By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 7, 2021—Among Presidents and statesmen in the United States, John Quincy Adams[1] is well known as one of the most consistent and active opponents of slavery in our history. His fight against the gag rule in Congress and advocacy for freedom of the Amistad former slaves before the Supreme Court, demonstrate his passion on this issue. But in researching the fight over slavery in the 1820s in preparation for my upcoming book, I was surprised to find Adams writing in 1820 about the unconstitutional “disfranchisement” of blacks in Missouri.

John Quincy Adams on Voting Rights
John Quincy Adams in 1818  in a portrait by Gilbert Stuart. (White House Historical Association)

It appears that, long before the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 20th century civil rights legislation, John Quincy Adams asserted that free blacks have the rights of citizenship, implicitly including the right to vote.

I came across this discovery in reading John Quincy’s diary entries dealing with slavery, which have been put online by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The diaries contain extensive material on the fight over slavery which led to the Missouri Compromise of March 3, 1820, which I will summarize before reproducing Adams’ argument on unconstitutional disfranchisement of blacks in his entry of November 29 of that year.

The Missouri Compromise

Missouri had sought, starting in 1818, to be the first state organized West of the Mississippi River. The state’s slave system had been entrenched from the time of French rule, and slaves comprised 15% of the population. Since its admission would tilt the balance in the Senate toward slave states (there were then 11 slave and 11 free), the issue was politically hot. And it put before the nation the question of whether slavery would be expanded throughout the entire Western territories (i.e., the Louisiana Purchase).

With the controversy already raging, Rep. James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York State introduced two amendments that heightened the conflict. In February of 1819, he proposed to set two conditions on Missouri’s entrance into the Union: that no more slaves be allowed to emigrate into the state, and that the state adopt a program of gradual emancipation for the existing slave population. Tallmadge argued his case in an extensive speech which was picked up by abolitionist and anti-slavery activists all around the nation, and used as a rallying cry.

Rep. James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York.

Tallmadge’s argument boiled down to two elements: 1) that slavery was a moral abomination that should be restricted as much as possible, consistent with maintaining safety for the white population; and 2) that, as shown in the precedent of the Northwest Ordinance, the Congress had the authority to impose conditions on states entering the Union from the territories.

Tallmadge’s proposal brought forth blood-curdling reactions from some pro-slavery Representatives, who went so far as to threatened Civil War (“oceans of blood”) should his amendments pass. Ultimately, the amendments did pass in the House, but were stalemated in the Senate, despite the ardent support of another New Yorker, Founding Father Rufus King. The issue was not resolved until 1820, when Maine petitioned to join the Union, thus allowing Henry Clay to proffer his famous compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter as a slave state, and Maine to enter as a free state. An additional amendment by Rep. Thomas of Illinois added the proviso that set the 36th parallel line above which there were to be no more slave states admitted.

Quincy Adams’ Views

John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State in the Monroe Administration, favored implementation of the Missouri Compromise because he felt that compromise was the only way to keep the Union together. Yet his diary shows tremendous ambivalence on this question. He repeatedly declaims against the “bargain between Freedom and Slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States,” which he considered “morally and politically vicious,” and inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution.[2]

Again and again, he bemoans the fact that Northern passions against slavery were so weak, especially compared to the Southern determination to save and extend it. He anticipates an ultimate rupture, and at the same time, envisions it as necessary in order to achieve total abolition. After a terrible crisis, the nation could be reorganized on the basis of emancipation; the process would be “awful in prospect, sublime and beautiful in its issue.”

The result of the Missouri Compromise. The light blue area was banned to slavery.

After the Compromise, it seemed that the Missouri question, and that of the rest of the Louisiana territory, was settled for now. But when Missouri adopted its Constitution in July 1820, a new uproar ensued. For within that document the framers included the following (in Section 26):

It shall be their [the General Assembly’s] duty, as soon as may be, to pass such laws as may be necessary. First, To prevent free negroes and mulattoes from coming to, and settling in, this state, under any pretext whatsoever …

As John Quincy Adams elaborates in the diary excerpt below, this phrase effectively denies free people of color of the rights of citizenship, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitutional provision is contained in Article IV, Section 2, and reads as follows: “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” Missouri did not have the right to deny citizenship rights to free negroes and mulattoes from other states. As the American System news magazine the Niles Weekly Register put it: “‘Free blacks and mulattoes’ are ‘citizens’ in all the states … and cannot be dispossessed of their right to locate where they please.”

