John Quincy Adams Presciently Foretells: Slavery Will End in the United States and Throughout the World

In the last months of his life, the nation’s foremost opponent of slavery states that he will not live to see it

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“I trust it is the future destiny of our Country to accomplish the glorious prophecy of improvement in the condition of Man and the total abolition of Slavery throughout the whole Human race.”

He quotes the Roman author Virgil, writing, “A great order of the ages is born afresh / great eras...

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John Quincy Adams Presciently Foretells: Slavery Will End in the United States and Throughout the World

In the last months of his life, the nation’s foremost opponent of slavery states that he will not live to see it

“I trust it is the future destiny of our Country to accomplish the glorious prophecy of improvement in the condition of Man and the total abolition of Slavery throughout the whole Human race.”

He quotes the Roman author Virgil, writing, “A great order of the ages is born afresh / great eras begin.”

Until the Civil War era, the anti-slavery cause in the United States had no more influential and powerful political advocate than John Quincy Adams. In 1831, after his presidency, John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives where he became known for his passionate anti-slavery advocacy. In 1836, Southern members of Congress got the House to pass a “gag rule” that forbade discussion of slavery in the House of Representatives. Adams fought tirelessly against the gag rule, and in 1844 he finally succeeded in getting it abolished, by a vote of 108 to 80. While the gag rule continued, Adams refused to honor it, finding parliamentary loopholes that allowed him to evade and ignore the ban. His actions (and attempts by others to quiet him) raised questions over the right to hold legislative debates, freedom of speech, and also about the morality of slavery itself. In 1842, Southern members sought to censure him for having spoken out against slavery in the face of a gag rule, but that motion was tabled and killed. During the debate over the censure, Adams said he took delight in the fact that Southerners would forever remember him as “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.”

In the 1841 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. The Amistad, Adams took the political risk of representing Africans charged for their rebellion on the Spanish ship, La Amistad. Around 50 Africans had been kidnapped and transported from Africa to Cuba, where two Spaniards took over and intended to sell them into slavery in America. During the journey, they broke free and killed several crew members, took over the ship, and demanded to sail back to Africa. Instead, the crew took them to New England, where they were jailed. Adams argued before the Supreme Court that that their rebellion was justified; the kidnapped men had the right to fight for their freedom, just as Americans fought for theirs, because every person has the right to be free. The Supreme Court agreed and Adams won the case, providing a landmark legal precedent in the advancement of universal rights.

Letter signed, Quincy, Mass., June 18, 1847, to Massachusetts Representative Julius Rockwell, a political ally, who would later serve in the Senate and on the Massachusetts Superior Court. “I offer you my warmest thanks for your kind letter of the 14th instance. I remained in Washington with my family from the close of the last Congress to the first day of this month, at which time we left that city, and by steamboat and railway, safely reached home on Saturday the 5th. My health has been slowly improving and leaves me some hope of returning to the seat of Government, at the meeting of the 30th Congress next December. Whether it will continue to improve so as to enable me to take an active part in the public deliberations is a more doubtful and more than I dare flatter myself with at present. Were the unimpaired rigor of youth still mine I might hope to devote it at least with ardor to the cause of our Country and of Freedom. A cause needing sacrifices more trying to the Soul, and of deeper devotion than have ever before occurred in our History or in that of the World.”

Adams then quoted two lines in Latin from the fourth Eclogue by Virgil: “Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo, Incipient magni procedere menses” which means “A great order of the ages is born afresh / great eras begin.” He continues, ”The mighty years have begun’ and I trust it is the future destiny of our Country to accomplish the glorious prophecy of improvement in the condition of Man and the total abolition of Slavery throughout the whole Human race.

“That consummation is not to bliss my eyes, nor to delight my ears in my present state of existence. May you live to welcome its approach and contribute to its advancement.”

In all our years in this field, we have never handled a more important letter of Adams on slavery, and have only seen a small handful comparable in quality.

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