Agents in Posterity

January 20, 1820 – September 12, 1821

To pick up a bit of slack, I’m reviewing 10 letters today not 5, and, yes, that covers about 2 years of correspondence.

Having recently watched Lincoln, starring the unmatchable Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s on my mind. (President Lincoln, that is, not Day-Lewis, or wait, vice versa, I’m confused, does it matter?) But let’s back up a moment. There is a reasonable argument that when the Founding Fathers more or less tabled the slavery issue when they crafted the U.S. Constitution, many of them believed that slavery was on its way out and would eventually die a slow, natural death. It made sense, or at least assuaged guilt, for northern delegates to compromise on that issue in the interest of uniting the states under a strong federal government.

On the other hand, from what I’m reading, both Adams and Jefferson pretty much know a civil war over slavery is coming ‘round the mountain. Of course, at this point in time, it’s been over 30 years since the Constitutional Convention, the cotton gin has revolutionized the cotton industry and has been expanding the slave economy since the 1790s, and the Missouri Compromise just welcomed the 13th slave state into the union. If the Founding Fathers did think slavery was on its way out in 1787, the handful still living in 1821 could see that they got it wrong. Here’s Jefferson wringing his hands over slavery:

“The real question, as seen in the states afficted with this unfortunate population, is Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger? For if Congress has a power to regulate the conditions of the inhabitants of the states, within the states, it will be but another exercise of that power to declare that all shall be free. Are we then to see again Athenian and Lacedemonian confederacies? To wage another Peloponnesian war to settle the ascendancy between them? Or is this the tocsin of merely a servile war? That remains to be seen: but not I hope by you or me. Surely they will parley awhile, and give us time to get out of the way.”

As an aside, I didn’t really understand this passage after several readings, but it is amazing how the physical act of writing it down helps my brain work it out; a quick review of Ancient Greece helps too. It seems that for Jefferson, the eventual abolition of slavery is a foregone conclusion (if Congress can decree who’s a slave state and who isn’t, then it has the power to end slavery), so the question is whether that process will be a peaceful one, or if it will result in a war between the states, or, if not a civil war, a sort of revenge war carried out by freed slaves against former masters.

Jefferson then digresses about various South American colonial conflicts (and offering opinions), and closes his letter to John Adams with this: “We must leave both, I believe, to heaven, and wrap ourselves up in the mantle of resignation.”

Here’s JA’s response: “Slavery in this country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a Century. If I were as drunk with enthusiasm as Swedenborg or Westley, I might probably say I had seen Armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in the air, shining in Armour. I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forceing no measure against your judgements. What we are to see, God knows, and I leave it to him, and his agents in posterity.”

Just before that, JA described Swedenborg and Westley as lunatics (what has he got against John Wesley? Geez.), so I know he’s being sarcastic about the marching negroes. Or is he just using sarcasm to soften his shared fears with Southern Gentlemen? Probably. The fear of black uprising/revenge was a big part of denying/resisting/delaying emancipation. But I’m obviously zeroing in on JA’s and TJ’s comments that the slavery problem was coming to a head for “agents in posterity.” That JA and TJ (ages 85 and 77) were ready (and relieved) to leave that battle to future generations is reasonable but also frightening considering the immensity of the task and its demands on a leader who would be born to that time.

The principal agent ended up being Abraham Lincoln, and I think Spielberg’s film drives that point home. Two scenes from Lincoln especially stuck with me. In the first, Lincoln is seated in his office with his cabinet members who have for the most part given up on finding enough House votes to pass the 13th amendment and are openly criticizing Lincoln’s political tactics. Lincoln loses his temper and in so many words tells his cabinet that he’s the President of the United States, “clothed in immense power,” so get those votes and get the hell out of his office (the “Now! Now! Now!” scene featured in some trailers).


In the second scene, Lincoln meets privately (in the White House scullery?) with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical anti-slavery Republican who Lincoln needs to reign in his inflammatory talk of social equality in order to not scare off a few Democrats from voting for the Amendment. It’s a great dialogue, with Stevens lecturing Lincoln about having a moral compass and Lincoln pointing out that you usually don’t get anything done in Congress by sticking to your principles. To me, both scenes showed Lincoln as the agent of abolition, the one who took up the burden that Adams and Jefferson knew someone would have to bear.


I’ll conclude with an appropriate line by John Adams: “But I think a free Government is necessarily a complicated Piece of Machinery, the nice and exact Adjustment of whose Springs and Weights are not yet well comprehended by the Artists of the Age and still less by the People.”

Reminds me of Thaddeus Stevens (played with command in the film by Tommy Lee Jones), who sputters at Lincoln, “Shit on people and what they want and what they’re ready for.” I bet Adams and Stevens would have been friends.


2 thoughts on “Agents in Posterity

  1. “If the Founding Fathers did think slavery was on its way out in 1787, the handful still living in 1821 could see that they got it wrong.”

    I think this an important point and one not well known – having a lot to do with the cotton gin reviving the economics of processing cotton into a valuable commodity

  2. Good point – amazing how what seems inevitable can suddenly change with a change in technology. And now, with technology changing every day… where are we going?

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