The uproar resulted in what is called the Second Missouri Compromise. In effect, that compromise involved Missouri promising not to enact legislation to implement this clause in its Constitution. While that may have been abided by for a while, by the 1840s it was violated overtly, with laws requiring free blacks to petition for the right of citizenship when moving into the state.

John Quincy Adams’ view, as usual, was scathing, and based on what he believed to be fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution. He fought for those principles until he died, in his seat in Congress, on Feb. 23, 1848.

The Diary Entry

Adams is describing his conversation with a Mr. Baldwin, whom I believe is Congressman Henry Baldwin of Pennsylvania.

I returned Mr Baldwin’s visit, and had a long conversation with him on the subject of the Missouri question of the present Session, which he agreed was a totally different question from that of the last. He said however that those who now objected to the admission of Missouri on the ground of the exceptionable Article in her Constitution connected the restriction question of the last Session with it, and wish to re-open the whole controversy. I told him I believed there would be a very small portion of the house for that, and I thought it would be quite unjustifiable: but the Article in the Missouri-Constitution, was directly repugnant to the rights reserved to every Citizen of the Union in the Constitution of the United States—

Its purport went to disfranchise, all the people of colour who were citizens of the free States.—The Legislatures of those States were bound in duty to protect the rights of their own Citizens, and if Congress by the admission of Missouri with that clause in her Constitution should sanction this outrage upon those rights, the States a portion of whose Citizens should be thus cast out from the pale of the Union would be bound to vindicate them by retaliation—

And if I were a member of the Legislature of one of those States, I would move for a declaratory Act, that so long as the Article in the Constitution of Missouri, depriving the coloured Citizens of the State, say of Massachusetts, of their rights as Citizens of the United States within the State of Missouri, should subsist, so long the white Citizens of the State of Missouri should be held as aliens within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not entitled to claim or enjoy within the same any right or privilege of a Citizen of the United States.

And I would go further and declare that Congress having by their sanction of the Missouri Constitution, by admitting that State into the Union, without excepting against that Article which disfranchised a portion of the Citizens of Massachusetts; had violated the Constitution of the United States, wherefore until that portion of the Citizens of Massachusetts, whose rights are violated by the Article in the Missouri Constitution should be reintegrated in the full enjoyment and possession of those rights, no clause or Article of the Constitution of the United States should within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts be so construed as to authorise any person whomsoever, to claim the property or possession of a human being as a Slave—

And I would prohibit by Law, the delivery of any fugitive Slave, upon the claim of his master— All which I would do not to violate but to redeem, from violation, the Constitution of the United States—

It was indeed to be expected that such Laws would again be met by retaliatory Laws of Missouri and the other Slave-holding States, and the consequence would be the dissolution de facto of the Union; but that dissolution would have commenced by the Article in the Missouri Constitution— That article was in itself a dissolution of the Union. If acquiesced in, it would change the terms of the federal compact— Change its terms by robbing thousands of Citizens of their rights—

And what Citizens? The poor, the unfortunate—the helpless— Already cursed by the mere colour of their skin—already doomed by their complection to drudge in the lowest offices of Society, excluded by their colour from all the refined enjoyments of life, accessible to others, excluded from the benefits of a liberal education; from the bed, from the table, and from all the social comforts of domestic life this barbarous Article deprives them of the little remnant of right yet left them—their rights as citizens and as men— Weak and defenceless as they are, so much the more sacred is the obligation of the Legislatures of the States to which they belong to defend their lawful rights—

And I would defend them should the dissolution of the Union be the consequence— For it would not be the defence, it would be the violation of their rights to which all the consequences would be imputable; and if the dissolution of the Union must come, let it come from no other cause but this.

If Slavery be the destined Sword in the hand of the destroying angel, which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of Slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of Slavery would be followed by a servile war in the Slave-holding States, combined with a War between the two severed portions of the Union— It seems to me that its result must be the extirpation of Slavery from this whole Continent, and calamitous and desolating as this course of Events in its progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue that as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired …[3] (paragraphing and some punctuation added)

[1] JQ Adams was also a strong advocate for the national bank, tariffs, and internal improvements, the key elements of the American System in his day. See

[2] This view puts him at odds with notables such as Frederick Douglass, as reported here.

[3] This statement, and numerous others made by Adams, have been credited as a precedent for President Lincoln’s use of military powers to abolish slavery in the Southern states.


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