Slavery as a "Strange Change"
|Charles Francis Adams:|
"Steadily going back to the
doctrines of despotism"
Charles Francis Adams (1807-86) was the son of John Quincy Adams and served as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts (1859-62), after having been the unsuccessful candidate of the Free-Soil Party for the Vice Presidency in 1848 (running with Martin Van Buren). As a Whig party founder, Adams was hardly a radical abolitionist, although he was clear in his assessment of the predominance of pro-slavery power politics in the U.S., the nature of which ultimately led to the Civil War. In defending himself in a letter to a Free-Soil editor in 1851, Adams thus wrote:
Really it would seem as if in America nothing is to be regarded as national but slavery ‑‑ and every obstacle to its perpetuation over the entire colored race is to be considered unconstitutional and treasonable. The most astonishing thing of all is to witness... the ingenuity with which every new step of the dictator is excused even when nobody dares justify it. Surely, stead of advancing in our notions of Liberty and Law since we became a people, we have been steadily going back to the doctrines of despotism... And all this, we are told, is to sustain a Union intended to secure the blessings of freedom!1Adams, a contemporary of John Brown, thus made an observation concerning the digression of "our notions of Liberty and Law since we became a people." Adams surveyed the history of the U.S. from independence and came to conclude that something terribly wrong had taken place, bringing the nation off course toward despotism. In fact, his sentiments resonated in words later written by John Brown from his jail cell during his last days in Virginia. Writing to a former business associate on November 17, 1859, Brown reflected on his imminent execution, writing: "I go joyfully in behalf of Millions that 'have no rights' that this 'great, & glorious'; 'this Christian Republic,' 'is bound to respect.'" Then, quite interestingly, he added: "Strange change in morals political; as well as Christian; since 1776."2
The Old Man's overuse of semicolons notwithstanding, the sharp, succinct phrasing (so typical of his speech and writing) nicely coincides with Adam's complaint. Like Adams, Brown read the 19th century history of the U.S. as the moral descent of the nation into tyranny as a result of chattel slavery. In light of the promising origins of the nation he loved, Brown thought the "change in morals political as well as Christian" had gone in "strange" directions--strange because he believed the predominance of chattel slavery was antithetical to the very concept of human freedom that was trumpeted by the founders of the nation. And more than many in his generation, Brown also had the clarity to see that the "strange change" was not a matter of compromise; it was leading the nation to catastrophe. Of course, we should be so wise. In every generation, the overpowering and immoral appetites of a people may blind its population, likewise leading them down strange, desultory, and thorny paths of national despair.
1 Charles Francis Adams to E.A. Stansbury, 2 January 1851, in Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC03863)
2 John Brown to J. [Thomas ] B. Musgrave, 17 November 1859, in Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC #7638.01)