On New Year's Eve of 1835, former president John Quincy Adams wrote a long letter to a friend about Othello. Three months later most of that letter appeared in American Monthly Magazine as an essay on "The Character of Desdemona." In it, Adams vilifies Desdemona for desiring and then marrying a black man:
My objections to the character of Desdemona arise not from what Iago, or Roderigo, or Brabantio, or Othello says of her; but from what she herself does. She absconds from her father's house, in the dead of night, to marry a blackamoor. She breaks a father's heart, and covers his noble house with shame, to gratify-what? Pure love, like that of Juliet or Miranda? No! Unnatural passion; it cannot be named with delicacy. Her admirers now say this is criticism of 1835; that the color of Othello has nothing to do with the passion of Desdemona. No? Why, if Othello had been white, what need would there have been for her running away with him?
Adams has little patience for critics who accuse him of misreading the play in light of the increasingly fraught racial politics of America in 1835, and even less for those who in recent years had begun to claim that Desdemona's "love for Othello is not unnatural, because he is not a Congo negro but only a sooty Moor." Othello himself says that he is black (and had been "sold to slavery" (1.3.140) earlier in his adventurous life). For Adams, there can be only one conclusion: "the passion of Desdemona for Othello is unnatural, solely and exclusively because of his color," and because of this "her elopement to him, and secret marriage with him, indicate a personal character not only very deficient in delicacy, but totally regardless of filial duty, of female modesty, and of ingenuous shame."
Contemporaries may well have been surprised to see these words appear under the former president's familiar initials-"J.Q.A."-and not simply because of the harsh views expressed here. Adams, a tireless writer, whose correspondence and daily journal entries totaled many thousands of pages, was widely admired as one of the most literate individuals of his day. But he was also a cautious politician, extremely reticent about expressing his opinions in print, especially controversial ones, so published surprisingly little in his long career, and absolutely nothing on interracial marriage.
Stranger still, he was doubling down on a companion piece he had just published (that had prompted the attack on the "criticism of 1835"). This too was on Shakespeare-"Misconceptions of Shakspeare Upon the Stage"-and had appeared earlier that month in the New England Magazine. While this first essay dealt with his views on King Lear and Juliet, it included a few choice words for Desdemona's interracial marriage that anticipated his subsequent and longer diatribe. As this earlier essay unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that it is Desdemona's physical intimacy with Othello that so discomforts Adams: "her fondling with Othello is disgusting." That essay similarly concludes that "the great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is, that 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." Insistent on being understood, Adams puts this even more bluntly. Any pity we might feel as we watch Othello kill Desdemona must give way to the grim satisfaction that she got what was coming: "when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts."
Why had a former president and now member of Congress felt it necessary to weigh in publicly not once, but twice, and so unflinchingly, on Desdemona's interracial marriage? It's the sort of claim that we might expect from a Southern slaveholder. But John Quincy Adams was from Massachusetts, which as far back as 1783 had renounced slavery. More puzzling still, Adams was widely recognized as one of the leading abolitionists in the land. He had spearheaded the opposition to the Gag Rule (intended to prevent petitions against slavery from being acknowledged by Congress), would fight against the annexation of Texas and thereby the creation of additional slave states, and would soon successfully argue the Amistad case (in which he defended captured African slaves) before the Supreme Court. Adams's advocacy led to a spate of death threats. His congressional opponent (and later Confederate general) Henry Wise called him "the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed"-and Wise didn't mean this as a compliment.
Disturbing prints by the Philadelphia artist E. W. Clay that circulated in 1839 tried to stir up racial antagonism through depictions of interracial mingling, called at the time amalgamation (the term "miscegenation" was not invented until 1864). In one of those prints, "Practical Amalgamation," a black man and woman are seated on a couch, each with a white lover. Behind them, in framed portraits, three men look down approvingly on the scene: Arthur Tappan (a fierce abolitionist about whom it was reported, falsely, that he was married to a black woman); Daniel O'Connell (who was the Irish leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement and another strong abolitionist); and, on the right, J. Q. Adams.
