- - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS AND THE POLITICS OF SLAVERY

By David Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason

Oxford University Press, $29.95, 308 pages

Good biography should not just bring the subject individual into clearer focus, it also should inform us about how that life has something to tell us about current events. This meticulously annotated selection from the diaries of our sixth president reads like the banner headlines of today’s news reports of political intrigue, raw ambitions and the same existential crisis that divides our nation today.

The John Quincy Adams who emerges from this study is not the prickly intellectual rebel featured in the 1997 Steven Spielberg historically flawed film “Amistad.” The Spielberg version, with Anthony Hopkins doing a Scrooge impersonation, has the struggle to end the slavery of two-and-a-half million Africans held in bondage (out of a total U.S. population of 17 million) commencing in the 1840s and leading inevitably to the horrendous Civil War 20 years later. Hollywood seems addicted to distorting their historical films in hopes of making the stories more commercially palatable — think films about Lawrence of Arabia or the organized crime families such as the Corleones or Earps — and thereby depriving their audiences of richer fare.

Rather, the Adams who reveals himself to his diaries is first of all, his father’s son — prone to arrogance and driven by a single vision that rendered him hysterically suspicious of any opponent. A precociously talented diplomat and secretary of state, he shared with his father the dubious distinction of being the first two men elected president who became so unpopular they were denied a second term.

The two editors have the good fortune in that the 14,000 pages of confessional begun in Adams‘ youth are now digitized and online for a panoramic access to the evolution of his political beliefs and the firming of the single vision that drove him. That vision simply was of a truly united United States devoted to a single national interest and free from sectional rivalries and political factions.

Remember that the new nation was still largely an East Coast collection of disparate and jealous states. The intoxicating promise that the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent grab of Spain’s possessions dangled before expansionists was just on the horizon. But that original dream of George Washington’s day of government free from party rivalries was already moot. The addicting wealth of the cotton states of the South both challenged and also were threatened by the manufacturing economies of the Northern states.

Adams early on identified slavery as the spark issue that could ruin the American experiment in democracy, but he also believed it merely masked the growth of sectional rivalry that was the real threat. Indeed, while he often lamented the concept of human bondage as being distasteful, he rarely showed any sympathy for the living human beings who daily suffered under the lash.

Adams would be 72 and relegated to his lonely seat in the U.S. House of Representatives before he reluctantly agreed to take a hand in the Amistad case. One of the striking impressions that comes out of these diaries is the disdain he held for pro-slavery rivals like John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson, and for New England abolitionists whose sanctimonious militancy annoyed him almost as much. For much of his public career he flirted with various schemes to organize a wholesale deportation back to Africa of an enslaved populace, by then most of whom were several generations native to North America. Deportation of those vexing “others” among us remains a popular political gambit, it seems.

Rather than diminish Adams‘ last-minute intervention in the Amistad case, the diaries reveal his involvement to be the climax in a lifetime’s evolution of a flawed man’s morality as it confronted a very real, very complicated struggle. By modern standards, there can be no question of the evil of slavery, but back then it was entangled in a host of issues that were encapsulated in the trial of 53 illegally purchased Africans who had seized the ship carrying them to slavery and, in turn, were seized by an American warship.

The whole debate over the international trade in slaves was undergoing tense negotiations with the great European powers. But it also involved questions of America’s efforts to combat piracy and of the security threat especially posed by Britain’s naval interference with our merchant shipping. Further complicating matters was our determination that both France and Britain cease efforts to gain new footholds elsewhere in our hemisphere.

The truth is that Adams in his eloquent arguments before the U S Supreme Court did have a far-reaching impact on the slavery issue and beyond. The diary entries have a dramatic climax to them that would be worthy of a serious film treatment by someone. In the meantime this book is a great read and an informative reality check on issues that vex us even now.

• James Srodes’ latest book is “Spies In Palestine: Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn,” published earlier this year.

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