Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

November 7, 1819 – December 21, 1819

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Congress are about to assemble and the Clouds look Black and thick, Assembling from all points, threatening thunder and Lightning. The Spanish Treaty, the Missouri Slavery, the encouragement of Manufactures Act, the plague of Banks, perhaps even the Monument for Washington, and above all the bustle of Caucuses for the approaching Election for President and Vice President…”

Cue talking head: “This is the most important election of our time…”

I’ve been keeping track and here, in letter #336, is the first appearance of the word “slavery” (or any derivation). “Missouri Slavery” refers to the debate over Missouri’s application for statehood and whether it should be admitted as a slave state. Here’s a brief summary of the Missouri Compromise, courtesy of the Library of Congress:

“The Senate debated the admission of Maine and Missouri from February 8 through February 17, 1820. On February 16, the Senate agreed to unite the Maine and Missouri bills into one bill. The following day the Senate agreed to an amendment that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line, except for Missouri, and then agreed to the final version of the bill by a vote of 24 to 20. After rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, the House of Representatives passed a bill on March 1, that admitted Missouri without slavery. On March 2, after a House-Senate conference agreed to the Senate’s version, the House voted 90 to 87 to allow slavery in Missouri and then voted 134 to 42 to prohibit slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.”

In other words, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Territory.

Here’s the Louisiana Territory (purchased by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803):


Here’s the Missouri Compromise, 1820:

Missouri Compromise

Some connection points: Missouri Compromise repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, allowing states to choose slavery or no slavery>>>>Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, 1857, also denying black citizenship and allowing slavery in all territories>>>>Civil War begins, 1861.

But I digress.

Here’s TJ’s response to JA: “The banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty are nothing. These are occurences which like waves in a storm will pass under the ship. But the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God knows. From the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question. It even damps the joy with which I hear of your high health, and welcomes to me the consequences of my want of it. I thank god that I shall not live to witness it’s issue.”

After this reflection, TJ drops the subject and shifts to an extended philosophizing about the virtue (or lack of virtue) of ancient Roman leaders. What should I make of this?

A) Jefferson is more interested in ancient Roman history than the current American slavery question.
B) Jefferson would rather enjoy his retirement than get into it with John Adams about the American slavery question.
C) Don’t make anything of anything until you read additional sources, not just a collection of personal letters between two friends.

Let’s consult Joseph E. Ellis once again (because American Creation is the only relevant book sitting on my shelf at the moment and I’ve underlined important passages so that I don’t have to rely on Internet searches that will inevitably end three hours later with the answers to why I should become a vegan, how I’m poisoning my children with artificial dye additives, and how many hours William and Kate have been pregnant):

What came to be called the Missouri Question was triggered by an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri into the union that made the prohibition of slavery a condition of statehood. . . Jefferson’s position was that the issue ought to remain in the shadows or, shifting his metaphors, should be allowed to pass “like waves in a storm pass under a ship.” But as the debate in Congress heated up, and it became clear that this particular wave possessed the potential to capsize the entire ship of state, Jefferson unburdened himself. An old colleague from presidential days who visited him at Monticello described Jefferson as obsessed with the Missouri Question, gesturing dramatically as he walked his fields, warning that this was the one issue that could lead to civil war, the end of the republican experiment with self-government, eventually to “a war of extermination toward the African in our land.”

The layers of Jefferson’s thoughts on the Missouri Question are onion-like (or parfait-like). Every president up to Lincoln had to deal with the slavery problem in some way, and the solution was always to put it off, avoid conflict, preserve the union for the time being. Ellis presents the fascinating argument that Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory “provided the last realistic opportunity for the United States to implement a policy of gradual emancipation,” which would avoid a seemingly inevitable civil war. If Jefferson had made the prohibition of slavery a component of the purchase, the subsequent revenue earned by the federal government from the sale of land to western settlers could have compensated “slave-owners south of the Potomac and east of the Mississippi, who would free their slaves on an agreed-upon schedule.”

