ADAMS, JOHN QUINCY Letter to the editors of the Boston Atlas
on slavery and its political ramifications, 18th November, 1842. Quincy: 18th November, 1842, addressed "To the Editors of the Boston Atlas." 10 1/4 x 8 inches (26 x 20 cm); three-page autograph letter in black ink on a folded sheet, signed in full on the third page. Some minor toning, a few small stains, two pierced holes in the left margin from filing just touching the text of two words (with no loss of readability), linen mounting tape from an album in the left margin on the first page (almost certainly removable with minimal impact), small ink number at upper right.
At this time, The Boston Atlas was published as a semi-weekly, under the editorship of William Hayden. It had a Whig bias, and Adams was a frequent contributor, regularly writing letters to the editor for publication. He used it as a platform for his political views. For some years he was much involved with efforts towards the abolition of slavery, and to this end had successfully defended the Mende captives of the Amistad. In February of 1842, the year of this letter, the House had tabled a motion to censure him for antislavery agitation.
The present letter begins with a reference to the speech that he had given, (as representative for Massachusetts's 12th Congressional District) to his constituents in Braintree on September 17, 1842. This was an important three-hour address, as described in his diaries, that was later printed in the Boston Atlas and elsewhere. He notes in this letter that during his speech he had commented on "that compromise in the Constitution of the United States, whereby the House of Representatives is composed of two classes of members, those North of Mason and Dixon's line representing only persons, and those South of that line representing persons, property and slavery." He goes on to decry the disproportionate representation resulting from that now infamous compromise. Apparently he had counted the Commander-in-Chief of the Army among slave-holders in the Braintree address, and he writes to clarify that he had "received a communication from General Scott himself informing me he is not a slave holder..." and that he wishes to rectify this statement.
In the second paragraph he remarks "My statement was made, not with the intention of casting reproach on any one, but for the purpose of inviting the attention of my constituents and of all the people of the free States of this Union to the extreme injustice suffered by them in the distribution of the power of the common government by the silent power of that provision of the Constitution which gives the South in the popular representative assembly of the Nation a representation of property which it denies to the North..." (i.e. the notorious "three-fifths" compromise in article I, section 2, clause 3 of the Constitution).
Adams goes on to discuss how the influence of the South has, in the Senate, impacted the appointments of "Citizens of the Free States to the Offices of the Secretary of State, of Postmaster General, and of Minister to Great Britain. We have especially seen this last officer barely escaping proscription as an abolitionist by the combined opposition of Southern Slavery and Northern Democracy, and we have seen a Southern Member of Congress boasting in a public address to his Constituents that he has received a formal promise from the present Postmaster General that no abolitionist shall ever be appointed Postmaster General."
He goes on to deplore the exclusion of Edward Everett (a fellow Whig and a strong supporter) from public office as exemplary of "the extent of Southern pretension to an exclusive monopoly of all official power in the Government of the United States." This letter is a fine example of Adams's considerable eloquence and forceful argument in the cause of abolition, and the text is a powerful reflection of the growing political divisions between North and South on the issue, one that would ultimately bring civil war. Letters of Adams on the subject of slavery and its abolition are, by any measure, quite rare in commerce, and of great significance.
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