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John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 26, 2023 3:00 am

John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 26, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, he was nearly censured, recalled, and was "yesterday's news"...but the golden moment of his career came in his 70s when this last living link to the Founding Fathers stood up in the Supreme Court in support of enslaved Africans. James Traub tells the remarkable life story of John Quincy Adams, a man truly in a party of one.

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Listen to find strength and community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, the story of our sixth president, John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams. Here to tell this remarkable story of service and courage is New York Times Magazine writer and author of the phenomenal book, John Quincy Adams, Militant Spirit, James Traub.

Take it away, James. His father, of course, is John Adams. And John Adams, from the time that John Quincy was very, very young, from the time he was, oh, I don't know, five, four, his father was a man who lived in the nation. His father was one of the leaders of the forces that ultimately rebelled against the British.

And so conversation at home, when his father was home, which he often was not, was not just about family matters as it would be elsewhere, but national matters, the great struggle to first gain autonomy and then, of course, ultimately to break away from England. So he absorbed this atmosphere of high-mindedness, heroism, patriotism, struggle from his father. But his mother was also quite extraordinary. Abigail, John Adams' wife, was the daughter of a very prominent minister. She was herself a much more orthodox Christian than John Adams was, but she was also very well read.

Her father and her father's brother had just put a lot of books in her hands. And so she was a very smart, very thoughtful person, a certain kind of proto-feminist. She had befriended many of the most important women of her day and was equally, of course, a patriot who believed deeply in the sacrifice that her husband was engaging in. So from the very first, Adams absorbed this notion that your life lay at the disposal of your country.

That's what it was for. You were, above all, a citizen. And the ambitions that you would hold most deeply were ambitions to serve your country. So when he is seven, the Revolutionary War in 1774 begins the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Bunker Hill. And Bunker Hill, Adams grew up in Quincy, south of Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill was in Dorchester, north of Boston. And there was a hill near home that apparently you could walk up and see all the way across Boston Harbor to Dorchester.

And so his mother took John, John Quincy, up to the top of this hill in the middle of the battle. And they could see smoke, flame. I'm sure they couldn't have seen very much else.

Maybe they could have seen British ships riding at anchor. But he watched, he watched this battle. And in the course of the battle, which was in many ways an incredible success by a vastly outnumbered American soldiers, his beloved family doctor and the great patriot Joseph Warren was killed. And this was something that he never forgot about his whole life. And Adams could be incredibly dogmatically hostile to the British.

And he would have told you there were many good reasons for that. But certainly some part of it traces back to this early moment, the patriotism that he felt, the hatred he felt for the British who had killed this beloved family member, the lullabies with which his mother would rock him to sleep, poems from the Irish rebellion against the British, which themselves glorified sacrifice in the name of patriotism and principle. When he is 10, in early 1778, the revolution is now broken out.

The United States is seriously outgunned. The Continental Congress decides to send John Adams to France in order to get help from the French, because the French were the inveterate enemies of English. And so his father thought this is the kind of opportunity that Johnny needs. And maybe his father just thought, I need company.

I need someone to be with me. And so he basically said to Abigail, I'm taking him with me, though he was 10 years old. And so this little boy grew up in a moment. And his father could not have been prouder of him. He said later in letters that he never, little Johnny never whimpered, soon was clambering all over the ship, came to know the names, befriended all of the shipmates and began to learn French. And once he got there to Paris, he was his father's, well, I mean, he was kind of his father's companion. His father sent him to school.

He became completely francophone. His father later moved to Holland because he was trying to get loans from the Dutch. And Johnny went to school in Leiden.

I mean, he was going to Leiden was a great university. And he was going there when he was 13. And his father would say, tell me, who's teaching you geometry? Who's teaching you this?

Who's teaching you that? And he would he would write letters in which he explained all this. He was it was both an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary experience falling on an extraordinary mind that led to this remarkable young person when he was not quite 14. The United States sent a young man named Francis Dean to St. Petersburg in the hope that Catherine the Great would take their side, which was really it just shows how poor their information was.

She obviously thought that any kind of republic was a danger to her. So she never received him. But Dean wanted to have someone come with him, someone who spoke perfect French. And so his father said, well, I know just the person, my son. And so little Johnny then spent a year in Russia.

