tv Book Discussion on John Quincy Adams CSPAN April 23, 2016 2:15pm-3:01pm EDT
happy birthday, will, thanks for making me use my brain. emily in indiana, such mortals be that do not celebrate -- oh. thank you, we want to thank the folger library in washington for their help in setting this up. everything we have aired today will air tonight at midnight eastern time, 9:00 pm on the west coast, thanks. booktv now continues, thank you. >> thank you all for being here today. we are the ones who were here when we did it. [applause] ♪
>> when i tune in on the weekends, usually authors sharing new releases. >> nonfiction others on booktv, the best television for serious readers. >> on c-span they can have a longer conversation and delve into their subject. >> booktv weekends bring you author after author after author that spotlight the work of fascinating people. >> i love booktv and i am a c-span fan. >> you look at current best-selling nonfiction books according to the boston globe.
that is a look at the current nonfiction bestsellers according to the boston globe. many of these authors have been on or will be appearing on booktv. you can watch them on our website booktv.org. >> james traub is a contributing writer for new york times magazine where he has worked since 1998 and is a regular columnist for foreignpolicy.com. his books include the best intentions, kofi annan and the un in the era of american world power, the devil's playground, a century of pleasure and profit in times square, city on a hill and the freedom agenda.
in his review of "john quincy adams," sean wolin's, author of the rise of american democracy, wrote, sorry, james -- james traub's new biography of john quincy adams is especially strong. adams was a complicated hero. a patrician, visionary, also spirit. one of the most important diplomats in american history and slavery's greatest enemy in american politics. james traub addresses the man and his time, with the complexity and a writer's eye for drama in detail. after his talk and question and
answer if we have time, he will be signing copies of this book, one level up, outside the national archives store. please welcome james traub to the national archives. [applause] >> thank you very much for that introduction. when i was coming here this morning and i was taking a taxi to penn station in new york, every bus i passed had a giant sign on the side that said hamilton. naturally i thought what if lynn manual, producer and writer and star of the show came to me and said i have done that hamilton hip-hop thing, what do you have
with john quincy adams? this is the first book event i have done so i will tell you the story that i would tell him if he ever came to me to ask so on saturday, january 21, 1842, john quincy adams who was 74 years old, former president of the united states, former secretary of state, senator and diplomat and a member of the house of representatives in massachusetts decided to provoke a confrontation for the slaveholders who dominated the conference. for the previous seven years adams waged a solitary struggle to protect the right of citizens to petition congress to an end to slavery or the slave trade, that right guaranteed by the
constitution but slaveholders resolutely unwilling to allow the peculiar institution to become a matter of public debate past what is known as the gag order to prevent such petitions from being reported. every year the slaveholders and allies among free states passed a new gag order and once again in december 18, '41 at the beginning of that term the gag had been passed, and once again adams insisted on testing it by bringing one petition after another to the floor of the house under the pretext they did not technically fall within the compass of the gag order. he presented a particularly exacerbating petition and slaveholders finally lost all patience. the abolitionist theodore dwight well wrote to his wife to describe the scene which i will read a little excerpt from.
wives of virginia, north carolina, wc johnson of maryland and scores more of slaveholders striving constantly to stop him by starting questions of order and every now and then screaming at the top of their voices that is false. i demand that you put him down. what are we to sit here and endure such insults. i demand you shut them out, that gives you a sense of the temper of congress. a perfect uproar would burst forth every two minutes as mister a with his bold surgery would smite his cleaver into the very bones. at least half of the slaveholding members of the house left their seats and gathered a quarter of the hall, whenever any of them broke,
mister a would say i see where the shoe pinches mister speaker, it will pinch more yet. and it is hard to digest if before i get through every slaveholder, slave trader and slave reader on this floor does not get materials for bitter reflection it shall be no fault of mine. on monday the 23rd, adams picked up where he left off, reading one anti-slavery petition after another. adams kept on his feet hours on end, his few allies including the anti-slavery champion joshua giddings of ohio who gathered protectively by his side. and unless they miss a word, to
throw those insults at him that was described. adams pulled another page from a sheaf of papers held close to his chest. he turned to the speaker. and i hold in my hand the memorial, which is to say petition of benjamin emerson and 45 other citizens in the state of massachusetts, pray in congress to adopt immediate measures for the peaceful dissolution of the union of these states. petitioners no longer wished to see the resources drained as they put it. for the benefit of the slave states.
