John Adams And Slavery


Michael Benton, Contributor

| updated

Copy Link Code

john adams and slaveryAlthough the Continental Congress and the Founding Fathers punted on one of the most serious issues hindering equality and liberty in the United States, many of them voiced their opinion on slavery including John Adams. Did John Adams own slaves? No, and not only because of his family's moderate wealth. Adams was morally opposed to slavery and refused to employ slaves. His wife, Abigail Adams, went so far as to employ free blacks for labor as opposed to the two domestic slaves owned by her father. She also helped educate a young African American man in an evening school and their own family home while living in Philadelphia in 1791. Unfortunately, John Adams' views on slavery were not so proactive. As a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature, Adams openly opposed legislation on the abolition of slavery in the state on the grounds that the issue was too divisive. He even wrote that legislation opposed to slavery should "sleep for a time" until it was less polarizing. Little did he know how many people would die settling the issue some decades down the line.

During the War of Independence, John Adams was a part of the dominant group of American leaders who opposed the use of black soldiers out of fear of losing Southern support for the Continental Army. Abolitionism as a national concept did not enter politics until well after Adams had retired from politics in 1801 with his defeat to slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, on slavery, had written and said relatively little, but he was on the record as critical of the "privileged" Southern society whose power depended on human bondage. Despite his political retirement, Adams kept up regular correspondence with past political friends and rivals, including Thomas Jefferson. In letters from 1819, 1820 and 1821, late in his life, John Adams and slavery views became more obvious as he condemned the practice as "an evil of colossal magnitude" and worried about the effect slavery would have on the nation in the future. For John Adams, slaves were human beings and fully deserved the rights ordained by God that all men were granted. But for John Adams, slave owner opinion seemed to nullify his approach to the subject during his political career.

During deliberations on the ideals of a new government discussed in the First and Second Continental Congress, John Adams was vocal about his opinion on slavery without saying that he wished to abolish the practice. While discussing trade resolutions in early 1776, Adams said that he supported a resolution to ban the further import of slaves to America. In the same year, while he was advising Thomas Jefferson on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was happy to read Jefferson's idyllic opinions on abolition (which he never fulfilled in his own life) but was aware that such language would not pass with the Southern members of the colonial effort for independence. Sadly, Adams never acted on his moral disgust for slavery and left the question for later generations to answer on the field of battle.