This didn’t happen. And it was probably on Jefferson’s mind as the latest slavery dilemma came to a head with Missouri.

I’m trying to keep in mind that these are personal letters between Jefferson and Adams, obviously not a complete or even accurate historical record. But I am surprised that slavery appears to be a taboo issue. I suppose today’s parallel could be abortion. Such a contentious and morally heavy issue isn’t something you’re going to “get into” with just anyone, even a good friend, particularly if you aren’t on the same page (TJ and JA were both publicly opposed to slavery, but TJ owned slaves, Adams didn’t). Like slavery in 19th-century America, abortion today is an intractable issue, raising questions about human equality (or definition) and moral responsibility that divide the country. It’s an issue that is front and center in the courts, Congress, and daily life, yet at the same time is an elephant in the room, an inappropriate conversation topic at the water cooler, around the dinner table, or in a presidential debate (at least an honest conversation). Without drawing inappropriate parallels to the Civil War, I  wonder how or if this issue will ever be resolved.

Maybe the silence between TJ and JA on slavery shouldn’t be surprising after all. After reading 336 of their letters, and considering their up-and-down relationship, I wouldn’t characterize them as close friends. They share common and momentous experiences, bonding as two soldiers might during war time. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to share everything. There are different kinds of friendship. This ain’t one of those.


History: Hopeless Pursuit or Holy Grail Adventure?

June 20, 1815 – August 24, 1815

Adams to Jefferson and Thomas McKean: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it? The most essential documents, the debates and deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever.”

Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were still alive in 1815: Adams, Jefferson, Thomas McKean, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. I don’t know why Carroll of Carrollton didn’t get a letter, too. I will assume nothing more than that he and Adams weren’t buds. Carroll of Carrollton, yes that’s how he signed his name. How long did it take before that became a running joke at the Continental Congress? “I now give the floor to the distinguished delegate from Maryland, Charles Carroll . . . yes, Carroll. Charlie Carroll? Of Carrollton, Charles Carrollton, I mean Carroll, of Carrollton. Carol’s son? No, I mean, I don’t know, maybe. Charlie, what’s your ma’s name? No, Mr. Washington, it’s Elizabeth, the wife of Charles Carroll. No, she’s his mother. Charles Carroll is her husband. This is Charles Carroll of Carrollton, her son. Yes, the Catholic. Sorry, sir, I should have said that to begin with. Ha ha, no other papists here, sir, that’s for sure. Charles Carroll of Carrollton the Catholic, the floor is yours.”

That awful excuse for humor rests upon the premise that George Washington is deaf and senile, I know.

I’ve successfully sidetracked myself from discussing the obvious question of whether we can truly know history or whether it is like a star in the night sky that is impossible to see except peripherally. I buzzed through American Creation again to see if Joseph J. Ellis verifies Adams’s comment or if some secret documents have been discovered between 1815 and now. Here’s what he says:

“No true history of that fateful time would ever be written, Adams insisted, because the most important conversations occurred ‘out of doors’ in local taverns and coffeehouses. What’s more, the official record of the deliberations imposed a misleading gloss of coherence over the congressional proceedings, concealing the messy confusion that reigned supreme for all the delegates, himself included. Any coherent narrative of the deliberations must necessarily falsify the way it really was for all the participants, who were improvising without a script in a historical drama without a known conclusion.”

So, no secret documents. Depending on your personality, or need to prove a point based on history, this could be a discouraging or exhilarating thought. Here’s Ellis again:

“Adams was making a serious, perhaps even profound, point: namely, that retrospective history—that is, history viewed with the benefit of hindsight—is invariably neater and tidier than history experienced by those making it. But since hindsight is the only interpretive tool historians have at their disposal…”

Ellis obviously isn’t aware of Pastwatch, but I digress. (For all of you Orson Scott Card fans.)

