- John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery: Selections from the Diary ed. by David Waldstreicher, Matthew Mason
John Quincy Adams, Slavery, Antislavery, Gag rule, Sectionalism
In John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery, David Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason have undertaken an ambitious and important scholarly editing project, compiling an extensive collection of excerpts from Adams’s copious diary writings on slavery and antislavery. Over the course of this volume, we see the profound evolution of Adams’s responses to questions of whether, when, and how to pursue antislavery politics. For those unfamiliar with Adams’s diary, this book offers an entrée into Adams’s inner thoughts on politics, policy, and personal self-improvement. The Adams that Waldstreicher and Mason show us is a man driven to reach greatness, routinely oscillating between pride in his extraordinary intellect and accomplishments and frustration at the limits [End Page 730] that both his political opponents and his own human imperfections placed on what he could achieve. As a diarist, Adams is fascinating, perspicacious, and often surprisingly self-aware (if sometimes self-serving). Through his voice, we can learn much about the politics of the slavery issue that first lurked just under the surface of, and by the end of Adams’s life came to dominate, the national political arena.
In a twelve-page introduction, Waldstreicher and Mason clearly explicate their process and their overarching conclusions about Adams’s diary and the excerpts here, drawn from both published sources (mainly his son Charles Francis Adams’s twelve-volume edited version) and manuscripts available online through the Massachusetts Historical Society.1 The introduction also reviews historiography of Adams’s life and career, with careful attention to how Adams’s many biographers have used and interpreted the diary. This introduction’s relative brevity and thoughtful insights will be welcomed by many, but undergraduate or lay readers might have appreciated more background on slavery’s place in American political life during the sixty years this book spans (1785–1845). Of course in an editorial project of this scope, there are always tradeoffs. While this text can be an engaging classroom resource, instructors may need to offer further contextualization to help less knowledgeable readers navigate the diary. That said, throughout the main text, Waldstreicher and Mason present summary, context, and interpretation at least every few pages to prime readers for succeeding entries. These editorial interventions should help readers grasp the shifting political terrain on which Adams was operating, but an introductory overview of broader developments still would have been beneficial.
In the book’s opening chapters, perhaps most striking is how relatively infrequently the slavery issue seemed to come up. From the early decades of the diary, the editors have identified a handful of passages in which Adams reflects on the abstract immorality of slavery. But as the editors follow him through his years abroad as a diplomat at various European courts, we mostly see a nationalistic Adams preoccupied with projecting American strength and advancing the interests of both northern and southern states. [End Page 731]
While such concerns persisted through his time as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, entries from those years begin to reveal Adams’s not yet fully formed misgivings about the power and unity of American slave-holders. The most interesting reading here is Adams’s lengthy reflections on the Missouri Crisis of 1819–1821. Genuinely ambivalent about the “morally and politically vicious” (84) compromises that held the Union together, Adams nonetheless read the crisis as a portent of an almost ineluctable sectional rift over slavery. But at this point, Adams avoided public comment in light of both his cabinet post and political ambitions.
This volume’s section on Adams’s presidency is relatively brief. Generally, President Adams, guided by political priorities, shied away from the slavery issue. During these years, however, we see evidence, on the one hand, that the Adams family at times relied on rented slave help, while on the...