Reference Entry

Adams, John Quincy

Kevin D. Roberts

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Adams, John Quincy

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author of an autobiographical slave narrative, was born near Winchester, Virginia, to slave parents whose names are now unknown. Adams and his family were owned by George F. Calomese, a member of a prominent planter family. John Quincy Adams and his twin brother were one of four pairs of twins born to their mother, who had twenty-five children.What we know of Adams's life comes from his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of John Quincy Adams (1872), which briefly traces Adams's life as a slave and as a freeman. Written in simple, plain language, the Narrative captures the tragedy of slavery in powerful ways. The most poignant events in Adams's early life involve the sale of family members and friends. In 1857 the sale of his twin brother Aaron and his sister Sallie left Adams “very sad and heart-broken” (Adams, 28). Though crushed by the loss, he maintained contact with Aaron for a time through correspondence: “Two or three years after I heard from my dear brother. He had been sold seven times, and was bought every time for a house servant. The last time he was sold a gentleman bought him in Memphis, Tennessee. There he lived for some time, and when he got a chance he wrote to us” (Adams, 28–29). The two then lost contact. In 1868, after a friend of John's had encountered Aaron in Memphis, Tennessee, the brothers were reunited. Appreciating that freedom meant that they could visit each other at will, the brothers had their rejoicing tempered by their failure to locate Sallie Ann. “But still I sorrow yet,” Adams wrote. “My dear sister, Sallie Ann Adams, who was sold with brother Aaron, has not been heard from yet, but we still hope that God will bless us with that opportunity to meet her on earth. If not, this is our hope in the last days” (Adams, 31).Adams's parents had instilled a deep faith in him and his siblings, which he carried throughout his life. Sunday church gatherings and biblical readings that promised salvation for the poor and oppressed were comforting to slaves. Religion also served to make slaves, including John Quincy Adams, keenly aware of their illiteracy. Possessing a strong desire to read and write from an early age, Adams augmented whatever instruction he received from his father, who could read, by listening to the conversations of his owners and acquiring whatever learning he could by stealth. “The man who would deprive another of learning to read and write, and learn wisdom does not fear God,” Adams concluded. “They [slave owners] took my labor to educate their children, and then laughed at me for being ignorant and poor, and had not sense enough to know that they were the cause of it” (Adams, 12).That anger toward the institution of slavery spurred Adams and his family to escape their plantation on 27 June 1862. As the Union general John W. Geary's division approached the Calomese plantation, the Adams family fled. General Geary, however, had issued orders that no one—white or black, free or slave—could leave Winchester. But Adams's father implored Geary to let him and his family through. Geary not only allowed them to continue on, but provided them with a pass to Pennsylvania. John Quincy Adams and his relatives moved from town to town, eventually settling in Harrisburg, where his father bought property, an extraordinary act for anyone fresh from slavery. Though his parents returned to Winchester following the war, John remained in Harrisburg, where he worked as a house servant for several employers. One of the elite whites whom he encountered frequently was General Geary, who was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1866.Adams was deeply philosophical about his escape from slavery. He wrote, “I do not know that I ever stole anything very valuable but one thing, and I think that every just man will say that I done right. In 1862 I stole John Q. Adams from Mr. George F. Calomese, of Winchester, Va. They valued me at $2,000. At that rate I stole $2,000” (Adams, 47). The act of “stealing himself” allowed Adams to find employment in various hotels as a bellhop and waiter. Most important for him, his wages allowed him to purchase books and pursue his lifelong interest in learning to read and write.At the conclusion of his narrative, Adams included several personal letters of recommendation written by employers, friends, and attorneys who vouched for his integrity and for the veracity of his life story. In addition, Adams included the first clause of the Declaration of Independence, undoubtedly to draw his readers' attention to the phrase, “all men are created equal.” Likewise Adams inserted the text of the three Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the Thirteenth, which ended slavery; the Fourteenth, which granted citizenship to African Americans; and the Fifteenth, which extended suffrage to black men. Narrative of the Life of John Quincy Adams is an important example of the genre of the slave narrative. It demonstrates much of what modern-day historians have sought to capture about the experience of slavery. In Adams's work we see not only the cruelty of slavery, but the slaves' heroic efforts to maintain their families, acquire education, and resist an institution that sought to degrade them to the level of commodities. We see their unquenchable thirst for freedom; there are no “contented slaves” in the story of John Quincy Adams.

Reference Entry.  928 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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