John Adams, President

April 6, 1796 – March 24, 1801

These five letters span a presidency. In the 1796 election JA succeeded George Washington by beating TJ 71-68 (in electoral votes). As the second place finisher TJ automatically got to be vice president (Thomas Pinckney came in third with 59, but who the hell cares). They pretty much did not speak for the next 4 years, and then TJ won the rematch 73-65. (Actually, Aaron Burr got 73 votes too, which led to House of Representatives shenanigans to decide the winner, which ended up being TJ—whatevs.)

"President John Adams"
From the collection of the
Connecticut Historical Society

The letters here weren’t even written during JA’s presidency, just before and after. Let’s highlight three of them.

The first is a letter of congratulations from TJ to JA, which TJ never even sent in the end—another knock on his character, if you ask me. I only bring it up because of this line:

TJ to JA: “I devoutly wish you may be able to shun for us this war by which our agriculture, commerce and credit will be destroyed. If you are, the glory will be all your own; and that your administration may be filled with glory and happiness to yourself….”

This was interesting to me in light of Joseph Ellis’s comment in American Creation: “Adams took considerable delight in committing political suicide by refusing to fight a popular war with France in 1799, a decision that led to his defeat in 1800 but that he forever regarded as the finest moment of his presidency.” It’s hard not to love this guy. Ellis calls him “the last of a classical breed.”

The next letter comes four years later. JA to TJ: “In order to save you the trouble and Expense of purchasing Horses and Carriages, which will not be necessary, I have to inform you that I shall leave in the stables of the United States seven Horses and two Carriages with Harness and Property of the United States. These may not be suitable for you: but they will certainly save you a considerable Expense as they belong to the studd of the President’s Household.” Keepin’ it classy, JA.

The third letter defies the tone of this post up to now, but that is life. At the White House, President Jefferson received a letter addressed to JA, and passed it along to him at his home in Quincy, MA. JA responds: “Had you read the Papers inclosed they might have given you a moment of melancholly or at least Sympathy with a mourning Father. They relate wholly to the Funeral of a Son who was once the delight of my Eyes and a darling of my heart, cutt off in the flower of his days, amidst very flattering Prospects by causes which have been the greatest Grief of my heart and the deepest affliction of my Life. It is not possible that any thing of the kind should hapen to you, and I sincerely wish you may never experience any thing in any degree resembling it.”

Anyone who has seen HBO’s John Adams may remember JA’s alcoholic son, Charles, who died on November 30, 1800, at the age of 30. Sadly, four years later TJ did experience a similar loss with the death of his daughter, Mary, at the age of 25. I mentioned her visit with the Adams in London in a previous post.

Politics and trivia suddenly fade at the loss of a loved one.

I’m a Farmer Too! Or, The Anti-Jefferson Post

May 11, 1794 – May 27, 1795

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I am glad to find you so well pleased with your Retirement. I felt the same delightful Satisfaction after my Return from Europe, and I feel still every Summer upon my little farm all the Ardour, and more than all the Ardour of youth: to such a Degree that I cannot bear the thought of writing or reading, unless it be some trifle to fill up a vacant half hour.”

JA to TJ: “I have spent my Summer so deliciously in farming that I return to the old Story of Politicks with great Reluctance. The Earth is grateful. You find it so, I dare say. I wish We could both say the Same of its Inhabitants.”

TJ to JA: “We have had a hard winter and backward spring. This injured our wheat so much that it cannot be made a good crop by all the showers of heaven which are now falling down on us exactly as we want them. Our first cutting of clover is not yet begun. Strawberries not ripe till within this fortnight, and every thing backward in proportion. What with my farming and my nail manufactory I have my hands full. I am on horseback half the day, and counting and measuring nails the other half. I am trying potatoes on a large scale as a substitute for Indian corn for feeding animals.”

JA to TJ: “If I had Your Plantation and your Labourers* I should be tempted to follow your example and get out of the Fumum et Opes Strepitumque Romae [“the smoke, the wealth, the din of Rome”] which I abominate.”

Joseph J. Ellis in American Creation: “Incantations of virtuous retirement to rural solitude were a familiar and even formulaic refrain, especially within the planter aristocracy of Virginia. The classical models of Cicero and Cincinnatus provided the script, which Jefferson’s principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of politics to the pastoral serenity of Monticello fit perfectly.”

