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• If Mr. Adams had died in 1829, he would have been remembered for a while as a learned man; as an able diplomatist, who had served his country faithfully at home and abroad; as a President spotless and incorruptible, but not as a very important personage in American history. His mark would have been faint and soon effaced from the sands of time. But the last period of his life was the noblest. He had worn all the official honors which the nation could bestow; he sought the greater honor of serving that nation, who had now no added boon to give. All that he had done as Minister abroad, as Senator, Secretary, and President, is little compared with what he did in the House of Representatives; and while he stood there, with nothing to hope, with nothing to fear, the hand of Justice wrote his name high up on the walls of his country. It was surprising to see at his first attendance there, men who, while he was President, had been the loudest to call out “ Coalition, Bargain, Intrigue, Corruption,”: come forward and express the involuntary confidence they felt in his wisdom and integrity, and their fear, actual though baseless, that his withdrawal from the Committee on Manufactures would “ endanger the very Union itself.”* Great questions soon came up - Nullification was speedily disposed of; the Bank and the Tariff got ended or compromised, but Slavery lay in the consciousness of the nation, like the one dear but appalling sin in a man's heart. · Some wished to be rid of it
Northern men and Southern men. It would come up; to justify that, or excuse it, the American sentiment and idea must be denied and rejected utterly; the South, who had long known the charms of Bathsheba, was ready for her sake to make way with Uriah himself. To remove that monstrous evil, gradually but totally, and restore unity to the nation, would require a greater change than the adoption of the Constitution. To keep slavery out of sight, yet in existence, unjustified, unexcused, unrepented of, a contradiction in the national consciousness, a political and deadly sin -- the sin against the Holy Spirit of American Liberty, known but not confessed, the public secret of the people — that would lead to suppressing petitions, suppressing debate in Congress and out of Congress, to silencing the pulpit, the press, and the people.
Under these circumstances, Mr. Adams went to Congress, an old man, well known on both sides the water, the presi
* Remarks of Mr. Cambreleng.
dential laurels on his brow, independent and fearless, expecting no reward from men for services however great. In respect to the subject of slavery, he had no ideas in advance of the nation; he was far behind the foremost men. He “ deprecated all discussion of slavery or its abolition, in the House, and gave no countenance to petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or the territories." However, he acquired new ideas as he went on, and became the congressional leader in the great movement of the American mind towards universal freedom.
Here he stood as the champion of human rights ; here he fought, and with all his might. In 1836, by the celebrated resolution forbidding debate on the subject of slavery, the South drove the North to the wall, nailed it there into shameful silence. A “Northern man with Southern principles," before entering the President's chair, declared, that if Congress should pass a law to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he would exercise his veto to prevent the law. Mr. Adams stood up manfully, sometimes almost alone, and contended for freedom of speech. Did obstinate men of the North send petitions relative to slavery, asking for its abolition in the District or elsewhere - Mr. Adams was ready to present the petitions. Did women petition - it made no difference with him. Did slaves petition - he stood up there to defend their right to be heard. The South had overcome many an obstacle, but that one fearless soul would not bend and could not be broken. Spite of rules of order he contrived to bring the matter perpetually before Congress, and sometimes to read the most offensive parts of the petitions. When Arkansas was made a state, he endeavored to abolish slavery in its domain; he sought to establish international relations with Hayti, and to secure the right of suffrage for the colored citizens of the District of Columbia. The laws which forbid blacks to vote in the Northern states he held “in utter abhorrence."
He saw from afar the plots of Southern politicians, plots for extending the area of slavery, for narrowing the area of freedom, and exposed those plots. You all remember the tumult it excited when he rose in his place holding a petition from slaves — that the American Congress was thrown into long and disgraceful confusion ; you cannot have forgotten the uproar which followed his presenting a petition to dissolve the
Union !* I know few speeches more noble and manly than his on the right of petition, - occasioned by that celebrated attempt to stifle debate, - and on the annexation of Texas. Some proposed to censure him, some clamored, "expel him," some cried out, “ burn the petitions,” and “him with them," screamed yet others. Some threatened to have him indicted by the Grand Jury of the District, “or be made amenable to another tribunal,” hoping to see “ an incendiary brought to condign punishment. My life on it,” said a Southern legislator, "if he presents that petition from slaves, we shall yet see him within the walls of the penitentiary.” Some in secret threatened to assassinate him in the streets. They mistook their man ; with Justice on his side he did not fear all the grand juries in the universe.” He would not curl nor cringe, but snorted his defiance in their very face. In front of ridicule, of desertion, obloquy, rage, and brutal threats, stood up that old man, bold and audacious, and the chafed rock of Cohasset stands not firmer mid the yesty waves, nor more triumphant spurns back into the ocean's face the broken billows of the storm. That New England knee bent only before his God. That unpretending man -- the whole power of the nation could not move him from his post.
Men threatened to increase the slave power. Said one of the champions of slavery with prophetic speech — but fatal as Cassandra's in the classic tale, Americans “ would
in thousands to plant the lone star of the Texan banner on the Mexican capitol.
