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The abolition of slavery online

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Extracts from the speech of John Quincy Adams, delivered in the
U. S. House of Representatives, April 14 and 15, 1842, on War
with Great Britain and Mexico : —

What I say is involuntary, because the subject has been
brought into the House from another quarter, as the gentle-
man himself admits. I would leave that institution to the
exclusive consideration and management of the States more
peculiarly interested in it, just as long as they can keep
within their own bounds. So far, I admit that Congress has
no power to meddle with it. As long as they do not step
out of their own bounds, and do not put the question to the
people of the United States, whose peace, welfare and happi-
ness are all at stake, so long I will agree to leave them to
themselves. But when a member from a free State brings
forward certain resolutions, for which, instead of reasoning to
disprove his positions, you vote a censure upon him, and that
without hearing, it is quite another affair. At the time this
was done, I said that, as far as I could understand the resolu-
tions proposed by the gentleman from Ohio, (Mr. Giddings,)
there were some of them for which I was ready to vote, and
some which I must vote against; and I will now tell this
House, my constituents, and the world of mankind, that the
resolution against which I would have voted was that in
which he declares that what are called the slave States have
the exclusive right of consultation on the subject of slavery.
For that resolution I never would vote, because I believe


ttat it is not just, and does not contain constitutional doc-
trine. I believe that, so long as the slave States are able to
sustain their institutions without going abroad or calling upon
other parts of the Union to aid them or act on the subject, so
long I will consent never to interfere. I have said this, and
I repeat it ; but if they come to the free States, and say to
them, you must help us to keep down our slaves, you must
aid us in an insurrection and a civil war, then I say that with
that call comes a full and plenary power to this House and
to the Senate over the whole subject. It is a war power.
I say it is a war power, and when your country is actually in
war, whether it be a war of invasion or a war of insurrection,
Congress has power to carry on the war, and must carry it
on, according to the laws of war ; and by the laws of war, an
invaded country has all its laws and municipal institutions
swept by the board, and martial law takes the place of them.
This power in Congress has, perhaps, never been called into
exercise under the present Constitution of the United States.
But when the laws of war are in force, what, I ask, is one of
those laws ? It is this : that when a country is invaded, and
two hostile armies are set in martial array, the commanders
of both armies have -power to emancipate all the slaves in
the invaded territory. Nor is this a mere theoretic state-
ment. The history of South America shows that the doc-
trine has been carried into practical execution within the last
thirty years. Slavery was abolished in Columbia, first, by
the Spanish General Morillo, and, secondly, by the American
General Bolivar. It was aljolished by virtue of a military
command given at the head of the army, and its abolition
continues to be law to this day. It was abolished by the laws
of war, and not by municipal enactments ; the power was
exercised by military commanders, under instructions, of
course, from their respective Governments. And here I
recur again to the example of Gen. Jackson. What are you
now about in Congress? You are about passing a grant to
refund to Gen. Jackson the amount of a certain fine imposed
upon him by a Judge, under the laws of the State of Louisi-
ana. You are going to refund him the money, with interest;
and this you are going to do because the imposition of the
fine was unjust. And why was it unjust ? Because Gen.
Jackson was acting under the laws of war, and because the


moment you place a military commander in a district which
is the theatre of war, the laws of war apply to that district.

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I might furnish a thousand proofs to show that the pre-
tensions of gentlemen to the sanctity of their municipal in-
stitutions under a state of actual invasion and of actual war,
whether servile, civil or foreign, is wholly unfounded, and
that the laws of war do, in all such cases, take the prece-
dence. I lay this down as the law of nations. I say that
military authority takes, for the time, the place of all muni-
cipal institutions, and slavery among the rest; and that,
under that state of things, so far from its being true that the
States where slavery exists have the exclusive management of
the subject, not only the President of the United States, but
the Commander of the Army, has power to order the universal
emancipation of the slaves. I have given here more in
detail a principle which I have asserted on this floor before
now, and of which I have no more doubt than that you, sir,
occupy that chair. I give it in its development, in order that
any gentleman from any part of the Union may, if he thinks
proper, deny the truth of the position, and may maintain his
denial ; not by indignation, not by passion and fury, but by
sound and sober reasoning from the laws of nations and the
laws of war. And if my position can be answered and
refuted, I shall receive the refutation with pleasure ; I shall
be glad to listen to reason, aside, as I say, from indignation
and passion. And if, by the force of reasoning, my under-
standing can be convinced, I here pledge myself to recant
what I have asserted.