the slaveocracy which adams used to describe those people had been waiting for sufficient provocation, adams had now and henry wise of virginia to censure the former president, very grave punishment. adams said good and you should think about that. and the possible humiliation of being censured, he was delighted, it was a war he had sought and gained and look forward to in an uproar and the house adjourned. let me back up a little bit and explain how adams had come to this point. like all new englanders adams
was opposed to slavery and considered a gross violation of american republican principles and christian principles as well but he also considered slavery to be in effect a settled issue, the constitution had been silent on it, states were free to do as they wish, essentially nothing the federal government could do or from adams's point of view should do about slavery. his views began to change in 1820, the missouri compromise, what happened then is there were 22 states, 11 free and 11 slaves and missouri petitioned to the union as a slave state which would destabilize the balance and that provoked a huge debate, missouri was far enough north and there was a strong case to be made it should be entered, and other free states at that latitude above.
a tremendous debate broke out in congress and adams was secretary of state, he had no place in that debate but he watched that debate. he felt the debate to be dominated, many highly regarded eloquent speakers and it was deeply frustrating to him. he wished he could speak but he couldn't. he raised the issue in the cabinet. the cabinet consisted of slaveholders, the cabinet of james monroe. adams was slapped down. afterwards he walked down pennsylvania avenue a few blocks from where we are today with john calhoun, secretary of war who would become the intellectual justifier of slavery but adams had a lot of regard for calhoun. adams at that time considered
calhoun a person of tremendous intellectual integrity and adams continue to talk and calhoun listen to him and said those are very noble principles but where i come from we think this principles only apply to white people, not black people. adams went home that night, he kept a diary every day of his life, quite extraordinary, great resource for someone in my position and he would write down almost verbatim the conversations that happened that day if he thought they were important. so he went back home at some point began to write and he was thinking about the fact the man is gifted as calhoun who he admired so much could sincerely hold views adams found repellent and evidently falls. there was a larger truth in this that had not presented itself to
adams until now, transcribing his train of thought as it came to him adams with the practice of slavery, the sources of moral principle, perverts human reason and reduces men endowed with logical powers to maintain the slavery is sanctioned by the christian religion. the impression produced upon my mind by the progress of this discussion is the bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the constitution of the united states is morally and politically vicious. this was an astonishing conclusion for a man race from the earliest moment of consciousness to regard union as the supreme good, devoted his career as a diplomat and politician, to defending the integrity of the united states against foreign and domestic threats. adams was a conservative who feared and abhorred
revolutionary upheaval yet he recent himself into a position that was too honest to recent himself out of. later that year negotiations continued, the legislature passed a law that banned re-people of color from the state, said if you are a free person you cannot coming to the state if you are a person of color and this enraged adams and i think maybe burst the last stays. he saw this as a provocation to the free states but also the very cause of human freedom and a friend of his, a colleague came to talk about it and adams in his diary records what he said to this man. i will read a little piece of
this, quite astonishing, thinking about slaves, thinking about not just enslavement but racism which is surprising from a man, black people, the only ones he knew were servants and yet in an act of sympathy he understood and this is what he wrote. week and defenseless as they are so much more sacred is the obligation of the legislatures of the states to which they belong to defend their lawful rights. i will defend them should the dissolution of the union be the consequence, it would not be the defense, it would be the violation of their rights to which all the consequences are immutable. if dissolution of the union must come let it come from no other cause than this. of slavery be the sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of the union the same sword will
cut asunder the bonds of slavery itself. a dissolution of the union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slaveholding states combined with a war between severed portions of the union. it seems to me that it's result must be slavery from this whole continent and calamitous and decimating is this course of events as this progress must be, so glorious would be a final issue that as god shall judge me i dare not say it can be denied. that was adams in 1820 and not speaking to anybody else, and indeed the remainder of his tenure as secretary of state, he said nothing in his diary, a non-issue for him, it obviously remained inside him but was not
the focus of his career. after he was beaten for reelection in 1828 and returned home he went back to congress in 1831. he was the first president to return to congress and remains to this day the only president who served in the house of representatives after the presidency. by now, anti-slavery movement had begun in the united states. by 1835 activists have begun sympathetic congressman calling for end to the slave trade, and the district of columbia. the federal government had jurisdiction. they started to call for the gag order. adams was too harsh a realist to believe in an open public debate
southerners would acknowledge the evil of slavery and agree to its abolition. he did not think that was possible. he said to himself, he still believed only civil war would bring an end to slavery and now when it was a reality, he could not say out loud what he said to himself, could not say the idea of civil war was acceptable, something the most extreme radical abolitionists would adopt so he was in a quandary. he did not have doubts about the merits of the question, did not know how to get there or what his congressman could do. i think he thought the petition issue was a way to force into public debate the question of slavery and expose the full horror of the practice. i don't think that would insulate but he thought it was the best he could do.