They didn't really do anything because they weren't received. He read enormous amounts. He walked around St. Petersburg. He wrote long letters home.

He was fascinated by everything he saw. And then he came back to a Paris where his father finally came in order to sign the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. And so what this meant is that with a very brief interval from age 10 to age 17, this young fellow lived all over Europe in the great courts of Europe. And you're listening to author James Traub tell one heck of a story.

What an adventure at the age of 10 to be hauled across the ocean and to be in on one of the great historical moments of all time. As James said, John Quincy Adams grew up in a moment. When we come back, more of the story of John Quincy Adams, as told by James Traub here on Our American Stories. Ali Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

Stories from our big cities and small towns. But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to OurAmericanStories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to our American stories and the story of John Quincy Adams. Telling the story is author James Traub, author of John Quincy Adams' Militant Spirit. When we last left off, James was telling us about what life was like growing up as the son of one of America's foremost patriots. He traveled Europe, lived through history, and eventually became his father's personal secretary at the end of the Revolutionary War when he was a mere teenager. Let's return to the story.

Here again is James Traub. At this point, he is a thoroughly sophisticated, brilliant young man, and maybe it wouldn't have been so extraordinary to have a 17-year-old doing that, but he was just an exceptionally elegant one. He was a very elegant gentleman, completely comfortable with people far older than he.

He hardly ever had had a friend his own age. He only knew people much older than he was, and so he and his father would talk about affairs of state, which they had been doing for all of these years. His father had become his teacher in so many ways, and he had absorbed so much, and we should bear in mind that this is the rare example of an extraordinarily brilliant person having an extraordinarily brilliant son. I don't know which of the two was the more intellectually gifted, but his father was a very, very brilliant man, and so what a teacher to have. And indeed, when Johnny decided, when the family decided, because finally at the very end of this period, Abigail came with the other kids, and they were all together, and it was decided that when the treaty was signed, they would all go home and Johnny would, of course, enroll in Harvard, as his father had. His father was able to recall the calculus that he learned in high school or college many years earlier in order to tutor Johnny in calculus and in everything else, so far as I can tell.

So it was a very close, very loving relationship. But then he also had to live. He had to figure out what to do with himself. What kind of person was he? How was a person such as he to make a living? I don't think he ever thought about the ministry, for example.

He was just too, I think, intellectually fiery a person for any kind of retired profession. He had this notion in his mind of glory, of greatness, of serving the infant republic. The word ambition would be thought of negatively as vanity and greed unless it was channeled into the ambition to serve. That's still ambition, of course, and we would say that's just a different stripe of it.

But these men with this vision of ancient Rome in their head, thinking about Cicero and Cato, Seneca, these great figures who would serve the republic, this is what they aspire to do. And so the notion that this little boy would be the president of this new country someday didn't seem like an unworthy or ridiculous ambition. The presidency was a far smaller thing then, of course, than it is today.

That was always in his head. Now, that doesn't mean that John Quincy Adams thought of himself as a politician. He didn't, and of course, politics was a new thing.

It hadn't been invented yet. And so he assumed he'd become a lawyer. Almost all of these men were lawyers.

All of that first generation, not Washington but the others, had all trained as lawyers. His father was one of the most famous lawyers in America. And so Johnny dutifully went to Harvard, which, by the way, was the first time really he'd ever had friends his own age, and he loved it. It was one of the few times in his life that I think he was really happy. So basically hung around with his friends and then graduated and apprenticed himself to a lawyer in Haverhill, which is a town in Massachusetts, and became a practicing lawyer, which made him quite miserable. He hated doing it.

He had trouble making money. And then he began to write. He began to write essays. He began to write essays about the theater.

He had loved plays in the time he was a little boy because he would go to plays when he was in France. And he was opposed to the Puritan idea that theater was corrupting and theater should be closed. But then he wrote much more serious things. He wrote a very important series of essays. So when Thomas Paine came out with his second book, Common Sense, the Adamses and other conservative New Englanders were horrified at Paine's justification for revolution. This was right after the French Revolution, and Paine essentially took the position that whenever a people feels dissatisfied with the government, they should have the right to overthrow it, which Adam's father and son were horrified by. And so John Quincy thought, I think he probably thought, here's my moment.