The boundless wealth of captured towns and rifled churches, and a lazy, vicious, and luxurious priesthood, would soon enable Texas to pay her soldiery and redeem her state debt; and push her victorious arms to the very shores of the Pacific. And would not all this extend the bounds of slavery? Yes, the result would be, that before another quarter of a century the extension of slavery would not stop short of the western ocean.” Against this danger Mr. Adams armed himself, and fought in the holiest cause the cause of human rights.
I know few things in modern times so grand as that old man standing there in the House of Representatives, the compeer of Washington, a man who had borne himself proudly in kings' courts, early doing service in high places, where honor may be won; a man who had filled the highest office in any nation's gift; a President's son, himself a President, standing there the champion of the neediest of the oppressed: the conquering cause pleased others; him only, the cause of the conquered. Had he once been servile to the hands that wielded power ? no thunderbolt can scare him now! Did he once make a treaty and bind Mexico to be wray the wandering fugitive who took his life in his hand and fled from the talons of the American Eagle? - Now he would go to the stake sooner than tolerate such a deed! When he went to the Supreme Court, after an absence of thirty years, and arose to defend a body of friendless negroes torn from their home and most unjustly held in thrall; when he asked the judges to excuse him at once both for the trembling faults of age and the inexperience of youth, the man having labored so long elsewhere that he had forgotten the rules of Court; when he summed up the conclusion of the whole matter, and brought before those judicial but yet moistening eyes the great men whom he had once met there
* See the Debates of the House, January 23d and following, 1837; or Mr. Adams's own account of the matter in his letters to his constituents, &c. (Boston, 1837.) See, too, bis series of speeches on the Right of Petition and the Annexation of Texas, Jan. 14th and following, 1838. (Printed in a pamphlet. Washington, 1838.)
Chase, Cushing, Martin, Livingston, and Marshal himself; and while he remembered them that were gone, gone, all gone,” remembered also the eternal justice that is never gone,
- why the sight was sublime. It was not an old patrician of Rome who had been Consul, Dictator, coming out of his honored retirement at the Senate's call, to stand in the Forum to levy new armies, marshal them to victory, afresh, and gain thereby new laurels for his brow;- but it was a plain citizen of America, who had held an office far greater than that of Consul, King, or Dictator, his hand reddened by no man's blood, expecting no honors, but coming in the name of justice to plead for the slave, for the poor barbarian negro of Africa, for Cinque and Grabbo, for their deeds comparing them to Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whose classic memory made each bosom thrill. That was worth all his honors, -it was worth while to live fourscore years for that.
When he stood in the House of Representatives, the champion of the rights of a minority, of the rights of man, hë stood colossal. Frederick the Great seems doubly so, when, single-handed, “that son of the Dukes of Brandenburgh contended against Austria, France, England, Russia, kept them all at bay, divided by his skill, and conquered by his might. Surely he seems great when measured merely by his
deeds. But in comparison, Frederick the Great seems Frederick the little: for Adams fought not for a kingdom nor for fame, but for justice and the eternal right; fought, too, with weapons tempered in a heavenly stream !*
He had his reward. Who ever missed it ? From mythological Cain who slew his brother, down to Judas Iscariot and Aaron Burr; from Jesus of Nazareth down to the least man that dies or lives — who ever lost his reward ? None. No; not one. Within the wicked heart there dwells the avenger, with unseen hands to adjust the cord, to poison the fatal bowl. In the inpenetrable citadel of a good man's consciousness, unseen by mortal eyes, there stands the Palladium of Justice, radiant with celestial light; mortal hands may make and mar, - this they can mar not, no more than they can make. Things about the man can others build up or destroy; but no foe, no tyrant, no assassin, can ever steal the man out of the man. Who would not have the consciousness of being right, even of trying to be right, though affronted by a whole world, rather than conscious of being wrong and hollow and false, have all the honors of a nation on his head? Of late years no party stood up for Mr. Adams, “ the madman of Massachusetts," as they called him on the floor of Congress; but he knew that he had, and in his old age, done one work, — he had contended for the unalienable rights of man, done it faithfully. The government of God is invisible, His justice the more certain, - and by that Mr.
, Adams had his abundant reward.
But he had his poorer and outward rewards, negative and positive. For his zeal in behalf of freedom he was called “a monarchist in disguise," "an alien to the true interests of his country,” “a traitor.” A slave-holder from Kentucky pub
a lished to his constituents that he was sincerely desirous to check that man, for if he could be removed from the councils of the nation, or silenced upon the exasperating subject to which he seems to have devoted himself, none other, I believe, could be found hardy enough or bad enough to fill his place.” It was worth something to have an enemy speak such praise as that: but the slave-holder was wrong in his conjecture; the North has yet other sons not less hardy, not more likely to
*" Acer et indomitus, quo spes, quoque ira vocasset,
Ferre manum, et nunquam temerando parcere ferro;
Obstaret, gaudensque viam fecisse ruina.”