beyond that, adams was what you call the first amendment absolutist and that question for him took the form of petitions. it is not easy to understand what now, why petitions matter so much but at that time there were no lobbies, no special interest groups, no right in campaigns, no way citizens could have their voices heard, petitions were the way they could do that and in adams's own mind the petition had additional resonance, even the most humble servant could petition, the most dictatorial government, how could you deny the citizen of a democracy the right to a petition? for adams these two issues, the issue of petition and free-speech and the issue of slavery converged to make a thing so powerful that it would sees him for the rest of his
time in congress and the rest of his life. from that time forward this became an obsession for adams, it is worth saying many other men who shared adams's views felt it was foolish, reckless, pointless, to wage battle over this if you because you would never succeed. the congress was dominated by slaveholders thanks in part to the so-called three fifth compromise in the constitution, talking about slavery would achieve nothing, just gum up the works of congress so other people wouldn't do it and adam said i don't care. i will do it by myself. in every new session, they vote the gag order. in 1837 adams presented a petition that purported to come
from slaves themselves which was an unspeakable violation from the point of view, that slaves might have the opportunity, the right to petition congress. if they have that right what other rights might they have? it was a fraud. adams knew it was a fraud, it was set to set him up because someone knew he would presented and not only that, the petition didn't call the end of slavery. the petition from these alleged slaves called for preservation of slavery because slaves like slavery. adams didn't reveal that when he presented the petition in 1837 so all the congressman knew he was presenting a petition from slaves but only demanding an end to slavery. adams defended this thing and said he would present a petition from a slave, he said i would present a petition from a horse
or a dog if it had the power of speech or writing. this was the first confrontation. this provoked the first attempt to censure adams which i won't describe but it went on several weeks and dominated the debate, decimated the opposition and i the time he was only 22 of the 238 members of the house voted for censure. now we come forward when the memory of that humiliation has faded. at this time there is a siebel -- sizable abolitionist movement and there are other antislavery legislators in congress and this group, the activists in congress roomed together, abolition house, theodore wells, great anti-slavery or rader and essayist took a desk in the library of congress and served as the head of research. others thought of the printing and distribution of antislavery
tracks but adams was the leader of the group in congress, no one questioned that. he said to wells he would present petitions setting slaveholders ablaze. that is what he did on january 21, 1842. the southerners had also learned from their mistakes five years ago so this time they said let's appoint a chief prosecutor and they chose thomas marshall, thomas marshall was the nephew of john marshall, the supreme court justice. he was also a highly regarded lawyer and or rader, moderate, member of the whig party and so the perfect person to represent their point of view so it didn't seem like slavery against anti-slavery. so several days later,
january 25th, marshall began to speak. it was an astonishing spectacle. this was an immense event, crowds filled the galleries of the house, noting foreign ministers, attachés and privileged persons delivered outside the ball. the speaker called on marshall who read a resolution to censure adams. he raised the stakes considerably whereas he asserted dissolution of the union necessarily implied instruction and prosecution, overthrow of republican, violation of the legislators own oath, the petition adams had presented compelled members to prove to themselves and involve the crime of high treason, adams deserved expulsion, censure was an act of grace and mercy.