How could a man seen by opponents of interracial union as one of their greatest foes publish a pair of essays condemning Desdemona for marrying a black man and claiming that in her murder at his hands she got what she deserved?
A partial answer, at least to what precipitated Adams's surprising decision to publish his views on Desdemona, can be traced back to a disastrous encounter at a dinner party a few years earlier. The occasion was the arrival in the United States of one of the most celebrated Shakespeare actors of the day, Fanny Kemble. The Kembles were British theatrical royalty. Fanny Kemble's uncle and aunt, John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, had been the greatest Shakespeare actors of their time, and Fanny's father, Charles Kemble, who had performed alongside his famous siblings in minor roles, was a notable actor in his own right, and joint owner of the Covent Garden Theatre. Her mother acted as well. When threatened with bankruptcy in 1829, her parents persuaded the nineteen-year-old Fanny Kemble to enter the family business. She studied the role of Juliet for three weeks, then made a triumphant debut at Covent Garden in October 1829. She was an immediate success, and the family's financial ruin was averted. Fanny Kemble was quick at learning parts (a new one every month, including those of Portia and Beatrice) and was enormously popular, both onstage and in London's social scene, where as a well-informed and engaging conversationalist she more than held her own. With the retirement, decline, and deaths of John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and the no less celebrated Edmund Kean, Fanny Kemble stood at or very near the pinnacle of the London theater world.
By 1832 she was not only acting in plays but also writing them. By then, however, insolvency again threatened. Charles Kemble persuaded his reluctant daughter to accompany him on what turned out to be a lucrative two-year tour of the United States. Fanny Kemble was at the peak of her career when she arrived in the States, a celebrity as much as a star performer. Her warm reception in prominent circles in Britain had ensured that even in American states known for their suspicion of actors she would be a much-sought-after guest.
The Kembles set sail in August 1832 and the following month began performing in New York. Audiences (as well as suitors) flocked to see Fanny Kemble. The praise in the New York Evening Post was typical: Fanny Kemble conveyed "an intensity and truth never exhibited by an actress in America." A young Walt Whitman, only thirteen or so at the time, secured a seat and later recalled, "Fanny Kemble! . . . Nothing finer did ever stage exhibit." At subsequent stops in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, she met with prominent writers and politicians, including President Andrew Jackson (and let slide his complaints about "scribbling ladies" who fomented political controversy).
Her arrival in Boston in April 1833 was keenly awaited. Securing the Kembles as dinner guests during their brief stay could not have been easy, but George Parkman, a wealthy physician, managed to do so. Because it was true, or because he knew that he had to flatter the former president to get him to travel the nine miles from Quincy for the dinner, Parkman told him that Fanny Kemble had requested his presence. Either way, it worked. Adams wrote in his journal that "the young lady was desirous of being introduced to me. And I could but say that it would be very pleasing to me. . . . As a sort of personage myself, of the last century, I was flattered by the wish of this blossom of the next age, to bestow some of her fresh fragrance upon the antiquities of the past." While acknowledging here the great gap in their ages-he was now 66, she 23-Adams doesn't admit to other gulfs separating them. Kemble represented a British perspective on the morality and politics of the plays, he an American one. She embodied Shakespeare onstage; the only Shakespeare he cared about was on the page. She mingled with leading writers and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic and confidently expressed her views; he remained convinced of women's "imperfections" and "the frailties incidental to their physical and intellectual nature." Adams seems to have decided before they met that Kemble was overrated, her handsome looks and fine mind overpraised; he noted snidely in his journal a few days before the dinner that "Fanny Kemble [passes here] for a great beauty, and a great genius, both of which with the aid of fashion and fancy, she is."
Parkman invited only a dozen or so guests to the dinner party. Some of the men were accompanied by their wives-but not Adams, though his British-born wife, Louisa, who had a strong interest in Shakespeare, had just joined him in Quincy, arriving from Washington the day before. She may not have been invited along because she was exhausted from the long trip; or it may be that this was one more instance of Adams's conviction that women should not be involved in political or literary life (as Louisa Adams herself put it, her husband "had always accustomed me to believe, that women had nothing to do with politics; and as he was the glass from which my opinions were reflected, I was convinced of its truth"). In any case, he came alone and was seated next to Fanny Kemble. Adams was underwhelmed. He made an early night of it, arriving back home before eleven. The following morning he dutifully recorded in his journal that he had "had much conversation with Miss Kemble, chiefly upon dramatic literature; but it differed not from what it might have been with any well educated and intelligent young woman of her age." It's hard to tell whether his dismissiveness was due to overly high expectations or, as seems more likely, a failure to take a young woman seriously.
Kemble also recorded her impressions. She was shocked by what Adams had to say about Shakespeare's plays, including Othello, so taken aback that she gulped down her water (and almost her glass too) and thought it best not to respond:
Last Saturday I dined at---'s, where, for my greater happiness, I sat between---and---. . . . Presently Mr.---began a sentence by assuring me that he was a worshipper of Shakespeare, and ended it by saying that Othello was disgusting, King Lear ludicrous, and Romeo and Juliet childish nonsense; whereat I swallowed half a pint of water, and nearly my tumbler too, and remained silent,-for what could I say?
Kemble doesn't elaborate on what disgusted Adams about Othello or what in particular had reduced her to silence. There the matter might have rested, destined to be forgotten, like countless uncomfortable exchanges between ill-matched dinner guests. Except that two years later-in part because of long-standing commitments, in part because she saw herself as a writer-Fanny Kemble decided to publish a two-volume journal of her American tour, including her recollections of that evening. Its publication led to a storm of protest and excellent sales.
By then Fanny Kemble had married an American, Pierce Butler, who had likely insisted on her inserting dashes in place of real names, to spare those exposed or embarrassed by what she had written. But we know that it was Adams whom she speaks of here, because years later, at the request of a close friend, she filled in those blanks herself in a copy of the printed edition now in Columbia University's rare book collection. And those dashes didn't stop those who bought her book from filling in the blanks; even before it was published, as copies of her manuscript circulated, that guessing game was being played up and down the East Coast. If anything, the omissions generated even more gossip and finger-pointing. And everyone seemed to know that she was speaking of John Quincy Adams.
When in the autumn of 1835 word reached Adams of the publication of their exchange, he was mortified. Seeking either to help or to fan the flames, George Parkman invited Adams to write an extended response on blank pages of Parkman's recently purchased copy of Fanny Kemble's book. In his long entry, Adams blames "Miss Kemble, [who] appears to have misapprehended the purport of my remarks upon the plays of Shakespeare." If she disagreed with him, she should have said so: "I hoped to elicit from her, either her assent to them, or some observations which might have served me to rectify my opinions." Parkman, with Adams's permission, took Adams's essay to the publisher of the New England Magazine, where it was immediately printed, stripped of its opening and closing remarks about Fanny Kemble.
Though the essay was only signed "A," it was clear to many that its author was the former president, and his views were harshly condemned in the press. Adams was stung. What had begun as "a merely casual and very desultory conversation with Miss Fanny Kemble" had now gone national. The critic for the Philadelphia National Gazette refused to accept his claim that Othello was black, arguing that Adams had racialized the play in a way that Shakespeare hadn't intended: "Othello should not be so conceived, either as a Negro or Ethiop, but as Shakespeare took him from the Spanish poetry of the day, . . . a Moorish Chieftain." And while warmly agreeing with Adams that "it would seem, then, that Shakespeare was, even in his day, a firm Anti-Amalgamationist," the chivalric Virginian reviewer for the Alexandria Gazette felt that Adams had nonetheless unfairly defamed "one of the best and purest of Shakespeare's female characters." Adams now felt attacked from both sides, a not unfamiliar position for the cautious former president. He was sufficiently self-aware to know that his subsequent long essay on Desdemona and her love for Othello was a tedious and "self-defensive dissertation," but he couldn't hold back, and agreed to have it published under his initials.