J. Q. Adams, Nostradamus

Published:November 25, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

In the previous post, I was pleased to quote a fine historian quoting a fine historian arguing that our idea of the Civil War as a “beautiful” war is “fantasy, myth, and entertainment.” It is, in other words, the work of retrospection, as opposed to history. This may be true. But last night I was reading Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, a new history by David Reynolds, and I came upon this passage regarding the Nostradamus-like abilities of our nation’s sixth president:

Even more prescient was Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, who in his diary pronounced slavery “the great and foul stain upon the North American Union” that would be eradicated only by “a dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union” followed by a reorganization of the nation “on the fundamental principle of emancipation.” Adams wrote prophetically, “A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States, combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result might be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent.” Though this war would be “calamitous and desolating,” Adams added, “I dare not say that it is not to be desired, since so glorious would be its final issue.”

The emphasis is mine. And it’s meant to suggest that, to some extent (Adams was more clear-eyed than many), this myth-making could be not only retrospective but prospective.