Here's the moment when I can show my colors to the world. Although in those days one didn't sign essays. You would give them a Roman name and people would come to know who it was, but you wouldn't sign them. And so a series of essays under the name Publicola, or Publicola, my Latin is no good, appeared, attacking, brilliantly attacking Paine's essay, which everybody thought were written by John Adams. Jefferson thought they were written by John Adams, but in fact they were written by John Quincy Adams. And this kind of established him as an important thinking young person, a gifted young person, so that when George Washington, in his second term, was looking to appoint an ambassador to the Netherlands in 1794, he chose a young John Quincy Adams, then age 27, and this was the beginning of Adams's diplomatic career. So Adams is already a senior member of what was a very tiny diplomatic corps, and really becomes the most senior member. So even when he is young, his dispatches home are so brilliant, because they're not only about Holland, they're really about Europe, and above all about the gathering threat of France, especially as Napoleon gains power.

Everybody wanted to read them. So first Washington read them when he was president, and then his father, who became president in 1797, would read them, and Adams would write these diplomatic dispatches, and then he would write private letters for his father only, which are more, they're more personal, but they also have sharper observations about the European scene. And so he got a series of appointments. He was appointed the ambassador in Berlin, and he got married, he had his first child, he then came back home, and decided first to run for the Massachusetts state legislature, and then became a senator.

In those days it was a state legislature that appointed you a senator. And according to an end very quickly, if you read JFK's Profiles in Courage, you would find that the first chapter, which is about political courage, is about John Quincy Adams. And the thing that Kennedy cites is the moment in 1807 and 1808, when President Jefferson was imposing an embargo on the British, because British ships in American territorial waters were aborting American ships and impressing sailors, which is the word they used for basically taking, kidnapping those people and impressing them into the British navy. And so Jefferson felt he wanted to avoid war. He had no choice but to impose an embargo in order to persuade the British to stop.

Well, this was a catastrophe for New England, whose economy depended on merchant ships, and every single member of the New England delegation to the house opposed the embargo, except for Adams. Now, Adams knew that this was politically suicide. You can't do that. But he said, I will do it. And he said, it is my responsibility not simply to listen to my constituents, but to save them from their own delusions. Now, imagine a politician saying that today.

It would be unthinkable. But it was actually pretty shocking even then. And indeed, Adams was subject to a recall by the Massachusetts state legislature, an event that would have been humiliating for almost anyone. For Adams, it was a badge of honor. And he wore his own resignation. He was fired with pride. That's the way he was.

I think he knew that he was doing right when everybody was telling him he was doing wrong. This wish to have a noble, solitary, embattled position, a weird kind of egotism, was very deep in him. And I think probably imbued by his father, who in turn was channeling the Romans. Our first generation of leaders was all very imbued with the example of noble Roman martyrs. And Adams had a kind of yearning for heroic martyrs. And you've been listening to author James Traub when we come back.

More of the remarkable life story of John Quincy Adams here on Our American Stories. Same. But for me, it was kind of like wishing away my taxes. I've thought about trying medication for my anxiety before, but I don't know where to start. I've got you. Through hers, you can get a prescription 100% online if a medical professional determines it's right for you. And through the hers app, you can message them at any time. There shouldn't be a stigma about taking medication for anxiety. Start your free assessment today at forhers.com slash care. That's forhers.com slash C-A-R-E. Prescriptions require an online consultation with a healthcare provider who will determine if appropriate. Restrictions apply.

See website for details and important safety information. Subscription required. Controlled substances like Adderall are not available through the hers platform. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis, from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Explore scenes from Music Choice Relax and jam all June with iHeartRadio's Songs of the Summer Radio. Discover new shows and movies for free, no strings attached.

Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to Our American Stories and the story of John Quincy Adams. Telling the story is author James Traub, and his book John Quincy Adams, Militant Spirit, is a must read.

Go to Amazon or the usual suspects, wherever you buy your books. Pick up John Quincy Adams again, Militant Spirit. When we last left off, John Quincy Adams had gone into politics despite not considering himself by any standard a politician. Actually, there was almost no such thing at the time.

This was an early type of career. This mindset ended up getting him recalled from his seat in Congress. Nevertheless, he'd end up becoming Secretary of State under James Monroe. Let's return to the story.

Here again is James Traub. In those days, the way you became president is you were Secretary of State. That had been true of almost all of his predecessors. So this was now, he was now one step away from the presidency. He was, I think without any question, the most qualified Secretary of State in history.