Let my position be answered ; let me be told, let my con-
stituents be told, the people of my State be told — a State
whose soil tolerates not the foot of a slave — that they are
bound by the Constitution to a long and toilsome march under
burning summer suns and a deadly Southern clime for the
suppression of a servile war ; that they are bound to leave
their bodies to rot upon the sands of Carolina, to leave their
wives widows and their children orphans ; that those who can-
not march are bound to pour out their treasures while their sons
or brothers are pouring out their blood to suppress a servile,
combined with a civil or a foreign war, and yet that there
exists no power beyond the limits of the slave State where


such, war is raging to emancipate the slaves. I say, let this
be proved — I am open to conviction ; but till that conviction
comes, I put it forth not as a dictate of feeling, but as a set-
tled maxim of the laws of nations, that, in such a case, the
military supersedes the civil power; and on this account I
should have been obliged to vote, as I have said, against one
of the resolutions of my excellent friend from Ohio, (Mr.
Giddings,) or should at least have required that it be amended
in conformity with the Constitution of the United States.


We published, not long ago, an extract from a speech de-
livered by John Quiucy Adams in Congress in 1842, in which
that eminent statesman confidently announced the doctrine,
that in a state of war, civil or servile, in the Southern States,
Congress has full and plenary power over the whole subject
of slavery ; martial law takes the place of civil laws and
municipal institutions, slavery among the rest, and " not only
the President of the United States, but the Commander of
the Army, has power to order the universal emancipation of
the slaves."

Mr. Adams was, in 1842, under the ban of the slavehold-
ers, who were trying to censure him or expel him from the
House for ptreseuting a petition in favor of the dissolution of
the Union. Lest it may be thought that the doctrine an-
nounced at this time was thrown out hastily and ofiensively,
and for the purpose of annoying and aggravating his enemies,
and without due consideration, it may be worth while to show
that six years previous, in May, 1836, Mr. Adams held the
same opinions, and announced them as plainly as in 1842.
Indeed, it is quite likely that this earlier announcement of
these views was the cause of the secret hostility to the ex-
President, which broke out so rancorously in 1842. We
have before us a speech by Mr. Adams, on the joint resolu-
tion for distributing rations to the distressed fugitives from
Indian hostilities in the States of Alabama and Georgia, de-
livered in the House of Representatives, May 25, 1836, and


published at the office of the National Intelligencer. We
quote from it the following classification of the powers ' of
Congress and the Executive: —

"There are, then, Mr. Chairman, in the authority of Congress
and of the Executive, two classes of powers, altogether different in
their nature, and often incompatible with each other — the war
power and the peace power. The peace power is limited by regu-
lations and restricted by provisions prescribed within the Constitu-
tion itself The war power is limited only by the laws and usages
of nations. This power is tremendous : it is strictly constitutional,
but it breaks down every barrier so anxiously erected for the protec-
tion of liberty, of property, and of life. This, sir, is the power
which authorizes you to pass the resolution now before you, and, in
my opinion, no other."