this would prove to be catastrophic on marshall's part. marshall delivered an indictment prefaced by long expressions of regard for adams, for the place in history, and professed himself astounded when such a revered figure presented to the house so monstrous a document, not only presented that document but sought to have it referred to committee. thus leading to the conclusion the dissolution of the union was a fair subject to be considered by the house. marshall's profession of neutrality and rhetorical demand cheered his colleagues and left adams's supporters depressed. both sides waited with excruciating anticipation the old man's response. with all eyes on him adams wrote slowly looking about him friend
and foe and at last, it is no part of my intention to reply to the gentleman from kentucky at this time, what was his intention? i call, adams went on, for the reading of the first paragraph of the declaration of independence. the clerk began to read. when in the course of human events, he slowed, proceed, proceed. the court continued. whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. and then, adams's order came to a stop, it is their right, their duty to throw off such things. john quincy adams's father played a central role writing the declaration of independence, john quincy himself was very much alive at the time.
his adversary thomas marshall. and had seen him as a fanatic as a connection to the founding documents and principles, more than that, of what those principles were. what did high treason he now went on to advocate the dissolution of government never mind the declaration had been written to justify the dissolution of colonial dominion, the real danger for the republic came not from petitioners but slaveholders. there was a concerted system and purpose to destroy the principles of sublimity in the free state, the right of habeas corpus and trial by jury, the right of petition. admittedly the most biased of spectators wrote that old nestor had demonstrated a calm fearlessness and majesty that furnished highest illustration of the moral sublime that i ever
witnessed in the secular assembly. now henry wise rose to deliver a rebuttal. wise was a temperate man, and he delivered a fiery blistering ugly attack on adams's personally, on his father who he called -- where they were from. very violent. adams is cool for two days. when adams finally rose to speak, he made a very ingenious argument about virginia where henry wise was from, to remind everyone who john quincy adams was. it grieved him from the soul to
see these propositions come from virginia. if there was a state in the union for which even now he felt an attachment greater than to any other except his native state it was to virginia. in his earlier years it was from virginia that he was introduced into the service of this nation, first by george washington who appointed him as a diplomat, whose voice had been repeated here and which voice had been from the time it was delivered down to this moment next to the holy scriptures on his heart and mind. then adams turned back to john marshall, thomas marshall. now he exchanged his dignified tone for brutal mockery. the constitution of the united
states, he observed, says what high treason is and it does not force him or his puny mind to define what high treason is and confound it with what i have done. adams suggested marshall attend some law school in order to learn a little of the rights of the citizens of those states and members of the house. did he not understand that treason and the subordination of perjury were crimes rather than simply centura bowl offenses and any man accused of them had the right to trial before an impartial jury? would a jury of slaveholders impartial? adams was beating this out yet again and this time with the whole world watching, he was lethal. that night, came to visit adams at home and found him like a boy though he scarcely slept for
days. i am ready for another heat, he declared. with that adams began reciting his planned speech for the following day accompanied by the gestures and facial expressions he would be using before the audience. flabbergasted abolitionists tried to warn adams against wasting his energy, the old man was unstoppable. he went on for an hour or nearly that in a voice loud enough to be heard by a large audience, wonderful man. at this point southerners began to retreat. marshall took the floor to say he never meant to charge adams with treason. wise took the floor to said he never sent to the resolution, marshall turned on wise before attacking adams once again. at this point more than a week had gone by, the house had accomplished no business whatsoever, and on february 2nd
adams rose to say he had not begun his defense and would be weeks more from documents and testimony. another southern congressman offered to drop the resolution, censure resolution if adams would withdraw the original petition. adams indignantly refused and continued to hold the floor. on february 7th after two weeks marshall ran up the white flag. he put the resolution to a vote knowing it would lose and it did 106-93. adams's response, he introduced 200 anti-slavery petitions. adams had shattered the overweening confidence of the south. gettings overheard marshall say i would rather die 1000 deaths than again to encounter that old man. nor did he have to, marshall retired after that session of
congress. wise later called adams the a cutest, astute test, are just enemy of southern slavery that ever existed. it is not just an individual defeat, well call the center vote, the first victory over the slaveholders in a body, ever yet achieved foundation of government. this is not pure hyperbole. the house had battles with petitions and loss. two more years would have to pass before the house defeated the gag rule but as of that moment it was spent. the mistake of the abolitionist however was to believe that slavery could not survive a crushing defeat in the court of public opinion. from this time, slavery's downfall takes it state. adams knew better. he knew slaveowners would never voluntarily surrender their most precious property and the
foundation of their way of life. what do we learn about adams in this episode? first, that he was fearless, he would fight dirty, he would be unfair if he needed to. he would speak in the loftiest register and engage in savage personal attacks. he was an extraordinarily clearheaded man, but with a vehemence that brought him to a ferocity, that is the meaning of the subtitle of my book, you can see from this episode his militant spirit. these gifts were the ones that were his great source of achievement and great source of failure. his brilliant insight had made him america's leading diplomat at a very young age.