Not only until then, that was very short history, but after then. So Adams was this really preeminent diplomatic figure, and the presidency was the inevitable only, really, next step. And so Adams, you can't say ran. In those days, you said stood. Adams stood for the presidency.

And the reason you didn't say ran is because that implies, of course, that you're doing something. And at that time, it was considered wrong to do anything, at least in public. And Adams being Adams, he wouldn't even do anything in private. So his friends would fan out across the country. They would buy the services of sympathetic newspaper editors, things like that. That was a done thing in those days.

Adams gave them no help whatsoever. And in 1824, he was elected president. His presidency failed in a way that is absolutely connected to this political courage that John F. Kennedy talked about. It's worth noting that John F. Kennedy himself would never have committed suicide, political suicide, in the name of his principles. And for that matter, neither would any practicing politician, because your job is to get something done. And so it's admirable in a human way, but really not very admirable for a politician.

Well, Adams wasn't a politician, and he didn't accept the idea of compromise. And so in his very first inaugural address, he laid out a profoundly ambitious agenda of what he called internal improvements. We would say things like infrastructure. But they included the national university. They included scientific innovations.

They included the creation of a naval university to go along with West Point. All sorts of things for which there was no constituency. That's not why he had gotten elected. And Clay and others said, don't do this.

You have no chance of winning. And Adams said, well, I don't care, because if it's not for this moment, then it's for future generations. Well, he was right. And so Adams accomplished virtually nothing as president. Really, he had never had a time when he had been so ineffective and probably had never had a time when he'd been so miserable. And so when the election came around again, Jackson just annihilated him. Adams never had a chance. And he really wasn't a popular figure.

It's not as if there was an unfair outcome. America was a Jacksonian country. And Adams was, he was an intensively self-scrutinizing person. And I don't mean that in our modern sense, analyzing his own motives as we would all do in a post-Freud world.

It was much more moral than that. He was constantly holding himself up to a standard of honesty and clarity and truthfulness and holding up everybody else. They all failed his rarified standards.

So the journals are full of harsh judgments, but also of himself, of himself as a failure, of himself as unable to reach the high standards his parents had set for him. Adams represented the spirit of old New England, the line, back to the founders. Well, that wasn't America anymore. That country didn't exist anymore.

And so Adams was a kind of defunct figure. He went back home and he wrote poetry. I mean, amazingly, he wrote a poetic epic about medieval Irish resistance against English tyranny.

Obviously a kind of metaphor for the American Revolution. He wrote in his diary and planted his trees and thought, all right, this is the rest of my life. He was not a young man. He was already, let's think, 33.

He was already 62. And so people came to him and said, you know, there's an open seat in the house and we think you should run. And Adams basically said, well, I'll do it as long as there's not really going to be any competition. And they said, we'll make sure there isn't. And there wasn't. And so he ran. So he rejoins the house in 1833, and it's not clear to him what large enough task there is to justify the president of the United States becoming a member of the house.

And then there is. And then there is because of slavery. There were many other things that he did in the Congress. For example, he was one of the leading voices opposing the Mexican-American war. Many things he did. But the thing that made him a great man in the eyes of people who previously had considered him a relic, you know, just a kind of admirable but but irrelevant figure was slavery.

And so that is where he made his his great mark. It was very easy if you were a northerner in the 1820s and 30s to not think about slavery. Any decent person thought it was monstrous, but you would just say, we don't live that way. We don't have slaves. That's the south. And so there was a widespread willingness to essentially put the issue of slavery aside in order to deal with the nation's business.

And Adams could very well have been such a person, but he wasn't. And the first time this really comes up is when he's secretary of state in 1820. And this is the first time when the United States faces the problem of admitting new states as to whether they will be slave or free.

And each one of these provokes a kind of Donnybrook. And so in 1820, there was what was called the Missouri Compromise, which had many elements. But the central one was Missouri was let in as a slave state and Maine was let in as a free state. And so this led to a lot of conversation in the cabinet. The minister of war was John Calhoun, who, of course, later became the great champion of the state's rights justification for slavery.

And so they had a debate. And afterwards, Adams and Calhoun walk away and talk at great length. And Calhoun was a brilliant man.