After an interruption, Mr. Adams returned to this subject,
and went on to say : —

" There are, indeed, powers of peace conferred upon Congress
which also come within the scope and jurisdiction of the laws of
nations, such as the negotiation of treaties of amity and commerce,
the interchange of public ministers and consuls, and all the personal
and social intercourse between the individual inhabitants of the
United States and foreign nations, and the Indian tribes, which
require the interposition of any law. But the powers of war are all
regulated by the laws of nations, and are subject to no other limita-
tion It was upon this principle that I voted against the reso-
lution reported by the slavery committee, 'that Congress possess no
constitutional authority to interfere, in any loay, with the institution of
slavery in any of the States of this Confederacy,' to which resolu-
tion most of those Avith whom I usually concur, and even my own
colleagues in this House, gave their assent. / do not admit that
there is, even among the peace powers of Congress, no such authority; but
in war, there are many ways by which Congress not only have the authority,

VERY IN THE States. The existing law prohibiting the importa-
tion of slaves into the United States from foreign countries is itself
an interference with the institution of slavery in the States. It was
so considered by the founders of the Constitution of the United
States, in which it was stipulated that Congress should not interfere,
in that way, with the institution, prior to the year 1808.

" During the late war with Great Britain, the military and naval
commanders of that nation issued proclamations, inviting the slaves
to repair to their standard, with promises of freedom and of settle-
ment in some of the British colonial establishments. This surely
was an interference with the institution of slavery in the States.
Bv the treaty of peace. Great Britain stipulated to evacuate all the
forts and places in the United States, without carrying away any
slaves. If the Government of the United States had no power to


interfere, in any iccvj, with the institution of slavery in the States,
they would not have had the authority to require this stipulation
It is well known that this engagement was not fulfilled by the Bnt
ish naval and military commanders ; that, on the contrary, they did
carry away all the slaves whom they had induced to join them, and
that the British Government inflexibly refused to restore any of
them to their masters; that a claim of indemnity was consequently
instituted in behalf of the owners of the slaves, and was successfully
maintained. All that series of transactions was an interference by
Congress with the institution of slavery in the States in one way —
in the way of protection and support. It was by the institution of
slavery alone that the restitution of slaves, enticed by proclamations
into the British service, could be claimed as property. But for the
institution of slavery, the British commanders could neither have
allured them to their standard, nor restored them otherwise than as
liberated prisoners of war. But for the institution of slavery, there
could have been no stipulation that they should not be carried away
as property, nor any claim of indemnity for the violation of that en-

If this speech had been made in 1860 instead of 1836,
Mr. Adams would not have been compelled to rely upon
these comparatively trivial and unimportant instances of in-
terference by Congress and the President for the support and
protection of slavery. For the last twenty years, the support
and protection of that institution has been, to use Mr.
Adams's words at a later day, the vital and animating spirit
of the Government ; and the Constitution has been interpreted
and administered as if it contained an injunction upon all
men, in power and out of power, to sustain and perpetuate
slavery. Mr. Adams goes on to state how the war power
may be used : —

"But the war power of Congress over the institution of slavery
in the States is yet far more extensive. Suppose the case of a ser-
vile war, complicated, as to some extent it is even now, with an In-
dian war; suppose Congress were called to raise armies, to supply
money from the whole Union to suppress a servile insiirrection :
would they have no authority to interfere with the institution of sla-
very 1 The issue of a servile war nwy be disastrous ; it may become
necessary for the master of the slave to recognize his emancipation
by a treaty of peace ; can it for an instant be pretended that Con-
gress, in such a contingency, would have no authority to interfere
with the institution of slavery, in an;) icay, in the States 1 Why, it
would be equivalent to saying that Congress have no constitutional
authority to make peace. I suppose a more portentous case, cer-
tainly within the bounds of possibility — I^ would to God I could
say, not within the bounds of probability — "



