ADAMS, John. Autograph letter signed "(John Adams") to the Rev. Henry Colman, Quincy, 19 January 1817. 2 full pages, 4to (8 7/8 in x 7¼ in.), integral address leaf (slightly separated), first page lightly browned along top and right-hand portion.
ADAMS PONDERS SLAVERY, "AN EVIL THAT HAS INFESTED THE WHOLE EARTH," AND "THE "VAST AND OMINOUS" ISSUE OF RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA: "WE HAVE MORE BARRELS OF GUNPOWDER PLANTED UNDER THE UNITED STATES THAN GUY FAWKES PLACED UNDER PARLIAMENT"
A highly important letter containing one of Adams's most explicit considerations of the issues connected with slavery, proposals for gradual abolition, plans for the colonization of freed slaves in Africa and the volatile problem of race relations in America, all elicited by Colman's letter advocating colonization. The former President, in a jocular vein, first assures Colman that although he has read the works of many well-known diarists, including Chateaubriand, "yet I should read your Journal with more cordial Satisfaction than all of them. If any of my letters have given you an agreeable hour the information of it has given me more than one." Adams, who had always viewed the existence of political factions with distaste, observes that "though the Barriers of Parties in our Country, cannot be broken down, yet the Communication between them ought not to be wholly cut off: and I have consequently endeavoured in my humble manner to smooth the Passage, from one to the other." In a previous letter Colman had voiced approval for plans to establish overseas colonies for former slaves. Adams responds: "Your reasoning on the Project of a Colony of free blacks on the Coast of Affrica, is no less ingenious that humane. This subject is vast and ominous. More than fifty years has it attracted my thoughts and given me much anxiety. A folio volume would not contain my lucubration on this subject. And at the end of it, I should leave the reader and myself as much at a loss what to do with it, as at the beginning."
Writing just before the Congressional crisis over the admission of Missouri (which resulted in the Missouri Compromise of 1820), Adams likens America's potentially explosive problem of slavery to England's Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the King: "It is certain we have more barrels of gunpowder planted under the United States, than Guy Fawkes placed under Parliament." He sarcastically reminds Colman that Great Britain has historically tried to foment rebellion among American slaves: "It is certain that our tender Mother, has twice attempted, in parental kindness, to set fire to this magazine. We know her conduct towards the Negroes, in the revolutionary war [was] equally benevolent to the slave and his master. For her atrocious violation of her Faith, both to the Negroes and the United States, she has never been made to repent as she ought to have been." Adams points to the British seizure of many African-American slaves in the war of 1812: "Her conduct in the last war [the War of 1812] is known to individuals: but not to the public. The timorous planters are afraid to state their own grievances. The policy of Britain is changed. Instead of leaving the stolen Negroes to starve in Hallifax [Nova Scotia] and London or sending them to Sierra Leone, they have now planted [a] colony of them in Nova Scotia. A thousand families are established in one settlement, with ten acres of land granted by the Crown to each with an allowance of instruments [tools] and provisions for two years. From this nursery are here after to be drawn recruits to invade the Southern states to entice and seduce other blacks to desert or rebel against their masters and the nation."
More optimistically, he concludes that "the present slaveholders cannot justly be reproached. They have given proofs of dispositions favorable to the gradual abolition of slavery, more explicit than could have been expected. All nations civil and savage have practiced Slavery and time must be allowed to eradicate an evil that has infested the whole earth." Closing, Adams expresses the wish "that some nation would plant colonies, black, white or grey on the coast of Affrica. That quarter of the globe ought to be explored and better known."
"Never in my life did I own a slave" Adams had proudly declared, in an 1801 letter. Long convinced of slavery's innate evil, he came to strongly oppose its expansion into new states and territories. But as the debate over abolition and colonization became increasingly contentious, Adams was dismayed to see slavery spreading rather than diminishing, as he had long forseen it would. He grew increasingly fearful of a devastating slave rebellion and alarmed at the sharp factional divisions produced. A few years later, writing to Thomas Jefferson, Adams again voiced disquiet over the smoldering issue of slavery and prophetically warned that, if no remedy could be agreed upon, the bitter argument might someday "rend this mighty fabric [the nation] in twain."