Updated: John Adams and The Institution of Slavery

John Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.  Credit: National Gallery of Art
John Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
Credit: National Gallery of Art

Updated: John Adams and The Institution of Slavery

Early American history has been under much debate and discussion, especially when it comes to the analysis of the slave trade. As profoundly as we hold the words of the Declaration of Independence, we must realize that American history is complex (and fascinating). It often presents contradictions in notions and actions. While our founders began the hardship of fighting for our freedom and independence, many were carrying the burden of extending this constraint of freedom to their African American counterparts. Though our early figures heard the rumbling of a revolution in the distance, a few saw past that and realized that other human suffering would need to be addressed. With this being said, one of our earliest thinkers and leaders, John Adams, holds what many believe is a truly unique and forward thinking few on issue of slavery.

Simply put, did John Adams believe that slavery was good? No. But this answer is much more complex. His social standing, and cultural surrounding strongly influenced his opinion and views. He came from a proud and independent rural New England society that viewed nothing appealing about human slavery. Unlike the first American president who was a slaveholder, and generally set the mold for presidential action, our second president believed that the institution of slavery was so obscene that it hardly constituted debate. While much of his political life and attention did not primarily focus upon this issue, a considerable amount of his correspondence with fellow thinkers hold the key to uncovering the true emotions which Adams harbored. Letters to his wife Abigail Adams, Reverends, and colleagues reveal anti-slavery connotations. John Adams prided himself on being careful in ensuring the hiring of free individuals on his farm even though slavery was considered acceptable within New England society.

In his last few months as President in 1801, Adams received a letter sent to him by two abolitionists, containing a pamphlet written by Warren Mifflin, a Quaker reformer. In his response, Adams outlined his views of slavery, and expressed the dangers which he believed would be realized by the abolitionists.

John Adams on The Abolition of Slavery 1801 Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
John Adams on The Abolition of Slavery 1801
Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

“Although I have never Sought popularity by any animated Speeches or inflammatory publications against the Slavery of the Blacks, my opinion against it has always been known and my practice has been so conformable to my sentiment that I have always employed freemen both as Domisticks and Labourers, and never in my Life did I own a Slave. The Abolition of Slavery must be gradual and accomplished with much caution and Circumspection.”

-Excerpt from Adams, John (1735-1826)to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley

Though Adams does note here that there are economic advantages within this institution, his moral compass redirects him in the moral humanitarian direction. Adams was a private man and defined himself a reclusive by nature, his political and personal opinions regarding such a pivotal topic for such a man would take place in a isolated manner, written correspondence between fellow thinkers and family allow for a deeper understanding of the true thoughts of iconic historical figures.

“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…. I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in …abhorrence.” Excerpt from a letter from John Adams to Robert Evans, June 8, 1819

While he was against this ownership, he also saw the challenges which abolition would present. Though he believed that enslavement should be (and in time would certainly be) brought to justice he was adamant it would erupt in the division of the new country. Adams posed that abolition should be done in a gradual process. His concern with a sweeping state of abolition was that it may, “produce greater violations of justice and humanity than the continuance of the practice.” In his response Adams mistakenly noted that slavery was a practice in decline… while records conclude that in 1800 the number of saves had grown by 10,000 between 1790-1800.

Many of Adams’s writings reinforce his stance on the anti-slavery ideology, while making his political priorities apparent. Though we have fondly thought of this founder as a man above the institution of slavery, he made no public effort to persuade the public in his favor. As a Massachusetts lawyer he occasionally defended slaves, but in his political career he chose to reserve outspoken political or civil action. He often utilized the unjust treatment of the African American population as a metaphor for the unjust treatment of the colonies by the British.

“Superstitions and tyrannical dominations oppress mankind all over the World we cannot relieve them all we shall receive with open Arms I hope, all who can seek refuge and protection under our mild Government, And if public charities could be applied to assist emigrants from Slavery to Liberty it would be more usefully employed than in some other enterprises of less promising beneficence—I hope nothing will be done which may embarrass our National Government, sound political prudence ought not to be banished from our deliberations.”

-Excerpt from John Adams to John V.N. Yates, 1 January 1823

There was a growing fear at this time of what may become of the political relationship between the southern colonies and those in the north. Fearing the dissent of the south, Adams opposed the initiative to emancipate slaves who joined the Continental Army, and wrote of his opposition to the use of black soldiers, going as far as to suggest that such a practice would make southerners would “run out there wits at the least hint of such a measure”. In 1777, one year after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Adams was approached by Massachusetts’s legislators who were seeking advice in the planning of gradual abolition of slavery within the state. Adams’ advice, again in fear of the southern reaction, to not even bring the subject up within their legislature.

John Adams strongly believed that slavery had no place in this society, and was adamant that this practice should not expand. When the status of emerging Western territories, such as Missouri, became a question he wished that every constitutional measure be taken to prevent it from entering as a slave state. Adams routinely commented about himself not being well liked or perceived, perhaps this is due to his outspoken nature, and strong headed political, social, and moral beliefs. Though he did not utilize his political stage to rally support for immediate end to this human bondage, he was well aware that this is a complex matter which would require much time and debate to resolve. His thoughts and arguments regarding this era of American and human history surpassed his years, and leave behind evidence that Adams would have played a key role in the abolition process.


Further Reading:

 From John Adams to Robert J. Evans, 8 June 1819


Adams, John (1735-1826) to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley


From John Adams to John V. N. Yates, 1 January 1823


John Adams’s Views of Slavery


Alexander Hamilton

-By Ron Chernow

John Adams: A Life

-By John Ferling


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