Noble farmers willing to give it up for absolute power.
"Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship" by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1806.

Whose brilliant idea was it to read American Creation as commentary alongside the A-J Letters? You’re welcome. The benefit is the added ability to include some meaningful context to the correspondence. The problem, besides TMI, is what I might call the rabbit hole of historical revelation. This reveals this, which reveals that, which clarifies that, which debunks this, which proves this, which misconstrues that. Where does it end? How many times do I need to acknowledge a caveat of historical ignorance? Maybe every post….

Anyway, where I’m heading is that during TJ’s secretary of state term, his subsequent “retirement,” and the sparse A-J correspondence during the 1790s, Jefferson is doing a lot more than just negotiating Native American sovereignty, as mentioned in the previous post. Essentially he is trying to undermine President Washington’s (and Adams’s) administration and establish the first official opposition party to the Federalists. Ellis lays this story out in his book and Jefferson comes out looking pretty bad. I won’t get into it much deeper than that except for two long but impressive quotes from Ellis.

First, a little more background: Jefferson and James Madison allied to establish the Democratic-Republican party, who feared a too-strong federal government, manifested most clearly in the proposed First Bank of the United States championed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The national bank was established by Congress in 1791; TJ & Co. declared it unconstitutional.** Now here’s Ellis:

“It was not just the bank itself, then, that terrified Madison and his fellow Virginians, though that source of dread was real enough. It was the open-ended definition of federal power on which the bank was authorized, which in effect gave the federal government a roving mandate to extend its authority wherever it wished, to include the thoroughly vulnerable issue of slavery. In the [Democratic-]Republican vision of the current political situation, most especially its distinctive Virginia vision, corrupt “money-men” were making fortunes by shuffling pieces of paper while whispering insulting jokes about the unknowing yeoman farmers they were fleecing. But neither Jefferson nor Madison was really a farmer. (Neither man ever did a full day’s work in the fields.) They and the Virginia constituency they represented were planters, and the labor source on which the plantation economy rested, ever so precariously it turned out, was slavery.”

So, Jefferson was full of it, and as a Virginia plantation owner, he was unavoidably corrupted by the need to protect the South’s slave economy from federal meddling. He undermined the GW administration – while a member of that administration. (He even hired a “translator” in the State Department whose real job was to write crap about GW in the papers.) Here’s what Ellis says about the Federalists’ opinion of Jefferson:

“Hamilton’s exposure of Jefferson’s covert role in the Republican plotting prompted a series of Federalist assaults on his character that drew selectively on his previous career to document his shallowness and lack of integrity: as governor of Virginia he had fled ignominiously before invading British troops; as minister to France he had failed to comprehend the bloody consequences of the French Revolution, insisting that all would turn out well because he clung tenaciously to ‘theoretical principles fit only for Utopia’; as the author of Notes on the State of Virginia he had declared ‘the inherent inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidneys’; as a mathematician he kept shifting his theorems as he twirled away in his specially designed pivot chair, which became a favorite symbol of Jefferson’s endemic rotations and vacillations. He was, in the Federalist demonology, a misguided, duplicitous, dangerous dreamer whose sublimated ambition would never be satisfied until he became president of the United States.”

Ouch. And Ellis really doesn’t refute most of that, particularly the “duplicitous” characterization.

Is there a lesson here? Skepticism is healthy when it comes to reading primary sources? Every big problem in American history seems to connect to slavery? If you can write the Declaration of Independence, you’ll probably do all right in most history books? Truth is more complicated than myth? Jefferson was a S.O.B.? What do you think?

* I have yet to find the words “slave” or “slavery” in this correspondence. So far only John Adams has mentioned Jefferson’s “labourers.” And only Abigail Adams mentioned Jefferson’s “maid servant,” Sally Hemings. TJ is silent.

**A fun fact to consider the next time you’re in an argument about what the Founding Fathers intended in the Constitution. Even they didn’t agree.