He was the only person in Monroe's cabinet who Adams regarded as an equal. He was a much younger man than Adams. And Adams writes in his diary afterwards. He describes this long walk in the conversation he had with Calhoun. And he says that he had never understood until then how slavery corrupts the master as well as debasing the slave. That for him to listen to Calhoun justify slavery in language that Adams found appalling and also probably illogical, made him think that this thing was a disease that was eating away at the vitals of the republic.

That thought was there. And then it went away as president. He had nothing to do with it in his early years of Congress. He had nothing to do with it.

The issue didn't present itself. And then it did. And you've been listening to James Traub tell one heck of a story. John Quincy Adams rise from secretary of state to the presidency and then to return to Congress, because there was an issue lurking in American life that was slavery. And Adams would rise to the occasion when we come back.

More of this remarkable story, the story of John Quincy Adams here on our American stories. Hi, I'm Kristen Bell. Getting help from my anxiety made me feel like myself again, but we have all sorts of reasons for putting off taking care of ourselves. I thought I could just keep pushing through my depression symptoms.

Let's push through dinner with the in-laws, not life. I don't want medication to change who I am. Understood. But what if it helps you feel like yourself again? I hoped my depression would just go away after a while. Same.

But for me, it was kind of like wishing away my taxes. I've thought about trying medication for my anxiety before, but I don't know where to start. I've got you. Through hers, you can get a prescription 100% online if a medical professional determines it's right for you. And through the hers app, you can message them at any time. There shouldn't be a stigma about taking medication for anxiety. Start your free assessment today at 4hrs.com slash care.

That's 4hrs.com slash C-A-R-E. Prescriptions require an online consultation with a healthcare provider who will determine if appropriate. Restrictions apply. See website for details and important safety information. Subscription required.

Controlled substances like Adderall are not available through the hers platform. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis, from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Week after week, Xfinity Flex unlocks access to premium networks and apps, so you can try fresh entertainment for free each and every week. Catch the season premiere of Outlander from Starz. Journey through the sounds of Black Music Month with pics from Lifetime Movie Club and Revolt. Celebrate Pride Month with stories from OutTV and HearTV. Then kick back with nature scenes from Music Choice Relax and jam all June with iHeartRadio's Songs of the Summer radio. Discover new shows and movies for free, no strings attached.

Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on John Quincy Adams. Telling it is James Traub, author of John Quincy Adams' Militant Spirit.

Let's pick up where we last left off. Now by 1835, there was a real anti-slavery movement in the United States. And so the way that the anti-slavery movement tried to move public opinion is they sent petitions to Congress, and the Constitution guarantees the right of petition. They would send them to their Congressmen and most Congressmen would just dispose of them because they knew that the South would never allow them to be introduced. Adams, however, who was passionately opposed to slavery but maybe even more passionately a defender of the United States Constitution and its principles, said, how can we deny people the right of petition?

It's a fundamental right. We don't think about it today because we have so many other means of making our voices heard through lobbies and political contributions and so forth. In those days, there was no other means where citizens could have their voices heard. And so Adams would insist on presenting these petitions. And the Southerners would shout him down because they would have a vote at the beginning of each term that would say, we will not allow petitions about slavery to be received by the House. And Adams knew that, and so he would find some sly way of presenting a petition as if it were not about slavery, when in fact it was, and when that became clear there would be an uproar and a hubbub, and if you read the congressional record from that time you can hear the Speaker of the House telling Adams to sit down and then Adams sitting down and he pops up again after a minute and says something else and the uproar starts again.

This went on and on until Adams so enraged the South that they moved to have him censured. And Adams could not have been happier. This was what he dreamed of.

This is what he loved. Himself standing alone against the slaveocracy, as he called it. And he beat them. He beat them. It was Adams by himself.

Nobody else would take his side. He defeated the censure motion. And this was the first time, but not the only time, it happened again when he, knowing full well what he was doing, he introduced a petition. He was just reading a petition and he read the petition from citizens of Massachusetts, his constituents, which called for a dissolution of the union. Of course, what happened when the South seceded 20 years later? Well, this was a provocation.

It was intended to be one and it worked. And so even though the South, they all knew six years earlier they had humiliated themselves by taking on this man, it happened again. And once again, this time Adams had plenty of assistance. There were lots of other anti-slavery people who stood with him and helped him do research and stood by his side and tried to keep him fed. And the chief prosecutor of the Southern case made the terrible mistake of accusing Adams of treason. This was just catnip for Adams.