Mr. Adams here, at considerable length, portrays the dan-
ger then existing of a war with Mexico, involving England
and the European powers, bringing hostile armies and fleets
to our own Southern territory, and inducing not only a foreign
war, but an Indian, a civil, and a servile war, and making of
the Southern States "the battle-field upon which the last
great conflict will be fought between Slavery and Emancipa-
tion." " Do you imagine (he asks) that your Congress will
have no constitutional authority to interfere with the institu-
tion of slavery, in amj waij, in the States of this Confederacy?
Sir, they must and will interfere with zY— perhaps to sustain
it by war, perhaps to abolish it by treaties of peace ; and
they will not only possess the constitutional power so to
interfere, but they will he bound in duty to do it, by the ex-
press provisions of the Constitution itself. From the instant
that your slaveholding States become the theatre of a war,
civil servile, or foreign, from that instant, the war powers of
Congress extend to interference with the institution of slave-
ry, in every ivay by ivhich it can be interfered with, from a
claim of indemnity for slaves taken or destroyed, to the ces-
sion of States burdened with slavery to a foreign poiverr —
New York Tribune,


To THE Editor of the New York Tribune:

SiR^ — Our country is opening up a new page in the history
of governments. The world has never witnessed such a
spontaneous uprising of any people in support of free institu-
tions as that now exhibited by the citizens of our Northern


I observe that the vexed question of slavery still has to be
met, both in the Cabinet and in the field. It has been met by
former Presidents, by former Cabinets, and by former mili-
tary officers. They have established a train of precedents
that may be well followed at this day. I write now for the
purpose of inviting attention to those principles of interna-
tional law which are regarded by publicists and jurists as.


proper guides in the exercise of that despotic and almost un-
limited authority called the " war power." A synopsis of
these doctrines was given by Major Greneral Gaines, at New
Orleans, in 1838.

Greneral Jessup had captured many fugitive slaves and In-
dians in Florida, and had ordered them to be sent west of the
Mississippi. At New Orleans, they were claimed by the
owners, under legal process ; but Gen. Gaines, commanding
that military district, refused to deliver them to the sheriff,
and appeared in court, stating his own defence.

He declared that these people (men, women and children)
were captured in war, and held as prisoners of war : that as
commander of that military department or district, he held
them subject only to the order of the National Executive :
that he could recognize no other power in time of war, or by
the laws of war, as authorized to take prisoners from his pos-

He asserted that, in time of war, all slaves were bellige-
rents as much as their masters. The slave men, said he,
cultivate the earth and supply provisions. The women cook
the food, nurse the wounded and sick, and contribute to the
maintenance of the war, often more than the same number of
males. The slave children equally contribute whatever they
are able to the support of the war. Indeed, he well support-
ed General Butler's declaration, that slaves are contraband of

The military officer, said he, can enter into no judicial ex-
amination of the claim of one man to the bone and muscle of
another as property. Nor could he, as a military officer,
know what the laws of Florida were while engaged in main-
taining the Federal Government by force of arms. In such
case, he could only be guided by the laws of war ; and what-
ever may be the li^ws of any State, they must yield to the
safety of the Federal Government. This defence of General
Gaines may be found in House Document No. 225, of the
Second Session of the 25th Congress.. He sent the slaves
West, where they became free.

Louis, the slave of a man named Pacheco, botrnyed Major
Dade's battalion, in 1836, and when he had witnessed their
massacre, he joined the enemy. Two years subsequeptiy, Ije
was captured. Pacheco claimed him ; General Jessup said


if he had time, he would try him before a court-martial and
hang him, but would not deliver him to any man. He how-
ever sent him West, and the fugitive slave became a free
man, and is now fighting the Texans. General Jessup re-
ported his action to the War Department, and Mr. Van Buren,
then President, with his Cabinet, approved it. Pacheco then
appealed to Congress, asking that body to pay him for the
loss of his slave; and Mr. Greeley will recollect that he and
myself, and a majority of the House of Representatives,
voted against the bill, which was rejected. All concurred in
the opinion that General Jessup did right in emancipating the
slave, instead of returning him to his master.

