Why Didn't They Tell You?

Dr. FRANK MARTINS COMMENTARY ON HISTORICAL, SOCIAL & ECONOMIC ISSUES OF OUR TIME

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that President John Quincy Adams believed that the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were also for People of African descent?

that President John Quincy Adams believed that the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were also for People of African descent?

Implicit in the often heard, and erroneous statement, that the U. S. Constitution made a Black Person three-fifths of a person is the idea that the high sounding ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not meant for Black People, understanding that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution go hand-in-hand. It follows that if a Black Person is considered to be only three-fifths of a person, surely he cannot be deemed to be created equal to a White Person. By appealing to the actual words of the Constitution, my last blog demonstrated, I believe, that the U. S. Constitution did not define a black person as three-fifths of a person. Since it is written in 2 Corinthians 13:1b, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established”, I shall now bring forth the 6th President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, as my second witness, along with several other witnesses.

Since John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, was there when the Constitution was ratified, his testimony should carry a lot of weight. Born almost ten years before the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, he was the eldest son of the second President of the United States, John Adams. He was twenty years old when the U. S. Constitution was drafted in 1787 and twenty-two when it was ratified in 1789 and a law student at the time.  He was involved in the battle to ratify the Constitution, having initially opposed its ratification but later came around to supporting it. In short, John Quincy Adams surely has the standing, so to speak, to speak to the issue at hand.

Adams, having returned to Washington as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives after his stint as President, agreed to represent the African captives in the Amistad case before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1841. At one point in his argument before the Court, Adams asserted that, ““The Constitution nowhere recognizes them [slaves] as property. The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which these parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are recognized only as persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of their duties (italics added)”1. Eureka! On reading this passage, I understood why the words slave, slavery, or Negro were not mentioned in the original Constitution, something I had pondered on for years. Pivotal to Adams’ argument on behalf of the captured Africans was the conviction that these captured Black Africans were due the same consideration as whites in enjoying the rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, had the right, given to them by their Creator, to overthrow their captors on the slave ship Amistad, which they did.

Some contemporary views of the issue are expressed by several commentators in the documentary Liberty and Slavery. Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain, opined that Jefferson meant to include black men when he said “all men are created equal” and many other scholars think so too. Author K. Carl Smith believes that what the Founding Fathers said has to be taken at face value. In this documentary, Travis Hickens expressed the belief that Jefferson intended all races to be included. He notes that it is significant that Adams (father of John Quincy Adams) and Jefferson changed the phrase from “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Furthermore, “They were not enshrining slavery [mention of the word was studiously avoided]; so it could be changed”. In actuality, “They were planting a time bomb in the Declaration”. Martin Luther King used that time bomb when he appealed to the Declaration of Independence in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Why did they resort to these circumlocutions – the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive2? I believe it was because they wanted to set up a new government and, therefore, they did not want to antagonize the slave-holding interest, who could have sabotaged the whole undertaking. As another commentator in the Liberty and Slavery documentary pointed out, this was a fragile time and it was not a “foregone conclusion that it [this new Republic] would work.” Eighty-four years after the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, referred to America as an “experiment” that was being tested by a bloody and horrible Civil War. Meanwhile the lofty ideals of equality and liberty for all races is there in the founding document but is not stated directly in the Constitution; it is covered up by the fig leaves of language, waiting to explode.

When the Supreme Court rendered a 7 to1 (Justice Philip Barbour died in his sleep during the trial) decision to uphold the rulings of two lower courts, the majority opinion was written and read by Associate Justice Joseph Story. The Chief Justice, Roger Taney, voted with the majority of 7 to free the captured Africans. The Africans were freed and returned to Sierra Leone, West Africa.

I believe that the Amistad decision was one of the most important decisions of American jurisprudence. It shouted out loud that the lofty ideals of the Declaration of Independence also applied to people of African descent who are part of the human race, something that apologists for slavery tried to deny. One of their supports had been knocked from under them. Twenty years later (1861), the Civil War would start with the secession of eleven slave states and the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. This was the beginning of the end to slavery.

My next blog will discuss the Dred Scott ruling for which Chief Justice Taney wrote the majority opinion and the incisively brilliant dissenting opinion written by Associate Justice Benjamin R. Curtis

References and Notes

1. John Quincy Adams’ argument in the Amistad case can be found at https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/amistad_002.asp. This particular quotation is found on page 38.

2. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. Accessed at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slave

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