Harlow Giles Unger: John Quincy Adams, the forgotten father of Emancipation

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harlow-giles-unger/the-forgotten-father-of-e_b_2562260.html?utm_hp_ref=books

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As with most good films, books, and plays about our 16th President, the cheers for Steven Spielberg’s wonderful film Lincoln have obscured the lives of those who preceded Lincoln and laid the groundwork for his Emancipation Proclamation.

More than twenty years before Lincoln ever uttered the word “emancipation,” the courageous sixth President of the United States–John Quincy Adams–masterminded the U.S. Supreme Court victory that made the Emancipation Proclamation possible.

In January 1840, a federal district court in New Haven, Connecticut, heard the case of thirty-six Africans who had been prisoners on the slave ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba. Led by a Congolese chief named Cinque, they had broken their chains, killed the captain and three crewmen, and overpowered the white crew. Knowing nothing of navigation, they ordered the white crew to sail them to Africa and, by day, the crew complied. At night, however, crewmen reversed course and eventually sailed into American waters, where an American frigate seized it and took it to New London, Connecticut.

Officials there arrested the Africans and charged them with piracy and murder. But several legal questions complicated the case: Were the Africans property–that is slaves–to be returned to their owners? Or were they people, to be released on habeas corpus and later tried for piracy and murder? And finally, did the United States have jurisdiction or should U.S. authorities release the prisoners to Spanish officials, to do with as they wished under Spanish law?

“The American people,” declared the defense attorneys, “have never imposed it as a duty upon the government of the United States to become actors in an attempt to reduce to slavery men found in a state of freedom by giving extraterritorial force to a foreign slave law.” The prosecution fired back: “Slaves released from slavery by acts of aggression” do not lose their status as the property of their rightful owners “any more than a slave becomes free in Pennsylvania who forcibly escapes from Virginia.”

When the case reached the Supreme Court in January 1841, the retired sixth President, John Quincy Adams, rose to address the justices. By then, Adams had spent a dozen years in the House of Representatives. The first-born son of Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy Adams had been a renowned attorney, diplomat, and fearless Secretary of State before winning election as President in 1824. After losing his bid for a second term, he won election to the House of Representatives, where he spear-headed the battle for abolition until his death in 1848.

“The courtroom was full, but not crowded,” Adams described the Amistad case in his diary. “I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment I rose…. With grateful heart for aid from above…I spoke four hours and a half, with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the judges.”

“Justice,” he began, “as defined in the Institutes of Justinian nearly 2,000 years ago…is the constant and perpetual will to secure everyone his own right….  I appear here on behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this court…. Thirty-two or three have been charged with the crime of murder. Three or four of them are female children, incapable, in the judgment of our laws, of the crime of murder or piracy or, perhaps, of any other crime…. Yet they have all been held as close prisoners now for the period of eighteen long months.”

John Quincy Adams told the justices of his personal distress in prosecuting the government of his own nation before the nation’s highest court and, indeed, “before the civilized world.” But, he said, it was his duty. “I must do it. The government is still in power…the lives and liberties of all my clients are in its hands…. The charge I make against the present administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunates, instead of that justice which they were bound not less than this honorable court itself to observe, they have substituted sympathy with one of the parties and antipathy to the other: Sympathy with the white; antipathy to the black. And in proof of this charge, I adduce the admission and avowal of the secretary of state himself.”

John Quincy went on to read a letter from Secretary of State John Forsyth of Georgia to the Spanish minister in America, citing the owners of the Amistad “as the only parties aggrieved”–that all the right was on their side and all the wrong on the side of their surviving, self-emancipated victims.

“I ask your honors, was this justice?”

Far from any “flagging of attention,” the judges sat transfixed for more than four hours–until other needs forced them to adjourn. When the Court reconvened, Adams took the floor for three more hours, arguing that the Amistad prisoners had been free men, seized against their will on their native soil, kidnapped onto a ship, where they defended themselves and, in doing so, killed their kidnappers. “What would…every human being in this Union, man, woman, and child, have done for the blessing of freedom?”

