John Adams on the abolition of slavery, 1801

A primary source by John Adams

John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, January 24, 1801. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)On January 24, 1801, President John Adams responded to two abolitionists who had sent him an anti-slavery pamphlet by Quaker reformer Warner Mifflin (1745–1798). In the letter, Adams expressed his views on slavery, the dangers posed by abolitionists (who at the time were mostly Quakers and unpopular religious radicals), and emancipation. Of slavery Adams writes, “my opinion against it has always been known,” noting that he has “always employed freemen both as Domisticks and Labourers, and never in my Life did I own a Slave.”

Adams, despite being opposed to slavery, did not support abolitionism except if it was done in a “gradual” way with “much caution and Circumspection.” Adams dismisses radical abolitionist measures as “produc[ing] greater violations of Justice and Humanity, than the continuance of the practice” of slavery itself. Adams also wrongly asserts that “the practice of Slavery is fast diminishing.” Rather than declining, slavery was growing in America. The 1790 census counted almost 700,000 slaves. According to the census of 1800, the year before Adams wrote this letter, that number had grown to almost 900,000.

In closing, Adams writes that he does “wish you Success in your benevolent Endeavors to relieve the distress of our fellow Creatures, and Shall always be ready to cooperate with you, as far as my means and Opportunities can reasonably be expected to extend.”

A full transcript is available.

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