He loved this because he knew very well that he hadn't committed treason. Actually, I'll just read a little passage because Adams is standing up there after this guy has said, you know, I've accused you of treason. And this guy, Thomas Marshall, was the attorney general of Kentucky. He was the nephew, I believe, of John Marshall, the great Supreme Court justice. People thought that he was a very important figure. Adams viewed him with utter contempt. And this is just to give you a sense of the way Adams talked. He said, the Constitution of the United States says what high treason is and it is not for him, meaning Marshall, or his puny mind to define what high treason is and to confound it with what I have done.

He then suggested that Marshall attend some law school in order to learn a little of the rights of the citizens of these states and the members of this house. Well, very soon the South realized they'd made a terrible mistake again and they withdrew the censure petition. So the Amistad was a slave ship. It was an illegal slave ship because the slave trade had been eliminated as of 1817. But it kept going in a clandestine way, and so in this case, these were slaves who had been taken from West Africa, brought to Cuba, where slavery still existed, rebranded as Cuban slaves, as Cubans, and then sent to the South. The slaves mutinied, they killed several people, and then they told the captain, who was still around, to steer them to Africa, which he didn't do.

And instead he actually wound up steering them to Long Island, where the ship was sighted and taken. And then, this is 1839, then a very complicated set of court cases ensued. And Adams learned about this, and of course immediately took the side of the slaves and wrote to the anti-slavery people who were funding the defense of the slaves.

But that was it. And then they came to him, and they said, we need you to take up the defense of the Amistad slaves in the Supreme Court. The case had gotten to the Supreme Court, and Adams, who hadn't appeared before the Supreme Court in 30, I think, three or four years, agreed. The moment he agreed, Adams was an all-consuming person.

He would never do something halfway, and so he threw himself into this. And it was a very complicated case, because the slaves were, from the point of view of slave owners, they were not people. They were things.

They were merchandise. And even though it was clear and admitted that they had been brought there illegally, they were not Cuban, they had violated the law, nevertheless, they were still being claimed as merchandise, and the owners of the ship wanted to be compensated. If the slaves were going to be free, they were going to be compensated.

They kept insisting that the slaves really were chattel. And so Adams immersed himself in the precedent of the case and the facts of the case. Now, today, when you argue a case before the Supreme Court, you start speaking, and after 10 words, one of the justices interrupts you, and you never get to say what you planned on saying, but you do your best to get your argument out. Most of the important stuff is really in the written material that's submitted to the court. It didn't work like that in those days.

The justices didn't ask questions. You stood up and you presented the case. Adams presented a nine-hour case over the course of two days about the facts and about the law and about the history. So here he was. He was a 73-year-old figure. He was the last living wink to the Founding Fathers, a president and the son of a president. And so he addressed the justices as an equal and perhaps in certain respects almost superior of theirs. And so maybe I'll just read the very end because, again, you get a feeling of his language.

He spoke of Justice Marshall, the very first justice, and all of the figures whom he had known as a young man. And he said, where are they all? Gone. Gone.

All gone. Gone from the services which in their day and generation they faithfully rendered to their country. And now he's standing in the well of the Supreme Court and there are tears pouring down his face.

There's a gallery that's sitting there in dead silence. And he says, from the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I've had the means of knowing, I humbly hope and fondly trust that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high in taking then my final leave of this bar and of this honorable court. I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to heaven that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead. And that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence, Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.

That's how he ended. And this court, virtually all of whose members were slave owners, who had been appointed by slave owners, ruled unanimously for the Amistad slaves. It was the greatest victory to date of the anti-slavery movement. It was galvanizing.

It was national and international news. It was an astonishing and thrilling moment. And a terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to James Traub, author of John Quincy Adams' Militant Spirit. And by the way, they say that history can inspire or that history is boring.

And we disagree. That's why we do this show. It's people like James Traub who can bring history alive. The remarkable story of John Quincy Adams returning to the well of the Congress after being the president, to champion anti-slavery and the highest moment of his life in his 70s, in a nine-hour, two-day argument before the Supreme Court, wins the case in favor of the slaves on the ship Amistad. What a story. What a life.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-26 16:35:17 / 2023-06-26 16:53:00 / 18

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