The court answered by declaring the prisoners free men and women, and ordered the President of the United States to send them back to Africa–at White House expense. Although the decision did not outlaw slavery itself, it criminalized the commercial slave trade between Africa and the United States as felony-kidnapping. By outlawing the slave trade, the Amistad case was the first step in the nation’s road to abolition and made John Quincy Adams the rightful claimant to the sobriquet Father of Emancipation.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJFDOvGMD0U

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amistad_(film)

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._The_Amistad

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/norman-macafee/victor-hugo-and-abraham-l_b_2564503.html?utm_hp_ref=books&ir=Books

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Adams observer & Lincoln fan Victor Hugo [Les Miserables]

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In this film awards season, two works embody enduring pinnacles of idealism.

I have a horse in this race, I confess. In 1986, I translated with Lee Fahnestock, the Signet Classics edition of Les Miserables. Published in 1987 for the opening of the musical on Broadway, it is the official tie-in edition to the show, with the same logo: little Cosette and the tattered French flag. It is the only complete, unabridged, modern American translation of the novel. Over the past 25 years, our book has become the most popular English-language translation of Les Miserables.

In the spirit of awards season, Lee Fahnestock and I want to publicly thank our predecessor, C. E. Wilbour, on whose impassioned 1862 translation we based ours, and our brilliant editor, LuAnn Walther.

A word about Charles Edwin Wilbour (1833-1896). He was a journalist and lawyer in New York. His translation of Les Miserables was made during the American Civil War. In the 1870s he traveled to Egypt on archaeolgical digs, and his collection of books and artifacts forms the basis of the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian collection.

Hugo, Lincoln, and Wilbour lived in times of revolution and civil war. The nightmare society Hugo depicts in Les Miserables is one so cruel that it sends a poor man to prison for nineteen years because he stole a loaf of bread, and then persecutes him for the rest of his days. “Then he asked himself if it was not a serious thing that he, a workman, could not have found work and that he, an industrious man, should have been without bread” (p. 88 of our edition of Les Miserables).

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was in his time the world’s most popular writer. He was one of the century’s two great world-encompassing novelists, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), with War and Peace, the other.

Hugo was an indomitable opponent of slavery and capital punishment and a champion of the rights of the people. When he died at age 83 in 1885, two million people lined the streets of Paris to pay their respects as his coffin passed by on the way to the Pantheon.

“Look through the medium of the people, and you will discern the truth. This lowly sand that you trample underfoot, if you throw it into the furnace and let it melt and seethe, will become sparkling crystal.” (p. 593 of our translation of Les Miserables)

Hugo is the first in the line of committed writers, which include Whitman, Tolstoy, Dickens, Sartre, Dos Passos, Neruda, Pasolini, Ginsberg, stretching into the future. He was, and remains, a hero of democracy and social justice to the people of the world. If someone’s first name is Hugo, it is likely his parents named him after the author of Les Miserables.

Les Miserables, though very, very long, is distilled like a poem. It endures because of the meanings embodied by the main characters, Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, and Marius: injustice, repression, hate, redemption, reinvention, rebellion, revolution, and love. In the new issue of the magazine Jacobin, David Hancock Turner gives a most helpful history of the critical reception of Les Miserables from 1862 to the present. He notes that the most reactionary and elitist elements of society have been the least receptive to the work’s messages and methods.

I am happy with the new film. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, who wrote the musical, the musical’s producers–the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cameron Mackintosh–the film’s actors and director, are all serious people, and especially so with this great work. They treat the story like a poem. It is sung through, all feeling, like an opera. I cried about Anne Hathaway’s Fantine and when Eddie Redmayne as Marius sang “Empty Chairs,” thinking of those I have loved who are gone.

Now back to Victor Hugo and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): Les Miserableswas published in 1862 in Paris and in the Wilbour translation in New York that same year. Everyone who could get a copy read it avidly. It is likely that President Lincoln was among them. We know that Hugo in France was enthralled with Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. He wrote letters to the president, expressing his fraternal feelings.

In 1865, the year of Lincoln’s death, the president responded. He sent the writer a photograph of himself inscribed “To Victor Hugo, Abraham Lincoln.”

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