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Meet the Luminaries

 

President John Quincy Adams

As President of the United States, it was John Quincy Adams who directed the government to seek Abdul Rahman's freedom. But the meeting between the president and the prince, following the granting of that freedom, did not end the way either man had hoped. As the son of John Adams, one of the founding fathers and the second president of the United States, John Quincy Adams had quite a legacy to live up to. He distinguished himself early in politics and diplomacy. As secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams helped cement vital trade ties for the young nation, and masterminded the Monroe Doctrine. Adams' term as president was not as popular and he had reason to be concerned for his political future.

After the prince arrived in Washington, he met with Adams twice. The first meeting was a success, as the two men talked not as a wealthy aristocrat and poor ex-slave, but as peers and equals. The second meeting, unfortunately, was tinged with political considerations. Abdul Rahman asked Adams to donate money to free his enslaved children. The president, already realizing that freeing the slave would end up hurting him in the upcoming election, flatly refused. But aside from political expediency, Abdul Rahman, it turns out, was also a victim of bad timing. According to his diary, Adams was sick and already having a miserable day as unwelcome guest after unwelcome guest came to the White House to ask for his help. If the prince had come on a different day, when Adams was in robust good health and enjoying pleasant visitors, might his reaction to Abdul Rahman's request been different?

John Quincy Adams

In any case, after a bitter campaign in 1828, Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson. Later in life, Adams was elected to Congress, where he became the government's leading opponent to slavery and, along with Arthur Tappan and others, helped organize the successful defense of the Africans who revolted on the slave ship Amistad. Perhaps his experiences with the slave prince Abdul Rahman helped set the stage for this later less equivocal commitment to justice.

The Amistad

To read John Quincy Adams' State of the Union Addresses, click here

Henry Clay

Known as "The Great Compromiser," Secretary of State Henry Clay never compromised his principles when it came to defending the Union. As a congressman, senator, speaker of the house, and secretary of state, Clay was at the center of every crisis in the U.S. government, wheeling and dealing in desperate attempts to stave off the Civil War. He was also at the center of the saga surrounding the prince and proved to be a key figure in his last year in America. Though Clay was a Southern man of the times and owned slaves himself in Kentucky, he abhorred the institution, calling it "the deepest stain on the character of the country," and favored gradual emancipation.

Henry Clay

As a founding member of the American Colonization Society, he was glad to help Abdul Rahman regain his freedom and repatriate him to Africa. It was Clay who wrote the original letter telling Foster that the government wanted to free Abdul Rahman, and when that was achieved, it was Clay who provided the prince with a passport that allowed him to travel throughout the Northern states more easily. Clay met with Abdul Rahman twice in those last months, first in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C., where he even offered to let the prince stay in his own house. Abdul Rahman declined, but an observer at the time noted that "he is highly delighted with Mr. Clay."

Though powerful in Washington, Clay never gained widespread national support due to his views on slavery and a centralized government. He sought the presidency five times, but never won it. When told by advisors to tone down his unpopular views, Clay simply replied, "I'd rather be right than be president." Clay was never president, but he was surely right when it came to slavery and to Abdul Rahman's quest for freedom. Clay continued to serve his country until his death, when he became the first person ever to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Building. But perhaps the loyalty of this politician to the principles of equality and freedom, which so delighted Abdul Rahman, is the greater legacy.

Click below to play an excerpt from a letter written by Henry Clay to Richard Pindell, Esq., dated Feb 17, 1849, New Orleans:

Henry Clay's Signature

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