Virginia regarding slavery.  A congressman described the women as "infamous," meaning that they were prostitutes.  Adams: "If they are infamous women, who was it that made them infamous?  Not their own color but their masters.  ...in the South there exists great resemblance between the progeny of the colored people and the white men who claim possession of them.  Thus, perhaps, the charge of infamous might be retorted on those who made it, as originating from themselves."  (Falkner, p163.)

1837:  "[Abolition] is the most dangerous of all subjects for public contention.  In the South, it is a perpetual agony of conscious guilt and terror attempting to disguise itself under sophisticated argument and braggard menaces.  In the North, the people favor the whites and fear the blacks.  The politicians court the South because they want their votes.  The abolitionists... kindle the opposition against themselves into a flame and the passions of  the populace are all engaged against them."  (Falkner, p175)

1838:  Pro-slaver ministers are "prevaricating with their own consciences, and taxing their learning and ingenuity  to prove that the Bible sanctions slavery... These preachers of the Gospel might just as well call our extermination of the Indians an obedience to Divine commands because Jehovah commanded the children of Israel to
  exterminate the Canaanitish nations."  (Adams, p495)

1839: "I do believe slavery to be a sin before the sight of God."  (Falkner, p197)

 1839: Adams proposed his own solution to the slavery issue:  "1.  From and after the 4th of July, 1842, there shall be, throughout the United States, no hereditary slavery; but on and after that day every child born within the United States, their territories or jurisdiction, shall be born free.  2. With the exception of the territory of Florida,
  there shall henceforth never be admitted into this Union any state, the constitution of which shall tolerate within the same the existence of slavery.  3.  From and after the 4th of July, 1845, there shall be neither slavery nor slave trade at the seat of the government of the United States [i.e. Washington, D.C.]"  As Adams expected, the
  House never voted on these resolutions.  (Falkner, p198)


1839:  “What then is the meaning of that immediate abolition which the Anti-Slavery Society has made the test of orthodoxy to their political church?  A moral and physical impossibility.”  (Hecht, p564)

1841: In spite of ill health, advanced age, his duties as a congressman, and the fact that he had not practiced law in decades, Adams was asked to represent the Amistad prisoners (Africans illegally inslaved, who mutineed on the ship Amistad)  before the Supreme Court.  He did so for no fee and won.  "I know of no law, except [the Declaration of Independence]...  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."  (Falkner p236)

1841:  "What can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of  the African slave-trade?  Yet my conscience presses me on; let me but die upon the breach."  (Adams,  p519)

1842: Adams attempted to present to the House  a petition he  received from Northern abolitionists calling  for the dissolution of the Union.  Southern congressmen branded the idea  treason and attempted to have him censured by the House.  His defense went on so long (and became so popular with the nation)  that the censure proposal was dropped.  (Hecht p 591-6)

1842: "Threats of lynching and of assassination are the natural offspring of slave-breeders and slave-traders...   Such dross the fire must purge."  (Adams, p540)

1848:  At age 80 Adams was the sole vote against a proposal to honor Army officers who had served in the Mexican-American War.  He then collapsed at his desk and died two days later.

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