his principled intransigence, indefatigable energies had made him a great secretary of state but the same stubbornness, contempt for compromise at the business of politics made him a terrible president. he was a man who had a very bold agenda and achieved nothing. the presidency was the least successful part of his career and he was beaten after one term by andrew jackson who was far more popular and far more skilled as a politician. at that point it seemed his career was over and this last extraordinary final case where he served in congress the last 16 years of his life. by the time, by the time the gag order was overturned in 1845 he was revered as a hero, this man was really revered as last link to the founders and their great
virtues. at his death in 1848, there were a tremendous outpouring of eulogies and the most interesting one to me wasn't even technically a eulogy. it was delivered in a theater by theodore parker, theodore parker was a radical theologian, transcendentalist, friend of emerson's, strange, difficult, he allowed himself to be very critical of his subject. shall we tell lies about him because he is dead, parker asked his audience, he would not. parker noted that secretary of state and president adams remained mute on slavery. he was what is called a good hater, parker said, he used his wit tear earnestly, poor poet, greatest intellectual factory was memory and he showed
foresight. in what the john quincy adams greatness lie? through all his words and acts ran a golden thread, and intense love of freedom for all men. and parker summoned up that moment in 1842 when adams stood in the well of the house on the issue of slavery petitions and this is what he said. he said i know of few things in modern times so grand as that old man standing there in the house of representatives, a man who bore himself proudly at kings courts doing service in high places where honor may be won, a man who filled the highest office in any nation, the president, himself a president, standing there, a
champion of the oppressed. that was john quincy adams. thank you. [applause] >> if anyone has any questions there are microphones set up on either side so please go to the microphone. i would be happy to talk about anything about adams, whether it is what i was talking about or something else altogether. sir? >> i know lincoln was one term in the house. was he in the house at this time? >> there is a kind of tantalizing -- they must have known each other, saw each other, lincoln's first term was adams's last term, lincoln was
there when adams died, when adams's casket was taken from washington northwards on a train to be buried in quincy, massachusetts, an honor guard of two representatives from each state was included, abraham lincoln was one of those men. for those of us who like to see a fair amount of adams in lincoln, in some of the argument lincoln used about slavery but also in the activist government adams talked about, in many ways lincoln brought to pass, that is the one symbolic part. yes? >> how did the media treat all this? the media of the day? >> a great question, our own word in that case meant a fair number of court reporters. there were -- no one had had so many newspapers and i don't know
how many, a couple dozen headwords in washington and so this was big news in all the papers. and for the abolitionist press there were a number of abolitionist newspapers this was huge, i didn't talk about the thomas.case, where they defended a group of applicants taken in slavery, that made adams a hero. there was a big deal over that. >> editorial, were the media in some cases curious about the media. >> the answer, first of all i should say i only read a small number of newspapers so i only
know what i read and the editorial position they are either pro or anti-slavery so newspapers in the south despite this, adams received innumerable death threats in the late 1830s, danger opposed to slavery and adams is hated and the southern prince would vilify him, the more timid northern press, i can't really say, the abolitionist press felt he was a great champion. yes, sir? >> going back to mister lincoln would you expand on john quincy adams's role? the first to develop the idea that of the military necessity justification for abolition of slavery because i believe during the 1830s he warned them if taken to war, the north would
have a military justification coming in and abolishing slavery. >> because once the south threatened the union, then the north if it saw the military value of freeing the slaves, would have every right to do so. the north would have the right to override the restraints on federal conduct that were written in the constitution and so adams said that point explicitly in the late 1830s or early 1840s and certainly thought lincoln had adopted that reasoning when he announced the emancipation proclamation. that is the week chain on the slavery issue. >> all right. if there are no other questions
i am happy to sign books for those who would like to buy one upstairs. thank you so much. .. chair of military theory of the marine corps university will discuss his idead on how to defeat isis at the heritage foundation in washington, dc. then on tuesday, we'll be at the mark twain house in hartford, connecticut, talking about the friendship between mark twain and secretary of state john hay. ons in, service employees international union vice president david ralph will