Abigail Adams on Slavery and Union

I’ve finished David McCullough’s riveting John Adams, and I’m continuously struck by Adams moral fortitude, discipline, and character as he fulfilled a variety of economic and political roles in the birth pangs of America. I’ve been especially intrigued by McCullough’s differentiation between Adams’ view of America – land-owning, thrify, plain, honest, pious, and somewhat rural – and Thomas Jefferson’s view – slave-owning, indebted, lavish, cosmopolitan, and Enlightened. Surely there are generalities here, but it has been fascinating nonetheless, and I hope to reflect more on it in the future.

Abigail Adams, wife to the second President, was known as an emotional and intellectual symbiote for Adams, the “ballast in his ship.” I was struck by her words in a letter to her sister:

I firmly believe, that if I live ten years longer, I shall see a division of the Southern and Northern states, unless more candor and less intrigue, of which I have no hopes, should prevail. (p. 434)

What is most striking is to remember that Abigail was writing in 1792, seventy-three years before the Civil War would end. Further, before a trip to France when John was the foreign minister there, Abigail had never set foot outside of her county, and travel terrified her. That leads me to conclude that the well-read Mrs. Adams had not only read of the differences between North and South, but some of her experiences with Southern gentlemen & ladies led her to a fairly certain conviction. The context doesn’t appear to be only, or merely, slavery; but also various forms of other cultural differences.

Clearly, the “War Between the States” was addressing differences that were a long time in coming.

One thought on “Abigail Adams on Slavery and Union

  1. She wasn’t writing about slavery at all. That was about how the Southern members of Congress “are determined if possible to ruin the Secretary of the Treasury”, who was in fact removed from office a few years later for gross malfeasance, conflict of interest, and profiteering, among the lesser charges.

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