« Twenty of the Best | Main | Another quadriennial choosing. »

Spring 1841

Yesterday, Your Humble Blogger participated in an event commemorating the 175th anniversary to the Amistad case, in the Old State House in Hartford, where the case was first argued. It was a moving event of speeches, sermons, music and dance, along with two performances: Valerie Tutson gave a "view from the balcony", evoking the life of an African-American woman of that time and place, and I gave a bit of John Quincy Adams’ argument before the Supreme Court. It was a terrific event, very moving— Connecticut has a complicated and challenging history, and people being moved to grapple with it, challenge it back, and fight—not in anger, or least not consumed by anger, but in hope—was inspirational. My own piece was more problematic, I think. Or at least I was aware of it, as a white man impersonating a powerful white man, joining a white Mayor and a white Governor in a room of (mostly) African-Americans, talking about justice. Well, and perhaps it was instructive, at that.

I spoke for about five minutes, almost entirely in the words of JQA. The bulk of it was taken from the Supreme Court argument that was published at the time, with a few bits I added from his diaries. Appearing in character, and briefly, meant that I did not have to deal with the complexities of the man and his time; I spoke forcefully of justice and human emancipation, and then sat down. I did a little research, but not much. And fortunately, nobody asked me penetrating questions afterward, so that was all right.

What struck me, reading the diaries from the beginning of 1841, was something—well, a combination of three things, really—that had nothing, really, to do with the Amistad case at all, but was just… well, interesting to me. So I’ll pass it along to you, in case you find it interesting as well.

If you associate anything in US History with March 1841, it is likely the brief presidency of Willian Henry Harrison, who was sworn in March 4 and died April 4. Mr. Adams writes not very positively ("The coup-d’œil of this day was showy-shabby.") of the inaugural parade, which passed by his house as he was reading materials for the Amistad case. He doesn’t mention the President’s health again until April 2nd, when he alternately calls the news alarming, but then says that the report is that the President is quite out of danger. Two days later, he was dead. I was eleven years old when Reagan was shot and as far as I remember, by the time I heard about it, he was considered certain to recover. President Kennedy’s death of course was a matter of minutes, as were (I believe) FDR’s and Harding’s. William McKinley was the last President to linger and then die. I cannot imagine what it would be like for this country, in our current culture, to have a President in extreme ill-health, likely to (but not certain to) die. Even at the time, it must have been overwhelming—and of course for Mr. Adams, this was a man he knew, and the sheer logistical consequences affected almost everyone he know. Not to mention his own attendance at the funeral, as Ex-President, slotted in the procession between the Acting President and the Justices of the Supreme Court, before which he has just the month before appeared.

Well, the surviving Justices. That’s the second part of this combination: the day after John Quincy Adams began his argument (speaking for four and a half hours), that is, February 25, 1841, he arrived at the court to discover "that Philip P. Barbour, of Virginia, one of the Judges of the Court before whom I had yesterday argued, was found dead in his bed, as if yet asleep, and without the appearance of having suffered a pang." In the conclusion to his argument before the court, Mr. Adams made a brief and sentimental personal statement:

As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall—Cushing—Chase—Washington—Johnson—Livingston—Todd—Where are they? Where is that eloquent statesman and learned lawyer who was my associate counsel in the management of that cause, Robert Goodloe Harper? Where is that brilliant luminary, so long the pride of Maryland and of the American Bar, then my opposing counsel, Luther Martin? Where is the excellent clerk of that day, whose name has been inscribed on the shores of Africa, as a monument of his abhorrence of the African slave-trade, Elias B. Caldwell? Where is the marshal—where are the criers of the Court? Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone! —Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. From the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I have had the means of knowing, I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high.

The third thing happened a bit earlier, and I’ll just type out from the diary entry of February 18th:

A severe visitation of Providence.

There was an exhibition at a quarter-before eleven, in the front yard of the Capitol, of firing with Colt’s repeating firearm—a new-invented instrument of destruction, for discharging twelve times a musket in as many seconds. I rode to the Capitol with Mr. Smith. We had alighted from the carriage from five to ten minutes, when the firing commenced. My carriage was then going out of the yard; the horses took fright, the carriage was jammed against a messenger’s wagon, overset, the pole and a whipple-tree broken, the harness nearly demolished; the coachman, Jeremy Leary, and the footman, John Causten, precipitated from the box, and Jerry nearly killed on the spot. He was taken into one of the lower rooms of the Capitol, where, as soon as I heard of the disaster, I found him, in excruciating torture. John Causten, a colored man, was taken to the house of his uncle, who lives on the Capitol Hill.

John Adams visited Mr. Causten at his uncle’s and reported him not seriously injured, but Jeremy Leary died the next day. Mr. Adams attended the funeral at the Roman Catholic church (the old man’s rather nasty anti-Catholic sentiment, or his anti-Semitism for that matter, doesn’t appear to have factored in to his relationships with actual Catholics or Jews, as is fairly common) and seems to have been genuinely broken up about the death. He calls him "my poor, humble but excellent friend" and describes "a heart melted with sorrow". While he doesn’t, as far as I can tell, write any further about the unfortunate Mr. Leary, or for that matter the footman Mr. Causten, that isn’t altogether surprising in a diary largely devoted to the matters of public life.

At any rate, it struck me that John Quincy Adams must have felt himself surrounded by mortality that Spring. On the 18th February, his coachman is killed in an accident five minutes after dropping him off; on the 24th, after he spoke for four and a half hours before the Supreme Court, one of the Justices went to bed and never got up; a little more than a month later, a month after inheriting his old office, the President of the United States died. On his 74th birthday, the next summer, he wrote that he could not rationally expect to see another. He did, as it happened, live past 80, but that Spring—what we remember now as the Amistad triumph, for which he is more admired by history than all of his time as legislator, diplomat and President—must have seemed to him very somber and sad.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,