In 1838, General Taylor captured a number of negroes
said to be fugitive slaves. Citizens of Florida, learning what
had been done, immediately gathered around his camp,
intending to secure the slaves who had escaped from them.
General Taylor told them that he had no prisoners but " pris-
oners of war." The claimants then desired to look at them,
in order to determine whether he was holding their slaves as
prisoners. The veteran warrior replied that no man should
examine his prisoners for such a purpose; and he ordered
them to depart. This action being reported to the War De-
partment, was approved by the Executive. The slaves, how-
ever, were sent West, and set free.

In 1836, General Jessup wanted guides and men to act as
spies. He therefore engaged several fugitive slaves to act as
such, agreeing to secure the freedom of themselves and fami-
lies if they served the Government faithfully. They agreed
to do so, fulfilled their agreement, were sent West, and set
free. Mr. Van Buren's Administration approved the con-
tract, and Mr. Tyler's Administration approved the manner
in which General Jessup fulfilled it by setting the slaves free.

In December, 1814, General Jackson impressed a large
number of slaves at and near New Orleans, and kept them at
work erecting defences, behind which his troops won such
glory on the 8th of January, 1815. The masters remon-
strated. Jackson disregarded their remonstrances, and kept
the slaves at work until many of them were killed by the
enemy's shots; yet his action was approved by Mr. Madison
and Cabinet, and by Congress, which has ever refused to pay
the masters for their losses.


But in all these cases, tlie masters were professedly friends
of the Grovernment; and yet our Presidents and Cabinets and
Generals have not hesitated to emancipate their slaves when-
ever in time of war it was supposed to be for the interest of
the country to do so. This was done in the exercise of the
"war power" to which Mr. Adams referred in Congress, and
for which he had the most abundant authority. But I think
no records of this nation, nor of any other nation, will show
an instance in which a fugitive slave has been sent back to a
master who was in rebellion against the very Government
who held his slave as captive.

From these precedents I deduce the following doctrines: —

1. That slaves belonging to an enemy are now and have
ever been regarded as belligerents; may be lawfully captured
and set free, sent out of the State, or otherwise disposed of at
the will of the Executive.

2. That as slaves enable an enemy to continue and carry
on the war now waged against our Government, it becomes
the duty of all officers and loyal citizens to use every proper
means to induce the slaves to leave their masters, and cease
lending aid and comfort to the rebels.

3. That in all cases it becomes the duty of the Executive,
and of all Executive officers and loyal citizens, to aid, assist
and encourage those slaves who have escaped from rebel mas-
ters to continue their flight and maintain their liberty.

4. That to send back a fugitive slave to a rebel master
would be lending aid and assistance to the rebellion. That
those who arrest and send back such fugitives identify them-
selves with the enemies of our Government, and should be
indicted as traitors.


Montreal, June 6, 1861.

[lT' Accordingly, let old Virginia begin to put her house in
order, and pack up for the removal of her half million of
slaves, for fear of the impending storm. She has invited it,
and only a speedy repentance will save her from being dashed
to pieces among the rocks and surging billows of this dread-
ful revolution. — New York Herald, April 22,



The New York Courier and Enquirer, in an editorial,
apparently from Gen. Webb's own hand, discourses as fol-
lows : —

"Most assuredly these madmen are calling down upon
themselves a fearful retribution. We are no Abolitionists, as
the columns of the Courier and Enquirer, for the whole
period of its existence, now thirty-four years, will abundantly
demonstrate. And for the whole of that period, except the
first six months of its infancy, it has been under our exclusive
editorial charge.

" Never, during that long period, has an Abolition senti-
ment found its way into our columns; and for the good rea-
son, that we have respected, honored and revered the Consti-
tution, and recognized our duty to obey and enforce its
mandates. But Kebellion stalks through the land. A con-
federacy of slave States has repudiated that Constitution ;

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Online LibraryWilliam Lloyd] [GarrisonThe abolition of slavery → online text (page 1 of 3)