By the great majority of those now living Mr. Adams is known only as having once been President of the United States and as belonging to a very distinguished family. His name is rarely mentioned. There was a time, however, when no other name was heard so often in this country, or which, when used, excited such violent and conflicting emotions. It can justly be said that for many years John Quincy Adams, individually and practically alone, by his services in Congress, sustained what Anti-Slavery sentiment there was in the nation. It was but a spark, but he kept it alive and gradually extended its conflagration.
When Adams entered Congress opposition to slavery was at its lowest ebb. It was almost extinct. The victory of the slaveholders in the Missouri contest had elated them most tremendously and had correspondingly depressed and cowed their adversaries. As a general thing, the latter had given up all idea of making any further fight. Northern Presidents, Northern Congressmen, Northern editors, Northern churchmen, were the most ready and servile supporters slavery had. Anti-Slavery societies had been abandoned. Anti-Slavery journals had perished. Disapprovers of the “institution,” with the exception of a few men of the Lundy stamp and the Lundy obscurity, were silent. There was one magnificent exception.
It was at that crisis that John Quincy Adams entered Congress and began a fight against slavery that, covering a period of seventeen years, literally lasted to the last day of his life. He was carried helpless and dying from the floor of Congress, where he had fallen when in the discharge of his duties.
The position of Mr. Adams, who had been elected as an independent candidate, was unique. He owed his official place to no political party, and was, therefore, free from party shackles in regulating his course. He took up the fight for the black man’s freedom as one who was himself absolutely free. Most wonderfully did he conduct that fight. There was nothing in the eloquence of Demosthenes in Athens, of Cicero in Rome, of Mirabeau in France, of Pitt or Gladstone in England, that surpassed the force and grandeur of the philippics of Adams against American slavery. Alone, for the greater part of his service in Congress, he stood in the midst of his malignant assailants like a rock in a stormy sea. Old man that he was, plainly showing the in-roads of physical weakness, he was in that body of distinguished and able men more than a match for any or all of his antagonists. He was always “the old man eloquent.” Says one of our leading historical writers:
“As a parliamentary debater he had few, if any, superiors. In knowledge and dexterity there was no one in the House that could be compared with him. He was literally a walking cyclopedia. He was terrible in invective, matchless at repartee, and insensible to fear. A single-handed fight against all the slaveholders in the House was something upon which he was always ready to enter.”
Speaking of his effectiveness in congressional encounters another Congressman writes: