Charles Adams to John Adams
New York Feby 7 1796
My dear Sir
Our Legislature have been some time occupied in debating upon what are called The Virginia resolutions which you have doubtless seen and which have been so industriously forwarded to the different States for their concurrence though our good Sister has not been treated quite so cavalierly by New York as she was by Massachusetts yet I beleive they both concur in thinking her a very whimsical Old maid.1 Among the other objects which occupy the attention of our Statesmen the reduction of our penal code to a spirit of more mildness is one the most interesting to humanity. The Senate have passed a bill to abolish the punishment of death in all cases murder treason and burglary excepted.2 The House have also had under consideraton a bill for the gradual abolition of Slavery but it does not meet with much encouragement. I am not certain but it will be best to let the evil work its own remedy. individuals are daily liberating their Slaves but people do not like to be forced to be generous. The Quakers in this State formerly held slaves but they took it into their heads that it was wrong and set them universally at liberty. no sooner had they done this than they wanted to oblige their neighbours to do that by force which they had done voluntarily and the methods they take to attain their purpose are not always the most delicate.3 I have received several letters lately from Holland which have been opened and perused by The British. this is not very civil treatment but I have one consolation that they do not find many compliments paid them. Mrs Adams joins with me in the sentiments of respect with which I am your affectonate son
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “The Vice President of The United States / Philadelphia”; endorsed: “C. Adams. 7. Feb. / ansd 9. 1796.”
1. The N.Y. assembly began debating the Virginia resolutions on 29 Jan. following Gov. John Jay’s presentation of them to the legislature during the opening of the legislative session. After lengthy consideration and various proposed motions, the assembly resolved on 6 Feb. that “it does not appear to the Legislature expedient to concur in behalf of this state in the propositions contained in the resolutions of the state of Virginia” (N.Y. Assembly, Jour., description begins Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York, issued annually with varying imprints. description ends 19th sess., 1796, p. 45–47, 56, 59, Evans, description begins Charles Evans and others, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, 1903–1959; 14 vols. description ends No. 47862).
2. Jay’s message of 6 Jan. to the New York legislature contained a request to consider “how far the severe penalties prescribed by our laws in particular cases admit of mitigation; and whether certain establishments for confining, employing and reforming criminals will not immediately become indispensible.” The following day a committee was appointed to consider the subject, and on 28 Jan. it reported two bills for consideration, which were eventually combined into a single “Act Making Alterations in the Criminal Law of This State and for Erecting State Prisons.” Debate over the bill continued until 19 Feb., when it passed the senate. The assembly concurred, after various adjustments, on 25 March. The act allowed for capital punishment in the case of murder and treason but, after debate, excluded burglary, arson, counterfeiting, and a variety of other crimes (N.Y. Senate, Jour., description begins Journal of the Senate of the State of New-York, issued annually with varying imprints. description ends 19th sess., 1796, p. 6, 7, 22, 27–28, 29, 41, 44, 87, Evans, description begins Charles Evans and others, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, 1903–1959; 14 vols. description ends No. 30871).
3. The Society of Friends in New York had long formally opposed slavery, and in 1771 adopted a resolution requiring members to manumit their slaves or risk expulsion from the New York meeting. In 1785 the state legislature began to consider various means for implementing gradual emancipation of all slaves in the state. Although the assembly was nearly unanimous in its support for emancipation, the bill stalled over the question of suffrage for emancipated slaves. Thereafter, between 1792 and 1799, abolitionists routinely sought to introduce legislation for emancipation. In 1796 that legislation, although it was debated in committee, failed again to make progress, stumbling particularly over the issue of compensation for slaveholders. Finally, in 1799, the legislature reached an agreement that abolished slavery through gradual manumission (Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York, Syracuse, N.Y., 1966, p. 149–150, 162–165, 174–175; Patrick Rael, “The Long Death of Slavery,” in Slavery in New York, ed. Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, N.Y., 2005, p. 124–125).
4. CA’s next letter to JA, on 28 Feb. 1796, following CA’s visit to Philadelphia (for which see JA to AA, 13 Feb., below), contained further comment on the New York legislature, which remained in session “and will remain so until the river opens which is always their rule whether they have any thing to do or not. It is a great pitty that these excressencies cannot be lopped off and that we cannot consent to be wholly under the direction of one general government.” CA also noted receiving JQA’s 29 Nov. 1795 letter, for which see JQA to AA, 24 Nov., note 7, above. According to CA the 29 Nov. letter “relates to nothing but private affairs, but refers me to several letters of a date anterior which I have not received.” Finally, CA enclosed for JA a clipping from the New York American Minerva, 27 Feb. 1796, with an English translation of the preface to the 1792 French edition of JA’s Defence of the Const. (Adams Papers).