Richard Nisley

John Quincy Adams, on his birthday
History - American Released - Jul 03, 2017

July 11 is John Quincy Adams’ birthday. That’s John QUINCY Adams, sixth president of the United States, and son of John Adams, second president of the United States.

It’s the exceptional leader who foresees coming events and foretells the likely outcome. John Quincy Adams was one of these rare individuals. His sterling character is portrayed in the movie AMISTAD. More about that in a moment.


As early as March 1820, as secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams told his cabinet colleagues, in connection with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration of Independence. Adams was not ready to say so publicly, but that night he wrote in his diary: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” As “calamitous” as a civil war would be, “so glorious would be its final issue, that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired.”

After the cabinet meeting ended, Adams walked home with Secretary of War John Calhoun, the Yale educated former congressman from South Carolina and fierce slavery advocate. Adams later recorded what Calhoun had said to him, “that the principles which I had avowed were just and noble; but that in the Southern country . . . they were always understood as applying only to white men.” Manual labor was “the proper work of slaves,” Calhoun said. “No white person could descend to that.” Adams, however, said he “could not see things in the same light. It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment—mistaking labor for slavery, and dominion for freedom.”

The Missouri Compromise made a decided impression on Adams’ thinking. He realized the Constitution’s bargain between freedom and slavery “is morally and politically vicious, inconsistent with the principles upon which alone our Revolution can be justified; cruel and oppressive.” By treating slaves not as persons “to be represented themselves” but as a reason to award “their masters . . . nearly a double share of representation” in Congress, the bargain ensured “that this slave representation has governed the Union.”

During the 1830s and 1840s, after Adams’ four years as president, he argued that the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, was the nation’s founding document—“the ark of your covenant,” as he told his fellow citizens in a famous 1839 speech. Abraham Lincoln after him would arrive at the same conclusion.


That same year, speaking before the Supreme Court, Adams cited the Declaration of Independence once again, arguing for the freedom of 39 African captives liberated from the slave ship Le Amistad. The scene is featured in the 1997 motion picture, AMISTAD. It’s a powerful drama that underscores the cruel and inhuman acts of converting innocent free men and women into slaves. The movie features the courtroom drama that freed the captives, and the key role played by Adams. It’s a case of noblesse oblige at its very best—men of high station helping those caught up in a living nightmare—of disinfecting a monstrous miscarriage of justice before the judicious light of truth. In one of the most moving scenes of American cinema, Adams points to the Declaration of Independence on the wall inside the courtroom as his clients’ greatest defense, in particular the phrase, “All men are created equal.” In a unanimous decision, the Court agreed, and the African captives were freed at last. The cast is special: Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, and the perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins as the wise and discerning John Quincy Adams.

Happy Fourth of July.
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