John Quincy Adams on Secession
One of the leading politicians in the first half of the 19th century was John Quincy Adams. Son of John Adams, second president of the United States, he himself was elected as the sixth president, serving one term from 1824 to 1829. After his presidential term, he did something unprecedented. He became one of only two presidents to return back to Congress after his term. Adams remained in Congress for 18 years after serving as president, collapsing on the House floor and dying two days later. Adams opposed the movement in the Northern states to secede during the War of 1812. But many years later, he, along with other prominent politicians, signed A Solemn Appeal to the People of the Free States, which was in favor of secession:
We hesitate not to say that annexation of Texas, effected by any act or proceeding of the Federal Government, or any of its departments, would be identical with dissolution. It would be a violation of our national compact, its objects, designs, and the great elementary principles with entered into its formation, of a character so deep and fundamental, and would be an attempt to authorize an institution and a power of a nature so unjust in themselves, so injurious to the interests and abhorrent to the feelings of the people of the Free States, as, in our opinion, not only inevitably to result in a dissolution of the Union, but fully to justify it; and we not only assert that the people of the Free States ‘ought not to submit to it,’ but we say, with confidence, they would not submit to it.1
He further clarified his position in a speech in 1839 upon the 50th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration:
In the calm hours of self-possession, the right of a State to nullify an act of Congress, is too absurd for argument, and too odious for discussion. The right of a state to secede from the Union, is equally disowned by the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nations acknowledge no judge between them upon earth, and their Governments from necessity, must in their intercourse with each other decide when the failure of one party to a contract to perform its obligations, absolves the other from the reciprocal fulfillment of his own. But this last of earthly powers is not necessary to the freedom or independence of states, connected together by the immediate action of the people, of whom they consist. To the people alone is there reserved, as well the dissolving, as the constituent power, and that power can be exercised by them only under the tie of conscience, binding them to the retributive justice of Heaven.
With these qualifications, we may admit the same right as vested in the people of every state in the Union, with reference to the General Government, which was exercised by the people of the United Colonies, with reference to the Supreme head of the British empire, of which they formed a part – and under these limitations, have the people of each state in the Union a right to secede from the confederated Union itself.
Thus stands the RIGHT. But the indissoluble link of union between the people of the several states of this confederated nation, is after all, not in the right, but in the heart. If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it,) when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, the bands of political association will not long hold together parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint. Then will be the time for reverting to the precedents which occurred at the formation and adoption of the Constitution, to form again a more perfect union, by dissolving that which could no longer bind, and to leave the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the centre.2
1. The Political History of Slavery in the United States by James Z. George (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1915) p. 58.
2. The Jubilee of the Constitution: A Discourse Delivered at the request of the New York Historical Society, in the City of New York, on Tuesday, the 30th of April, 1839; being the fiftieth anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States by John Quincy Adams (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839) p. 68-69.