March 4, 1786 – Abigail and Her Son John Quincy Adams on Race and Othello

Although the Adamses – John, Abigail, and John Quincy – are usually seen as enlightened for their time on the position of slavery, this does not mean they did not hold racist attitudes. In fact, racism was a common accompaniment of abolitionist sentiment, because while the idea of treating a creation of God as “property” was anathema, that didn’t mean those who opposed slavery wanted anything to do with blacks.

In 1786 Abigail went to a performance of “Othello” in London. As Wernor Sollors notes in his book Interracialism: Black-white Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law (Oxford University Press, 2000):

Mrs. Adams’s perceptions were too close to the era’s racial views to be dismissed as exemplifying only her unique view. She wrote to a friend that she was disturbed by “the sooty appearance of the Moor . . . . I could not separate the African color from the man, nor prevent that disgust and horror which filled my mind every time I saw him touch the gentle Desdemona; nor did I wonder that Brabantio thought some love potion or some witchcraft had been practiced to make his daughter fall in love with what she scarcely dared to look upon.”

She further admitted that, as Sollors phrases it, “[i]nability to see beyond Othello’s blackness obstructed comprehension of any deeper meaning” in the play. She later wrote however that she deeply regretted her feelings because she needed to remember that there was “something estimable” in every human being. The “liberal mind,” she reminded herself, “regards not what nation or climate it springs up in, not what color or complexion the man is.”

Abigail Adams

Her son John Quincy, who became a great champion not of blacks but against slavery, saw the play thirty years after his mother and had a similar reaction. He felt so strongly about it that he published an article on it in 1835 in the “New England Magazine,” writing:

Who can sympathize with the love of Desdemona? The great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is, that the black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature; and that, in such violations, Nature will vindicate her laws…. The character takes from us so much of the sympathetic interest in her sufferings, that when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her just deserts.”

In 1839 the renowned actress Fanny Kemble met John Quincy at a dinner party and she later recalled that Adams began talking to her about Desdemona and “assured me, with a most serious expression of sincere disgust, that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘nigger.’”

He apparently was quite proud of his evaluation of Othello, observing in his diary that the fame of his article on Othello “is more tickling to my vanity than it was to be elected President of the United States.”

John Quincy Adams

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